Ghavri: Looking for Dragons to Slay

by Anmol Ghavri | 4/7/16 5:30pm

During his time as Secretary of State under President James Monroe in the early 19th century, John Quincy Adams famously stated “Americans should not go abroad to slay dragons they do not understand in the name of spreading democracy.” This worldview, expressed by Adams almost 200 years ago is still pertinent today. The 2016 presidential election has rekindled the debate over what America’s role in the world should be. Should the U.S. continue dominating every aspect of international politics and security? Can the U.S. continue subsidizing the security of its allies? Are nation-building projects by the West feasible and is an aggressively militant foreign policy in America’s interests? Even peripherally examining history and current affairs reveals that moving forward, Washington can be best served by a policy of restraint. The U.S. should focus on clearly defined and narrow foreign policy goals and national security objectives rather than solving all of the world’s problems.

After World War II, the U.S. emerged as one of the world’s superpowers and actively engaged itself in the affairs of other nations to promote democratization and market economics as well as contain Soviet-Communist influence. America’s expensive, bloody and aggressive hegemonic quest during the Cold War standoff can be justified since the Soviet Union was a threat to the U.S.. Reaching a crescendo during the Kennedy administration and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War has had a lasting effect on American foreign policy and has informed interventionist and unrestrained foreign policy views.

The Cold War ended in the late 20th century, yet the U.S. still hawkishly overextends itself in international affairs — particularly the security matters of its allies. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has been the primary world superpower and has pursued a policy of liberal hegemony — using its stance as the most powerful nation to secure peace by advancing democracy, international institutions and free market economics. Following 9/11, the U.S. and its allies have been perpetually at war with terrorist organizations. Since then, misguided and poorly handled invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan meant to bring democracy to the Middle East and the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice have shaped the interventionist zeitgeist of the early 21st century.

Adams would be surprised about a great number of things if he witnessed the past century of world history and could see the present state of international affairs. In particular, the rise of the U.S.’s overextended security state involved in solving all of the world’s problems would certainly shock Adams. Given his more restrained foreign policy views, it is probable his views on America’s role in the world would line up with those of Barry Posen, a professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of “Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy” (2014).

Posen argues that a continued aggressive post-Cold War foreign policy of liberal hegemony and interventionism is undisciplined, expensive and bloody. Posen advocates for a narrower and more refined U.S. strategy that only deals with the most salient issues. Liberal hegemony generates pushback by rising powers, resentful weaker states and non-state actors — creating enemies faster than they are slayed. Given the U.S.’s ballooning debt, subsidizing the security of other nations and broad and indefinite nation-building projects to spread democracy and Western values will not only create more enemies, but bankrupt a nation suffering at home. Indeed, war has been terribly costly, and the U.S. has been at war twice as often since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, the U.S. dominating the security matters of Europe, Japan and other American allies creates both a free-rider problem and a moral hazard. American allies have less skin in the game in providing for their security and can act recklessly since they know the U.S.will step in to protect them. Is America’s intensely engaged foreign policy worth it if it costs so much and requires almost constant war and intervention?

Terrorists and non-state actors such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda are certainly major threats to the U.S. and its allies, but these groups do not threaten their existence or power position. Presidential candidates, particularly in the GOP, would have you think our military is in a state of disaster. The U.S. leads the world in military spending, more than the next seven highest spending countries combined. The U.S. has more forward deployed military installations than any other nation in the world and has an exhaustive and unnecessary number of troops in countries perfectly capable of protecting themselves. Let European allies take command of NATO and give them incentive to take their security into their own hands instead of relying on the U.S. Despite the serious terror threat in Europe, subsidizing Europe’s security as a part of an aggressive and overextended foreign policy will not secure a peaceful future.

Washington can still lead even if it uproots its massive and unnecessary military presence from its overseas bases. The U.S. will save money by allowing rich allies like Japan and Germany to provide their own security and decrease resentment in Middle Eastern countries where U.S. troops are deployed. The U.S. will still be looked at to provide intelligence, build credible coalitions, conduct special operations, collaborate with allies and carry out airstrikes and drone-strikes. Bringing troops home as a strategic reserve and to secure the homeland, will force powerful American allies to provide for their own security and will put their skin in the game. Washington cannot solve all of the world’s problems, and a more restrained and cerebral grand strategy can best serve America’s interests and transfer responsibilities to other nations perfectly capable of handling them. Military force is always an option, but diplomacy and supporting regional powers looking to solve their own problems should always be the first option. We need to come home and stop looking for dragons to slay.