America's nation-building approach to foreign policy is unsustainable and will ultimately be detrimental to the health of our country.
by Austin Raynor
Since 9-11, American foreign policy has become markedly interventionist and excessively costly. According to the National Priorities Project, Congress to date has allocated $747.3 billion to the war in Iraq and $299 billion to the war in Afghanistan. American military expenditures are as great as the military expenditures of the rest of the world combined.
American troop commitments are also enormous. U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan number close to 190,000, but troop deployments are not limited to those areas. The U.S. has 700 military bases around the world, in over 130 countries. Many of these bases house large troop contingents; for instance, there are 57,000 troops stationed in Germany and 33,000 in Japan.
The costs of this massive troop deployment and interventionist foreign policy, in regards to our fiscal situation, the human toll of war, and our relations with the rest of the world, are inestimable. Our national resources are overextended and our foreign policy is unsustainable. From Rome to Britain, expansionist foreign policies have destroyed the prosperity of world powers.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reflect two fundamentally different views about the role of the United States military. Through the lens of the War on Terror, these wars are being fought primarily in self-defense, to eradicate launching points of terrorist groups.
But also heavy in the rhetoric of the past two administrations is the focus on actively spreading democracy to the darker corners of the world. According to this paradigm, the role of the military is not confined to protecting American citizens but is expansive and flexible. It is this ideology which leads to nation-building efforts, intervention in regional conflicts, etc.
Nation-building is not the responsibility of the American taxpayers, military, or government. It is the place of our government neither to forcibly remake the rest of the world in our image nor to conscript vast amounts of wealth from the American people to support such projects.
Furthermore, from a practical perspective, our military is ill-equipped to engage in nation-building. Consider the current situation in Afghanistan, in which our military is burdened with the task of forcibly redesigning a tribal society we barely understand. The idea that we can create a western democracy in that country, from scratch, is naïve.
Obama’s continued insistence that it is within our power to install a stable democracy in Afghanistan is disingenuous. The crooked Afghan police force is hated by the civilian population. The legislature is beset with corruption and Karzai, who has threatened to join the Taliban, is only at the beginning of a five-year term.
In addition to these overwhelming problems, counterinsurgency theory indicates that it might require hundreds of thousands of coalition troops fighting for over a decade to successfully dispel the Taliban. Such a commitment is politically impossible. We are fighting a losing war, at great cost to ourselves.
Nation-building exemplifies governmental arrogance when it comes to ordering society. Government is inept at managing the postal system and Amtrak. It is baffling that anyone could argue with a straight face that this same federal government could competently rework, by force, an alien, tribal society into a Western democracy.
It is confusing to see conservatives, who object to government-controlled healthcare on the basis of governmental inefficiency and incompetence, support nation-building, a vastly more complex task. This lack of intellectual consistency has been immensely harmful to our country.
From the perspective of American freedom more broadly, an expansive foreign policy, like all expansive federal programs, brings with it the deprivation of liberty. As Randolph Bourne famously observed, “[w]ar is the health of the state.” The collectivist mentality associated with wartime justifies intrusive federal power that would never be tolerated in peacetime.
Nobel economist Milton Friedman observed that American freedom was “being greatly threatened, unfortunately, by this notion that the U.S. has a mission to promote democracy around the world…In time of war, government will take powers and do things that it would not ordinarily do.”
Our interventionist foreign policy has been accompanied by, and closely related to, erosions of constitutional safeguards, centralization of power in the federal government, particularly the executive branch, widespread civil liberty abuse including warrantless wiretapping, extrajudicial assassinations, and illegal detentions, and ballooning federal budgets and massive deficit spending.
Our Founding Fathers, and libertarian-leaning presidents since, were well-aware of the problems associated with an interventionist foreign policy and cautioned against adopting such an approach. John Quincy Adams warned that America should “not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
George Washington argued, “[t]he great rule in conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.”
But rejecting nation-building does not mean adopting isolationism. Economically, America should embrace open international markets. As Thomas Jefferson put it, America should pursue a foreign policy of “[p]eace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none.”
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