The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an interesting article recently that took American Foreign Policy to task. The article is a review of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War by Andrew J. Bacevich, a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, and professor of international relations at Boston University. The author of the review, Ivan Eland, wrote
Whether a president has been a leftward-leaning Wilsonian like Clinton or Lyndon Johnson, or a rightward-leaning Wilsonian like Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes, U.S. policy has been fairly consistent: an activist overuse of the powerful U.S. military to intervene in the affairs of other nations.
As the quotation suggests, Bacevich lays the blame for our failed foreign policy standard at the feet of Woodrow Wilson. Eland states that most foreign policy now operates
on a century-old set of principles derived from Christian missionaries sent abroad to save savage peoples from themselves. Those notions were first incorporated into U.S. government policy during the presidencies of William McKinley, a Republican, and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. During the Spanish-American War, McKinley wanted, at least ostensibly, to bring Christianity to the Philippines even though the islands were already predominantly Catholic. Wilson, the son of a minister, converted this overtly religious quest into a more secular version of saving implicitly inferior peoples. He believed U.S. military power should be used overseas to fight the "war to end all wars" (World War I) and to teach other peoples to "elect good men" (during his military meddling south of the U.S. border).
According to Eland, Bacevich notes that this foreign policy theory erodes freedom at home.
Bacevich sees what few in the establishment seem to -- that militarism abroad leads to the erosion of the precious and unique freedom that Americans enjoy at home. He includes a powerful quote from James Madison to show the suspicion that almost all of the founders had of standing armies and foreign military interventions:
"Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. ... No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
Look back on the 20th century and think for a second. When have we been truly at peace? When have we been satisfied not to fight, or at least not to be preparing to fight? Hell, when we get bored we invade Granada, Panama and the Falkland Islands. No sane person can deny we have become a militaristic society, though some "invasions" may be founded on altruistic principles.
Some may say that we live in a unique time, and that, while Bacevich's theory may have been true regarding "traditional" wars, the war on terror is different. "How," some may ask, "can we afford to demilitarize when we are assailed on all sides by terrorists?" In a compelling argument, he states
the excessive use of U.S. military power abroad breeds resentment in the form of terrorist reprisals. Instead of asserting, as President Bush blithely does, that terrorists attack the United States because "they hate our freedom," Bacevich cites Osama bin Laden's writings to show that two main reasons that he attacks the United States are U.S. support for the corrupt monarchy in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf. Bacevich's implication is clear: If the United States had a less militaristic foreign policy, there would be less blowback terrorism and American citizens would be safer. He correctly notes that expanding the American "defense perimeter" does not make U.S. citizens safer or freer. Empire enhances neither our security nor our liberty.
Am I calling for a Pat-Buchanan-like isolationist foreign policy? No, that is not possible in today's world. However, maybe it's time to start treating other nations the way we want all interpersonal relationships to be treated. One of the new phrases I hear drop from parents' lips when children are acting out is "Use your words." In other words, try to work it out verbally, in a civilized manner. Maybe that would be a good foreign policy paradigm. I know my views may be considered naive, but I can't imagine Americans enjoy being in a perpetual state of war. Something must be done, because I believe James Madison was right.
Our militaristic society is leading to an erosion of freedoms that Democrats and Republicans alike find discomforting. Maybe the key is to suspend our missionary, militaristic zeal.