America’s cities are aflame. The federal treasury is empty. The electorate is angry. The world is intractable. China is on the march.
Can we finally agree that Uncle Sam should stop playing GloboCop?
The role never made sense. The Constitution sets the “common defense” as a vital job for the federal government. It is Washington’s most important duty since no state government can adequately fulfill that role. But the Founders meant the national authorities were supposed to defend Americans. Not the rest of the world.
The U.S. was spoiled when the Cold War ended. With the Soviet Union’s collapse, Washington stood at the global summit, as if all the world’s dominions had been placed at its feet by Satan himself. America was the “unipower,” it was said, the sole superpower, the essential nation, the hyperpower, and the country that saw further, and therefore was dutybound to run the world, engage in social engineering everywhere, and treat the entire globe as America’s, and alone America’s, sphere of interest.
If one didn’t know better, one would assume that George W. Bush and Barack Obama were Chinese or Russian plants, ordered to divert Washington’s resources and attentions to the most ridiculous, foolish, and impossible conflicts on Earth.
It didn’t work out well. Washington got dragged into the Balkans, deciding that the murder and ethnic cleansing of Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovars was bad, but that of Serbs didn’t count. Relentless extension of NATO, and especially the push to include Georgia and Ukraine, inflamed Russian hostility and paranoia. The illegal dismantlement of Serbia encouraged Moscow to return the favor in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Crimea. Needless but malicious meddling in the Middle East and South Asia generated terrorist blowback, the natural price paid for swatting multiple hornets’ nests.
Hubris conquered good sense when Uncle Sam wasted two decades fighting in the Middle East. Retaliation after 9/11 turned into nation-building in Afghanistan. Washington officials spoke often of the importance of stability as they destroyed Iraq and Libya and aided the loathsome, terrorist-friendly regime in Saudi Arabia as it wrecked its impoverished neighbor Yemen. Afflicted by a madness reflecting a career spent in Washington, policymakers insisted that America resolve the Syrian civil war — by sorting out the Assad regime, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, supposed moderate insurgents, Alawites, Christians, and other Syrian religious minorities, Russia, Iran, Syrian Kurds, Turks, and Israel. This policy was boundless hubris and folly, yet it continues with U.S. military personnel occupying Syrian territory and oil fields with neither intelligent purpose nor legal warrant — from U.S. or international law.
Even President Donald Trump, so skeptical of “endless wars,” has seemingly found it impossible to disengage. His biggest problem was filling his administration with neoconservatives and establishment hawks, who didn’t realize that most of the world was not worth fighting over. And because of his fixation on Iran, a weak regime that does not seriously threaten the U.S. or Israel, a regional superpower with nuclear weapons, he effectively turned his administration’s policy over to the Saudi royals. Alas, their regime is more lawless, repressive, corrupt, dissolute, and dangerous even than that of the Iranian mullahs.
Despite claims by discredited ivory tower wannabe warriors, U.S. foreign policy is anything but “isolationist.” Washington is expected to solve almost every problem on Earth. Make South Korea and Japan like each other. Get rid of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. Bring peace to the Israelis and the Palestinians. Force the Iranians to behave. Convince Iraqis to become like Americans. Sort out Lebanon, divided among Shiites, Christians, Sunnis, Druze, and everyone else. Do something about India and China. Suppress the Taliban. Promote human rights in countries where Washington dislikes the government (Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, China) and ignore human rights violations in countries where the administration likes the government (Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Central Asian countries). Save Hong Kong from its possessive, avaricious overlords in Beijing. Ad infinitum.
Unfortunately, an expansive foreign policy is expensive. The “endless wars” have cost America more than $6 trillion. For what? To wreck societies, destroy minority religious communities, release virulent ideologies, and entangle U.S. troops in nations and conflicts of little interest or relevance to America. If one didn’t know better, one would assume that George W. Bush and Barack Obama were Chinese or Russian plants, ordered to divert Washington’s resources and attentions to the most ridiculous, foolish, and impossible conflicts on Earth.
There is little doubt that Moscow and Beijing are the big winners every time American troops are dispatched to some mindless conflict in a country that most Americans have never heard of, have no idea where it is located, and can’t conceive of why anyone in Washington would think it was worth sacrificing U.S. lives and wealth. Hostile regimes care more about judgment than credibility and would be far more impressed — and worried — if American policymakers set priorities and focused on serious issues rather than dissipated lives and resources on interests of at most peripheral importance, if that.
The People’s Republic of China long has posed a challenge to America. The problem was not engagement; the PRC is a much better place today than it was in 1976, when Mao Zedong died. And Western contact — economic, cultural, and political — is a major reason why for years Chinese authoritarianism remained somewhat loose, allowing bits of autonomy, criticism, debate, and independent thought. Democracy did not develop, but liberty was the more important principle for a complicated society of 1.4 billion people to imbibe.
Alas, people matter. Evil, determined, and competent individuals can do enormous damage. China began moving rapidly in reverse after Xi Jinping ascended the top of the Chinese political system in 2012. He is becoming the new Mao Zedong, dedicated to strengthening his and the party’s control. The regime is employing every plausible lever of power to eradicate the slightest independent thought, whether regarding politics, religion, history, or culture. One must return to the Cultural Revolution to find a similar state demand for groupthink. The contretemps in Hong Kong is important because it involves the extension of the PRC’s growing internal controls to an area that heretofore has been generally free. Taiwan faces the threat of a similar fate, though its legal and political status remains independent.
It should be evident that Beijing poses the most important, and only serious, international challenge to America. Even so, China remains relatively poor with important weaknesses: it is rapidly aging, set to become old before it is rich. State interference in the economy is legion and hampers growth. Totalitarian controls over people’s creativity will limit innovation.
Moreover, the PRC’s totalitarian future is not set; Xi will not rule forever and has amassed a legion of enemies and critics. The country dramatically liberalized after Mao Zedong’s death. It might do so again after Xi leaves the scene. In any case, any war, cold or hot, would be a disaster for both countries. The heaviest lifting in the event of conflict should be by Washington’s friends and allies in East Asia, who are at greatest risk.
As Beijing has come into view as America’s No. 1 foreign policy priority, it should be equally obvious that the U.S. no longer can do everything. Indeed, the federal government is essentially bankrupt. Uncle Sam was set to borrow a trillion dollars this year — before COVID-19 swept the land. With the economy shut tax revenues are down and social spending is up. Add to that two bailout bills so far. The CBO figures on red ink of $3.7 trillion this year and $2.1 trillion next year. That may be overly optimistic. Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute warns that this year’s deficit could be as much as $4.2 trillion. And that’s before a third bailout bill, which is likely next month.
Cutting domestic discretionary spending won’t balance the budget. Not even close. The big boulders are interest, which can’t be cut without repudiating the debt, Social Security, and Medicare, which the elderly will defend to their last breath; Medicaid, which is tough to cut since it already delivers poor quality care; and the Pentagon. Try convincing America’s seniors that “their” welfare programs should be slashed so Washington can continue to defend prosperous European states, which have 10 times Russia’s GDP; Japan, with the world’s third largest economy; and South Korea, which enjoys a 50-1 advantage over the North. You’ll be chased out of every nursing home and assisted living facility across the country.
It is time to say adios to the Middle Eastern/South Asian “endless wars,” which have killed thousands of Americans, wounded tens of thousands, killed hundreds of thousands of foreigners, displaced millions of people, and wasted more than $6 trillion. The region no longer is vital to America, if it ever was. The Saudis and others should be told to fend for themselves for a change. Afghanistan is a tragedy, but it should no longer be America’s tragedy. No sane American can imagine that the arrogant fools who have run U.S. foreign policy so badly are capable of fixing Syria or Iraq.
The Europeans, too, should be told to address the security threats facing them rather than supinely seek to guilt Washington into stepping in. Even the United Kingdom barely scrapes past the promised 2 percent level on defense. France falls below. The Baltic States, which claim to worry most about the Russian threat, feel satisfied at 2 percent, even though they could do much more to make themselves indigestible by Moscow.
Worse, after years of promising greater effort, Germany still spends only around 1.3 percent of GDP on the military. No one believes that level is ever going to hit 2 percent, as promised, if the U.S. constantly steps in. Yet the readiness of the German military barely rises above joke status. Spain and Italy, both with sizable economies, barely bother to maintain militaries. Greece is mostly interested in preparing for war against Turkey, which is sliding toward both Islamism and dictatorship and cannot be trusted. The Europeans are entitled to spend what they’d like on their armed forces, but they should not ask America to act if they can’t be bothered to even make an effort.
Washington should focus its attention on the Pacific. That requires adjusting its commitments. South Korea can defend itself from the North. Japan already has a capable military — er, “self-defense force,” since the constitution technically bans armed forces — and can do more, much more, to ensure that Beijing never tries to go from assertive to aggressive. The U.S. has reason to support the independence of the Philippines, but not its territorial claims when it makes little effort to field the sort of capable military necessary to defend its possessions. India should be encouraged to deepen its naval involvement. The best policy for America is to ensure that the PRC’s neighbors are all well-armed, enhancing their anti-access/area denial capabilities, just as China is attempting to do against America.
Finally, the U.S. should reconsider one of the most sacred of cows maintained by the State Department: nonproliferation. Instead of putting American cities at risk to protect allied states of varying interest to the U.S., Washington should consider standing aside if Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan want to develop deterrent capabilities. Today nonproliferation is a lot like gun control, ensuring that only the bad guys — in this case China, North Korea, and Russia — are armed. Better that friendly democratic countries were better armed. Then even Xi’s totalitarian state is unlikely to run rampant throughout the region.
Much is wrong in the U.S. and around the world. Americans need to refocus on essentials. It’s time to stop playing GloboCop. The price, in lives, money, and attention, has been too high. And other priorities are more important. Today our attention should be at home, addressing challenges that seem to grow by the day.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.