The foreign policy outlook for the near future is bleak, but not just because of the incoming Trump administration’s proposals. Trump’s public statements about rolling back U.S. investments in “soft” issues like human rights or economic development, abandoning multilateral obligations on trade and arms control, and returning the US to the position of global military and economic dominance it last enjoyed in the Eisenhower era certainly attract attention—as they seem designed to do—but putting Trump in the spotlight here ignores the wave that Trump is riding. Trump didn’t fabricate a new American stance toward the world; he simply seized on a vision that has been building for at least the last fifteen years in the U.S. This is the vision of the world that predicated Bush’s responses to 9/11, that constrained Obama’s choices overseas, and that would have severely derailed a Clinton administration as well, had she won. Trump’s vision of the world is in keeping with a wider American vision of the world that fifteen years of war has created. And the danger of this vision is not only in how it handicaps our relations with the world, but how it also handicaps our relations with each other.
The Militarization of American Relations.
After fifteen years of “the Long War,” it’s hardly a surprise that the military’s role in U.S. foreign relations has virtually eclipsed the traditional lead agency of U.S. foreign affairs, the State Department. Financially the military has always dwarfed the funds provided to the State Department, but in the last decade congressional appropriations have also included language shifting legal oversight and authority of new programs to the Defense Department. The May 2016 Congressional Research Service report by Nina Serafino (available at https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R44444.pdf) reviews the history of this legal relationship and the ways in which post 9/11 programs are reshaping the hierarchy of American foreign relations. Operating foreign relations as if we are on a war footing has become the new normal.
It’s tempting to blame the military for elbowing its way into a central role in U.S. foreign relations, but, that’s simplistic and not even a development many in the military covet. The military became the default agency tasked with “fixing” the world outside not because this was a task it pursued, but because Americans want to believe in simple solutions for complex situations. Invasions of pesky opponents, military aid dropped in to arenas of complex strife, counterterrorism training for partner militaries with appalling human rights records, judicially obscure drone strikes…it’s not the first time the U.S. has used shady tactics, but in the past the government had the decency to keep them covert. Now these efforts raise not even an eyebrow from the American public. There is an unquestioned assumption that the world is violent and requires violent tactics.
This militarization has distorted other international initiatives. If you want to raise financial or political support for maternal health promotion, financial transparency, fishing regulations, etc., you stand a greatly improved chance if you can find a link to the War on Terror. In the short run this strategy may win you funding and save the lives of some fish, but in the long run it builds into the expansion of the Long War vision of the world. It silences other arguments about how to build a more secure future for all of us on the planet and places funding decisions, and sometimes even legal authority, for a vast array of endeavors in the hands of those who specialize in military affairs, not fish. Rosa Brooks’ 2016 book How Everything became War and the Military became Everything examines the expansion of the military mission into non-traditional roles like the campaign against Ebola. Yes, it’s great that the U.S. military recognizes the role that health, poverty, and corruption play in instability, but do we really want to fold all of our relations with the world into a single counterterrorism narrative operated through a single institution? Our government was founded on a division of authorities and voices for a reason, and we are surrendering that institutional genius in fetishizing and funding only the military options in these debates.
The Militarization of Domestic Relations?
If Americans are unconcerned about the militarization of foreign policy (and they seem largely unconcerned), perhaps they might become concerned about the way those same perspectives are affecting domestic policy. The Watson Institute at Brown University notes that the Homeland Security reforms after 9/11 constituted the largest reorganization of government departments, budgets, and priorities since WWII, but attracted little public debate (http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/economic/budget/dhs). Early concern with civil liberties infringements has since morphed into greater concern with preserving the right to bear arms—another reflection of militarization. And the price tag for Homeland Security is another sacred cow. In towns across the U.S. proposals for raising property taxes for school construction generate intense public discussion, but money to upgrade the ability of local first responders to respond to possible terrorism is received without comment. Federal money may appear as a grant to small communities, but it means money not spent on other needs, like erosion control or infrastructure improvements. Money for the militarization of our communities is received as if it is beyond debate, but it represents a choice in priorities that is seldom challenged.
The obsession with dangers on the home front has also led to the rise of private security services, concealed carry laws and gated communities, which have eerie parallels to American responses to dangers abroad. It lumps all threats in a category of danger that cannot be analyzed, only eradicated, and will probably be as spectacularly unsuccessful in reducing crime as the War on Terror has been at reducing terrorism. This militarization of daily life might be the most dangerous legacy of the War on Terror.
The Cult of Militarization
Americans, not Trump, created the cult of militarization over the past fifteen years because it allowed them to avoid hard truths about the world. Yes, it would have been hard work to pursue a legal case against Bin Laden, to continue the sanctions against Saddam Hussein (considered successful by UN weapon inspectors) and to build the legal networks needed to pursue rather than incinerate terrorists, but these methods require the support of the American population for a Long War for International Legal Norms. We were more comfortable with the satisfaction of a military strike. It’s easy to visualize the dangers militants pose, but much harder to visualize the price we paid for flouting the fragile and emerging norms of international law with assassinations, renditions or invasions.
This isn’t a problem that emerged with the incoming Trump administration. This has been coming for years because Americans, in saddling the military with the task of fixing an inconvenient world, and then declaring the same military sacrosanct, have eliminated the possibility of serious public dialogue on how best to achieve a secure future. This path is not only failing to achieve foreign security, but distorting our domestic life as well. We need to reverse this creeping militarization and restore the multiple voices and perspectives that we will need to live in this complex world.