Overemphasis on military strength undermines American diplomacy. Liam Glen writes on why war is rarely the answer.
President Trump has an obsession with the military. This much was clear during his July 4 “Salute to America” speech. It was an odd mixture of solemnly honoring the achievements and sacrifices American service members and inviting the crowd to ooh and aah at flyovers by military aircraft whose purpose is to kill and destroy.
There is quite a large difference between honoring those who served and glorifying violent conflict. Yet, American society (and, to be fair, most of the world’s cultures) is extraordinarily bad at differentiating between them. This is unfortunate, as militarism cloaked in patriotism can be a dangerous cloud on judgement.
Contrary to the rhetoric surrounding defense and national security, no enemy has ever had the slightest chance of successfully invading American soil since the Second World War.
Instead, troops today are deployed throughout the world for the purpose of defending allies, maintaining global security, and protecting US interests abroad.
Anyone will agree that the best way to achieve these goals is through measured diplomacy, with military action as an absolute last resort. But this has not stopped the appeal of counterproductive gung-ho militarist posturing.
Common Sense Fallacy
Those who consider themselves serious people are taught to view talk of peace and diplomacy with skepticism. A true realist knows that the world is a tough place where might makes right.
Perhaps the best example of this mindset is a 2016 article by the liberal columnist Michael Kinsley criticizing the US Institute of Peace. After falsely claiming that the modern world is more violent than previous decades, he rebukes the Institute’s mission of solving conflict without violence with the line “it’s never been done before and would seem to require a major change in human nature.”
This type of truism invites you to sagely nod your head and accept its wisdom, but before you do that, take just a second to consider reality.
The Dayton Accords helped bring peace in the former Yugoslavia. The Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The peace process between the Colombian government and FARC rebels is ending decades of bloody conflict in the country.
When neither side of the conflict is able to fully crush the other, it becomes mediators’ job to find a peaceful solution.
Diplomacy also has a less visible role in prevent violence before it starts. We should take a moment to thank the cooler heads that stopped the US and USSR from blowing each other up, and those who are doing the same in India and Pakistan.
Conflict resolution can always fail, but can war claim a better track record? The US was forced to retreat after years of fighting in Vietnam. The strategy for avoiding the same in Iraq and Afghanistan is to never leave. Humanitarian interventions, like those in Syria and Libya, rarely improve the lives of the civilians they claim to help.
Belief in diplomacy is not a matter of left versus right, interventionism versus isolationism, or unilateralism versus multilateralism. It is pragmatism. It is the cheapest, most humane, and often the most effective way to achieve a goal.
Other countries certainly see its value. Much has been made of the Chinese government’s military posturing in the South China Sea, but less has been said about its massive Belt and Road Initiative to attract other countries into its sphere of influence.
I would describe the simplistic ideas of might makes right as primitive, but not even other primates follow it. In Chimpanzee Troops, rising through the social hierarchy has less to do with brute strength and more with skillfully crafting alliances.
The Deathbed of Diplomacy
Despite this, the idea of brute strength appeals to the current president. For years, he has advocated for slashing State Department spending while pumping a comical amount of money into the Pentagon.
He evidentially did not listen to former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s 2013 warning that “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
But Trump’s actions are not a radical departure from the status quo as much as an acceleration of an existing trend. Over the last decades, the Pentagon and CIA have usurped the State Department’s traditional role in handling foreign relations.
This phenomenon is most famously documented in the book War on Peace by journalist and former government advisor Ronan Farrow. In countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, decisions take place less through normal diplomatic channels and more through agreements between the American Department of Defense and foreign militaries.
While high-ranking military officials do have an acute understanding of geopolitics, it is also fair to say that if your main tool is a hammer, you start to see everything as a nail.
The current administration’s policy in Iran, for example, relies almost entirely on the threat of military action. If the Iranian regime decides to step down, then it will be a success. If it accelerates, however, there will be no good options left.
Rebuilding a culture of diplomacy is a massive undertaking, but one way to start is by changing the way war is spoken about. No more talk about the “beauty of our weapons.” There are times when military force is necessary, but then it is a solemn occasion, representing the failure of other means. Rather than celebrating weapons of war, create a world where they need never be used.