Friday 7 October 2011

The case against American military dominance

Is the United States in Decline, and Why Should Anyone Care?, IEA, London, 20 September 2011

Christopher Preble, Vice-President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute - the American libertarian’s Arcadia - is arguably unique among his Washington thinktank colleagues and the wider political elite on Capitol Hill, when it comes to the discourse over America’s decline, particularly on the international stage. His 2009 work, The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free, was the primary inspiration for his IEA lecture.

Preble dedicated the vast majority of the lecture to refuting the apparent Washington political consensus that America should rigorously punch its weight on the international stage, by highlighting both the false premise of the ideology of American exceptionalism, and the lack of dire repercussions for global security if America were to retrench militarily. Preble sought to convince the youthful audience of a potential new model for global security, not dependent on American interventionist policy. He also raised the question of whether the United States will in fact tighten its military purse strings, when the ‘Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction’ (aka the Super Congress) convenes in November to slash deficits by one and half trillion dollars over ten years.

Before making the case against America’s continued commitment to steep military spending, which accounts for around 40% of total global arms spending, Preble first provided the background to the current debate in Washington, examining how both politicians and neo-conservative intellectuals have contributed to the ostensible consensus in American politics that the nation should uphold its role as the world’s policeman. In relation to the former, Preble presumed Congress’ reluctance to even consider defence cuts, as defence spending has swelled to its highest level since World War Two (around 5% of U.S GDP), and base defence expenditures are still increasing, he noted. He also maligned the interventionist foreign policy perspective of neocons such as Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institute and Michael Mandelbaum, Professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins, whose views are equated with those of Washington’s political establishment.

It was hard to object to Preble’s characterisation of Kagan and Mandelbaum as fervent supporters of a robustly active American military, yet it is arguably his sweeping assumption on Congress as a whole that is less genuine, in light of the military spending freeze approved by a Senate panel in early September, and the backlash of many House Republicans against the recent Libyan conflict.  Furthermore, the recent freeze is likely a reflection of the wider clamor for fiscal discipline, which has already seen defence cuts of up to three hundred and fifty billion dollars over the next decade, as agreed by Obama and congressional Republicans in the August debt talks. However, his claim that neocons like Kagan and Mandelbaum, whose respective calls for greater military spending and America’s necessity to act as a ‘pest control service’ against corrupt regimes, are having an acute contribution to the generally cloudy debate in Congress on the role of America globally, possesses greater validity.

Preble’s case against a robust American military internationally predictably starts with the damaging role it played in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he, like most of us agree, exacerbated the global political balance, inflaming extremism and anti-American fervour in the Middle East. Aware of the exhaustive commentary already delivered on this subject, Preble swiftly initiates an exploration of why the United States has philosophically felt the need to serve as the world’s police power.

It was this phase of the lecture that really struck a cord with the audience, and saw Preble on fine form, as he delved into the ideology behind American exceptionalism, which frames America as uniquely suited to the role of the world’s police power. From Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan’s Project for the New American Century (PNAC), established in 1997, which promoted global American leadership and moral clarity in foreign affairs to the world vision of Madeleine Albright, who allegedly declared to Colin Powell ‘What’s the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?’, Preble explained what he believes are the origins of contemporary American exceptionalism. He underlined Tony Blair’s justification of an omnipresent America as particularly influential, as expressed before a Joint Session of Congress in 2003:  ‘Why us, Why America?...Because destiny puts you in this place in history, in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do.’  He concluded this phase of the talk by contending that American exceptionalism as advocated by Kristol, Kagan, Albright, and Blair, has been largely bought into by the American public and prevails to this day, despite the past devastating decade of war.

The next stage of his critique centred around the consequences (or lack thereof) of military retrenchment to global politics and the stability of America’s allies. Preble insisted that the UK/US special relationship would remain strong, for Britain would not be inclined to ramp up its defence, as he jokingly remarked that in Europe we’ve moved beyond the Napoleonic Wars! He applied this confidence in Britain and Europe’s future strategic security to America’s allies in Asia and the Middle East. Preble’s vision of a post-Afghanistan/Iraq world judges little chance of conflict on the horizon. Potential threats in ungoverned areas as he put it, in Yemen for instance, pose no real threat to UK security, according to Preble, who himself admitted to possessing an optimistic perception of global politics down the line.

Although his conception is more than a tad bit idealistic, he is reasonable to conclude that America should look to devolve power and push other nations, particularly allies in Asia and the Middle East, to assume greater responsibility in foreign affairs. Preble’s faith in nations, aside from the United States, to serve as regional actors is by no means fantasy, in light of the Arab Spring, and more specifically, Britain and France’s relatively more active role in the Libyan conflict. In light of its fiscal woes and the East’s flexing of its diplomatic muscles, Preble deftly served to prove why the United States no longer needs to and should not expect to serve the role of the global cop, despite a degree of naivety in regard to international conflicts down the line.


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