The idea of U.S. national security seems inextricably entangled with the notion of military supremacy. Over the past 15 years, this has served to rationalize the most expensive unilateral military build-up in history. But there is no evidence that having the most expensive and destructive military forces makes Americans safer than people in other countries or that restoring a more balanced military posture would leave us vulnerable to dangers. Many countries with smaller military forces do a better job of protecting their people by avoiding the hostility that is generated by U.S. imperialism, aggression, and other war crimes.
Now successful diplomacy over Syria’s chemical weapons has demonstrated that diplomacy within the framework of international law can be a more effective way of dealing with problems than the illegal threat or use of military force. Our government claims that its threat of force led to the success of diplomacy in Syria, but that’s not really what happened. It was only when the sleeping giant of American democracy awoke from its long slumber and pried the cruise missiles from our leaders’ trigger fingers that they grudgingly accepted “diplomacy as a last resort.” For once in a very long while, our political system worked the way it’s supposed to. The public made its views clear to our representatives in Congress and they listened. We saved our leaders from the consequences of their own criminality and their efforts to sell a propaganda narrative that turns that on its head is a sad reflection of their disdain for democracy and the rule of law.
For most of our history, Americans never dreamed of global military supremacy. At the turn of the 20th century, even as the U.S. waged a genocidal war that probably killed a million Filipinos, American diplomats played key roles in the Hague Peace Conferences and the establishment of international courts, eager to adapt American concepts of democracy and justice to the international arena to develop alternatives to war and militarism.
In response to the horrors of the First World War, an international social movement demanded the abolition of war. In 1928, the U.S. government responded by negotiating the Kellogg-Briand Pact, named for U.S. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, in which all major powers renounced “war as an instrument of national policy.” The treaty failed to prevent the Second World War, but it provided the legal basis for the convictions of German leaders at Nuremberg for the crime of aggression and it is still in force, supported by subsequent treaties like the UN Charter and conventions against genocide, torture, and other war crimes, under which senior U.S. officials must eventually face justice.
The allied defeat of Germany and Japan in WWII was not the result of American military supremacy, but of an alliance across ideological lines with imperial Britain and the communist Soviet Union, based on mutual trust, vigorous diplomacy, and the recognition of a common existential threat. Most Americans believed at the time that the war would lead to a renewed international commitment to peace and disarmament, not to an American bid for military supremacy.
American, British, and Soviet leaders agreed that their common interests required what Roosevelt called “a permanent structure of peace” after the war, through the United Nations and continued great power diplomacy. The prohibition against the threat or use of force is a key provision of the UN Charter.
Truman mistrusted the Soviets and never shared Roosevelt’s commitment to working with them. He quickly fell under the influence of hawkish advisers like his Chief of Staff Admiral Leahy, Ambassador Harriman, and Navy Secretary Forrestal, and he condemned the Russians harshly at every turn during negotiations on the contours of the post-war world. Truman embraced Churchill’s self-fulfilling declaration of an “iron curtain” across Europe and his dark view of America’s wartime ally as a potential aggressor in the mold of Nazi Germany.
What emboldened the former Senator from Missouri to squander the fruits of Roosevelt’s diplomacy? In large part, it was the bomb. The U.S. monopoly on atomic weapons in the late 1940s gave rise to a newly aggressive posture in U.S. foreign policy, including desperate calls to destroy the Soviet Union in a massive nuclear holocaust before it could develop its own nuclear deterrent.
Fortunately for all of us, wiser heads prevailed and a nuclear war was avoided. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and wartime American and British military leaders warned that attacking the USSR would unleash an even more terrible war than the one the world had just survived. U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Eisenhower made an early venture into politics with a speech in St. Louis, saying, “I decry loose and sometimes gloating talk about the high degree of security implicit in a weapon that might destroy millions overnight…. Those who measure security solely in terms of offensive capacity distort its meaning and mislead those who pay them heed.”
Many Americans accepted their government’s claims that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki had shortened the war with Japan and saved American lives, but the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that, “Japan would have surrendered, even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” In fact, Japan’s vital supply lines had been cut and it was already suing for peace. The main sticking point was the continued rule of Emperor Hirohito, which the allies eventually conceded in any case. American leaders from former President Hoover to future President Eisenhower to military intelligence chief General Carter Clarke all opposed using the bomb as barbaric and unnecessary.
But America’s monopoly on nuclear weapons transformed U.S. foreign policy after the war. Even though our leaders have never found any practical way to realize the mirage of omnipotence conjured up by these weapons, they gave them a false sense of ultimate power in a fluid and uncertain post-war world. Cooperation with the Soviets was no longer imperative, because, in the last resort, we had the bomb and they didn’t.
The U.S. and UK could not prevent most of the countries of Eastern Europe from falling into the Soviet political and economic orbit once they were liberated by the Red Army and communist resistance forces, any more than the Russians could bring their communist allies to power in Western-occupied France, Italy, or Greece. But the U.S. nuclear monopoly encouraged Truman to take a hardline. The Truman Doctrine committed the U.S. to militarily oppose Soviet influence across the globe in a long ideological struggle.
As the Soviets developed their own nuclear arsenal, the U.S. invested trillions of dollars and vast human resources in an unrestrained technological arms race. American warplanes and tanks generally proved superior to Soviet ones in proxy wars around the world, but this was irrelevant to the outcome of guerrilla war where the AK-47 became the weapon of choice and a symbol of popular resistance to Western imperialism. Meanwhile, Germany and Japan, excluded and freed from the tyranny of military production, invested all their resources in civilian technology and soon produced better cars and home electronics than either of the superpowers.
The almost unbelievable record of American militarism since 1945 is that, despite the most sustained and expensive military build-up in the history of the world and the tragic annihilation of millions of people, the United States has not won a single major war. After overreaching in Korea, bringing China into the war and devastating North and South Korea, it was forced to settle for a ceasefire on the original border. At least 3 million Vietnamese and 57,000 Americans paid with their lives for the folly of the American War in Vietnam. Proxy and covert wars in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and other parts of South-East Asia have been just as bloody, but no more successful. America’s only real military successes have been limited campaigns to restore friendly regimes in three small strategic outposts: Grenada, Panama, and Kuwait.
Surveying the ruins of U.S. policy at the end of the American War in Vietnam, Richard Barnet put his finger on the irony of America’s unique place in world history. He wrote, “at the very moment the number one nation has perfected the science of killing, it has become an impractical instrument of political domination.”
But the lessons of Vietnam were gradually eroded by a revival of U.S. militarism. George Bush Senior played a critical role as Director of the CIA (1976-7) and the Council on Foreign Relations (1977-9) and then as Vice President and President. After covert wars in Angola, Afghanistan, and Central America, and invasions of Grenada and Panama, Bush refused Iraq’s offers to withdraw peacefully from Kuwait in 1991 and instead ordered the massacre of at least 25,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Bush rejoiced, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”
The fall of the USSR was a critical factor in U.S. military expansion in the Middle East. As Pentagon adviser Michael Mandelbaum said in 1991, “For the first time in 40 years we can conduct military operations in the Middle East without worrying about triggering World War III.” The peace dividend Americans expected at the end of the Cold War was trumped by a power dividend, as policymakers exploited the fall of the Soviet Union to project U.S. military power around the world. New interventionist doctrines of reassurance, humanitarian intervention, responsibility to protect, information warfare, and preemption have served as political cover for violating the UN Charter’s prohibition on the threat or use of force, culminating in the travesty of Barack Obama’s speech justifying war as he accepted the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
Since Vietnam, we have spent at least another $17 trillion on war and preparations for war—our entire national debt—and killed millions more of our fellow human beings. Watching General Giap’s funeral in Hanoi as I write this, I have to ask, “What have we learned?” Our generals have learned how to wage war in other countries with fewer American casualties by using disproportionate violence that kills more civilians than combatants. This has made war less painful for Americans, but it only underlines its futility and barbarism. No American general of this generation will be buried with the outpouring of genuine public gratitude and grief we saw in Hanoi.
Now we have spent 12 years at war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia (along with covert operations across the entire globe, from Sweden to the Philippines to Colombia). We have brought death, injury, devastation, and chaos to hundreds of millions more people, with no end in sight as the Long War keeps spreading from country to country. Nowhere have our leaders achieved their original stated intentions to reduce terrorism, prevent weapons proliferation, or establish democracy. Their increasingly desperate rationalizations for a murderous, out-of-control policy, repeated ad nauseam by a craven corporate propaganda system, can barely disguise their humiliation.
Like Americans in the late 1940s who were desperate to destroy the USSR in a “preemptive” nuclear war, some Americans today may still not understand why our military supremacy cannot bring us political power over enemies with fewer resources and inferior weapons. But, as Eisenhower and other American war leaders understood only too well, the use of force is a blunt and brutal instrument and more powerful weapons are only more powerful, not magical. Political power is something quite different, requiring popular support, legitimacy, and policies that actually solve problems.
So military supremacy is not a trump card to achieve political objectives; the use of force is inherently destructive and war nearly always causes more problems than it solves. Killing people to save them from an oppressive government is an absurdity and regime change is generally a euphemism for regime destruction, with no ability to ensure that what comes after will be better, especially once the violence and chaos of war are added to the problems that led to it in the first place.
Norwegian General Robert Mood led the UN monitors sent to Syria to oversee the failed ceasefire in 2012. A year later, amid calls for Western military intervention, he reflected, “It is fairly easy to use the military tool because, when you launch the military tool in classical interventions, something will happen and there will be results. The problem is that the results are almost all the time different than the political results you were aiming for when you decided to launch it. So the other position, arguing that it is not the role of the international community, neither coalitions of the willing nor the UN Security Council for that matter, to change governments inside a country, is also a position that should be respected….”
Threatening the use of force while hoping not to have to use it may seem like a less painful way for our leaders to impose their will on other countries, but in practice this doesn’t work very well either. It forces both sides into positions from which neither can afford to back down, putting the credibility of our military supremacy on the line over every crisis around the world. This has turned manufactured disputes over non-existent weapons into a choice between war and political humiliation for American leaders, as we saw with Iraq and, incredibly, are now going through all over again with Iran. There is great wisdom in the UN Charter’s prohibition on the threat as well as on the use of force because the one leads so predictably to the other.
Despite nearly bankrupting our country, military supremacy remains an expensive national ego-trip in search of a constructive purpose. Countries that are not cursed with military supremacy have to settle their differences by other means, notably by diplomacy within the rule of international law. As we have found out over Syria, this is not by any means a worse option and it offers us a way forward to life after militarism.
The victory of democracy in America’s debate over Syria is a small but significant step in the right direction. Organizing and public outrage transformed formerly passive public opposition to war and militarism into effective action to prevent U.S. aggression. Now we must tap into the same combination of public sentiment and effective political organizing to actually bring peace to Syria, to restore civilized relations with Iran and to finally turn the tide on the largest, most wasteful and dangerous unilateral military build-up in the history of the world. This could be an important turning point, but that will be up to us.
Nicolas J. S. Davies is author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He also wrote the chapter on “Obama At War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.