Peace on Earth: Once a Year?

"Peace on Earth," people ritualistically intone every Christmas. It’s a wonderful platitude. But utterly meaningless, at least in the US. Without question the American government is the most aggressive, belligerent, and warlike on earth.

That doesn’t mean Washington is the worst, most murderous regime in existence. There are wars, like America’s invasion of Panama, and then there are wars, like Iraq’s invasion of Iran. Moreover, there are governments which kill promiscuously without invading other nations, such as North Korea.

Yet no other country so frequently attacks other states or so ostentatiously claims the right to invade other states as the US. Russia felt it necessary to point to America’s attack on Serbia as justification for attacking the country of Georgia. Washington saw no need to cite any precedent in bombing Serbia for 78 days – or in undertaking any of its other military operations.

Consider the American government’s record since 1980. It has used, backed, or threatened force more than a dozen times: Nicaragua, Grenada, Libya, Lebanon, Panama, Haiti (twice), Somalia, Iraq (twice), Bosnia, Serbia, and Afghanistan (twice). No other country comes close to the US

One can justify one or another of these actions, but most were relevant to no American interests and certainly promoted no vital interests. Lebanon? Serbia? Somalia? Haiti?

The bankruptcy of Washington’s position is evident from how US officials routinely change their justifications to fit the circumstances. Iraq had to be invaded. After all, there were WMDs to seize. Oops. There were 9/11 terrorists to punish. Oops. There was democracy to promote. Oops.

It’s hard not to conclude that US officials had decided to invade Iraq, with the specific reasons as secondary, even unimportant. Most anything would do. But then, Washington doesn’t need to have reasons, let alone good reasons, for invading other states.

The militaristic philosophy of America’s policymakers is reflected in US "defense" spending. Only one country, Russia, has a nuclear force comparable to that of America, and Washington’s arsenal remains far superior. No other nation has the devastating mix of conventional quality and quantity that characterizes the US military and only Russia has even modest lift capacity to move its forces outside its borders. Terrorist networks pose a more active threat, but are best met with good intelligence, special forces, and allied cooperation rather than carrier groups and armored divisions. In short, the US is more secure than at any point during the last half century.

Nevertheless, Washington accounts for half of all military spending on earth. And outlays continue to increase. The US now devotes more money, adjusted for inflation, to the military than at any point during the Cold War, Korean War, or Vietnam War. "Defense" outlays are completely disproportionate to the global threat environment. In fact, most of that spending is not to defend Americans. Most US military outlays are for attacking other nations.

It makes sense to maintain a strong military. But the US does not need the forces necessary to attack every other nation on every other continent. America’s principal foreign policy goal should be to defend itself, not promiscuously meddle in international affairs, engaging in social engineering around the globe.

Washington’s policy of endless intervention is dangerous, since it involves Americans in multiple conflicts of no concern to the US. It also is extraordinarily expensive. Military spending in 2009 will run roughly $700 billion. Attempting to maintain the overwhelming superiority necessary to project power into other regions will grow ever more expensive as China, Russia, and India spend more. It will be far easier for them to create modest deterrent forces than for Washington to develop and maintain the ever larger militaries necessary to overwhelm other nations’ forces.

Wasting endless billions on unnecessary arms and personnel might seem sustainable during periods of abundant economic growth, but not today, with the economy in freefall and the Treasury empty. It’s bad enough to toss away American dollars to subsidize failing American enterprises. It’s ludicrous to toss away American dollars to protect populous and prosperous allies and reengineer failed Third World states.

The loss of global dominance will be slow, since America’s lead is so vast. But despite the pain that will be felt by Washington policymakers used to bossing around friends and foes alike, such relative decline is inevitable. Just as Great Britain was forced to accommodate the US, a rising power an ocean away, the US will have to accept a China and India on the rise, a Russia on the rebound, and a Europe moving towards more consolidated government. America will remain special, but will become a more normal country in its dealings with the rest of the world.

One result will be Washington no longer acting like globo-cop, bombing and invading countries hither and yon. The US government can get away with such conduct as long as it enjoys an overwhelming military advantage. However, a militarized foreign policy will become far more difficult to sustain as America slips to first among equals. Even then no one else will be able to defeat the US or threaten its core interests, but it will lose its ability to coerce other nations.

The world will still be a turbulent and often ugly place. But such a world is likely to be more peaceful for Americans. And that will be all to the good.

The temptation for Washington policymakers to meddle around the globe is strong. However, though war can be necessary and good can come out of evil, the overwhelming presumption of US policy should be for peace. The horrific dissolution of Iraqi society, with hundreds of thousands of dead, even more wounded, and millions displaced, should forever destroy the myth that Washington is capable of using war as a beneficent tool of social engineering.

Peace on Earth. The phrase may never accurately describe our world. But it is a worthy ideal to which we should strive. Achieving it will never be easy. But the new administration coming to Washington creates new opportunities for change. Americans should use this Christmas season to demand that their government give peace a chance.