In two recent speeches, President Obama has repeated the conceit that the United States is “the indispensable nation.” Apparently, that means the U.S. must lead “the free world,” with a none-too-subtle corollary that other “free” nations must follow. Yet the conceit of indispensability gets the US into serious trouble. It facilitates interventionism and meddling, and when the US intervenes and meddles, it’s almost always in military ways, often disastrously (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya are just three recent examples).
This is hardly surprising. The US military has roughly 800 bases worldwide. Its aircraft carriers are essentially mobile American bases, bristling with weapons and munitions. The US spends roughly $600 billion a year maintaining this military and empire, even as it continues to dominate the world’s arms trade. This heavy investment in weaponry and war-making, abetted by a mentality that celebrates “global reach, global power,” is a strange way to define your nation as being “indispensable.”
How did America come to invest so much of itself in military weaponry and incessant wars? One reason is the quest for total safety. As one of my friends put it:
It [the notion of total safety] must be a post-1941 thing [after the shocking sneak attack on Pearl Harbor]. I think in both cases (1917 [US entry into World War I] and 1941 and maybe 2001) the question Americans have asked is how to keep an evil “over there” somehow from affecting us. In all three cases, I think the answer was neutrality until neutrality no longer seemed to offer safety. My guess is that the idea that total safety required global involvement comes from c.1948, fears of the USSR’s globalism, atomic paranoia, and the desire to protect and preserve the new American affluence. Thus NSC-68 gets passed with nary a whisper of opposition.
What is NSC-68? We must turn the clock back to 1950, the Cold War, and the Truman Administration, as detailed here by The History Channel:
According to the [National Security Council’s] report, the United States should vigorously pursue a policy of “containing” Soviet expansion. NSC-68 recommended that the United States embark on rapid military expansion of conventional forces and the nuclear arsenal, including the development of the new hydrogen bomb. In addition, massive increases in military aid to US allies were necessary as well as more effective use of “covert” means to achieve US goals. The price of these measures was estimated to be about $50 billion; at the time the report was issued, America was spending just $13 billion on defense.
Under President Trump, we’re likely to see a new version of NSC-68, another expansion of the US military (and US militarism), along with covert action by a newly empowered CIA, this time in the name of containing and defeating radical Islam rather than godless communism.
Defense company stocks are already soaring at the prospect of much higher military spending under Trump, notes William Hartung at TomDispatch.com. Trump is difficult to predict, so Hartung takes him at his word in this passage:
A window into Trump’s thinking [on defense] can be found in a speech he gave in Philadelphia in early September. Drawing heavily on a military spending blueprint created by Washington’s right-wing Heritage Foundation, Trump called for tens of thousands of additional troops, a Navy of 350 ships (the current goal is 308), a significantly larger Air Force, an anti-missile, space-based Star Wars-style program of Reaganesque proportions, and an acceleration of the Pentagon’s $1 trillion “modernization” program for the nuclear arsenal (now considered a three-decade-long project).
Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that, if Trump faithfully follows the Heritage Foundation’s proposal, he could add more than $900 billion to the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade.
In other words, Obama’s America, the “indispensable nation,” is likely under Trump to channel enormous resources into more weapons even as Trump’s military advisers, men like retired general Mike Flynn, posture for a no-holds-barred crusade against “the cancer” of radical Islam around the globe.
Here’s a harsh truth: America has allowed its arsenal of democracy of World War II fame to become simply an arsenal. A nation that fought in the name of democracy in two world wars has become one that wages endless wars driven by a crusader’s righteousness.
Remind me: What is so “indispensable” about that?
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at email@example.com. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.