Can America Thrive Without War?

Without a fresh vision for America’s role in the world, many people in Washington link today’s geopolitical challenges with those of yesteryear.

China is cast as the new Soviet Union, and its high-tech military advances threaten a potential Sputnik moment. The ominously named Committee on the Present Danger, which stoked public support for military spending during the Cold War, was revived with its sights set on China. In support of Ukraine, America’s stockpile of missiles and rockets dwindles, spurring calls for the United States to once again “become the arsenal of democracy” and “bolster the defenses of the free and open liberal order.” Vladimir Putin is viewed archetypally as a lethal combination of an old K.G.B. spy and a ruthless Soviet leader.

Evoking America’s titanic struggles against fascism and communism can be rhetorically useful. It conjures an era remembered for its economic dynamism, its unity of purpose, its spirit of patriotism.

Yet simplistic renderings of the past tend to romanticize the effects of war on American society. These gauzy memories are as dangerous as they are perverse. War becomes a solution to America’s economic and political problems rather than what it truly is: a key contributor.

The hawkish instincts of American leaders only exacerbate standoffs and risk worsening the country’s war addiction. Tensions with China over Taiwan and spy balloons continue to escalate. The war in Ukraine is stretching into its second year, with no end in sight. Yet given his awareness of the limitations of American military might, President Biden has only cautiously ratcheted up support for Ukraine and has been measured in his approach to China compared with his predecessor. He also cut America’s losses by ending the doomed nation-building campaign in Afghanistan.

That hasn’t muted Washington’s Greek chorus of foreign policy functionaries who cry out for a new Cold War with China, further escalation of what’s become a proxy war with Russia and a return to maximum pressure on Iran.

Behind a mind-set that invites the burden of policing a rules-based global order is a conventional assumption: War, though tragic, is a boon for economic vitality and patriotic vigor. This assumption is at best outmoded. The economy is no longer fueled by wartime industries in the same way. When wars are fought by a smaller corps of volunteers and financed by borrowing from financial institutions and foreign governments more than taxes and war bonds, a public spirit of common cause hasn’t materialized. In fact, America’s most recent military misadventures contributed to the steady accumulation of more than $30 trillion in debt — now being weaponized by partisans in Congress for political gain.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Elliott Abrams, who led Middle East policy in the Bush administration and Iran and Venezuela policy in the Trump administration, insisted that the United States should seize the “new Cold War” opportunity to foster bipartisan consensus.

Bipartisanship sounds appealing. But unanimous war talk isn’t what America needs or what will help it thrive — and indeed, dissent is most valuable when the stakes are reaching geopolitical crisis levels. Unity is not uniformity, and principled opposition is what separates our bottom-up democracy from their top-down autocracies.

The mythologized connection between war and civic unity falls apart under scrutiny. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The End of the Myth,” Greg Grandin chronicled how, after the Civil War, northern and southern soldiers were sent together to the western frontier to pacify Native American tribes.

These military campaigns against Indigenous people were viewed in part as a way to reintegrate former Confederates into the U.S. Army and were cast as a “rehabilitation program” for the South. The Spanish-American War and World War I were also sold, to some extent, as a way to unite North and South. But none of these wars prevented the divisions that have endured from the Civil War and Jim Crow through to today’s debates about Confederate monuments and flags.

Did the Second World War allow America to realize its full economic potential and escape the Great Depression? Did the Cold War struggle against a common communist threat produce a period of unity and technological progress? While there is some truth to this nostalgia, it overlooks uncomfortable realities. America’s entry into World War II was motivated primarily by vengeance, not a widespread desire to save the free world. The war helped industrialize the country but also left many Americans in a state of deprivation. Popular myths about Cold War social harmony conveniently leave out the traumas of racial segregation and red scares. And the civic unity felt by Americans after 9/11 did not survive the calamitous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 1990s provide a vivid illustration of how prosperity and political compromise can flourish when we shed a false sense of national insecurity and the militant global posture which often accompanies it. American participation in major conflicts was limited, and the Clinton administration’s primary foreign policy goal was to promote trade.

Defense contractors might argue military spending creates commercial activity and jobs (conveniently distributed across key congressional districts). After decades of overly militarized foreign policy, Americans should be wary of using the defense budget to contribute to economic growth. Younger generations don’t see the need to trade peace for prosperity: A recent survey by my organization shows a majority of American adults under the age of 30 support a smaller defense budget.

At a moment when American democracy seems vulnerable and economic waters are rough, it’s understandable some might look for inspiration in the Pax Americana, however apocryphal. It’s also understandable that, without novel ways of understanding this new era of international politics, policymakers are liable to fall back on old ways. That is, they might slip back into the habit of minimizing the costs and exaggerating the benefits of armed conflict.

But the notion that a war footing can remedy democratic backsliding and economic stagnation is backward: Our democracy is threatened and our wealth is wasted because unwise wars have expended public trust and resources that might have been used productively at home rather than so destructively abroad.

Mark Hannah is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and the host of its podcast “None Of The Above.”

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