by Graham E. Fuller
Washington has jealously guarded the role of global policeman for over half a century. But is the game still worth the candle?
World War II left no power standing other than the US. Washington was in a unique position to lead “the free world” against the USSR in the Cold War. But after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the US found its true moment in the sun, perceiving its new emergence as the “sole global superpower.” Prestige, respect, economic and cultural “soft power” had all been originally vital complements to American military superpowermanship. But 9/11 eclipsed all that. In today’s world the US has increasingly diverted its true national and international voice into the field of national security, where military means become the prime instrument of statesmanship and diplomacy. The State Department is now largely overwhelmed by the Pentagon in the formulation of foreign policy.
This militarization of American strategic vision emerges directly from possession of the overwhelmingly largest military machine in the world, supported by over 700 military bases scattered across the globe and the biggest military budget of all other competitors combined. As Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State once complained to Colin Powell some years ago, “What’s the point of having such a great military if we don’t use it?”
This souped-up security role is likewise the chosen instrument for explicit assertion of American global dominance, or “global leadership”—nominally giving us the dominant voice in the determining the “architecture of the global order.” Those whose actions defy that architecture have been labeled “rogue.” And this global security burden accordingly led us into extravagant expenditure of our own treasure and the spilling of blood of upwards of a million people directly or indirectly in recent military arenas—nearly all Muslim.
But where do these costs come up in what passes for national debate on foreign policy? Are we perhaps still jealously guarding a role in which there are no other willing competitors? In a situation where other nations prefer to seek their global prestige in other terms? And, as we focus on preserving our national security power, are others perhaps starting to eat our lunch in other arenas?
China is unquestionably building its military power, a rapid rise for a nation that for long decades possessed little other than massive manpower and lots of nukes. Russia too has a strong military. But the US still leads almost all of the rest of the world combined in the size of its annual military budget.
So what is China doing? Indeed building its military from scratch, and expanding its range of interests, but rather than focusing single-mindedly on the military, it is busier in making massive investments, for example in African agriculture and Central Asian infrastructure projects among its many projects that span most of the world. These activities leave far more positive and enduring monuments and influence—not to mention good will—than do military bases, military training or even war-fighting and counter-insurgency.
In a state-to-state war we will of course prevail. But if it’s not a war, we fare less well. So the list of contenders for the role of global policeman is not crowded. Indeed, China is probably quite happy to have the US serve as global policeman at this point, bearing the primary burden of international counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. Thus in the eyes of our global competitors, our policies serve their interests in several ways. When we go to war, conduct numerous regime changes, launch drones, engage in assassinations and anti-terrorist operations we are wasting our treasure, eliminating many of the same bad guys that most people in the world might like to see eliminated, while all the while building up reservoirs of anger and feelings of revenge among the many victims of “collateral damage.” For China and Russia these are strategic gifts, sparing them the job of doing the heavy lifting in counter-terrorism, while weakening our economy, and leaving their reputations unbesmirched, their reservoirs of good will untouched. Indeed the large reservoirs of good will the US once possessed began to dry up once Washington launched the Global War on Terror and asserted the unilateral right to go anywhere, do anything, and kill anyone in the interests of American national security.
Some realists may not mourn loss of good will, but mounting opportunity costs to US society and economy bite deeper. And our writ abroad counts for far less now.
“Somebody has to do the dirty work”—after all terrorism must be combatted. But its international acceptance hinges heavily on the success of the program. And by now many top US military figures including Stanley McChrystal and other strategists have suggested that our counter-insurgency tactics have largely served to create new reservoirs of terrorist recruits eager to fight the US. Indeed, it’s a frustrating war in which the enemy—on its own soil—resembles a Hydra that grows two heads with each one severed. Projecting military operations into the Muslim world has produced little success and sowed mass chaos in most of the losing wars over the past decade: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and other locales. The Kuwait war is the sole exception. Indeed, many observers of the Middle East doubt there is any true military solution to countering terrorism when the chief by-products seem to be more hatred and instability that fosters still greater radicalism.
So do we truly still want this role as global policeman and anti-terrorism chief? Does it make sense when global solutions now require many players—many not even allies—to accomplish the goal?
I am heartened that the Obama administration more recently seems to be willing to share with China the role of creating a security structure in Afghanistan and Pakistan. China after all borders on both these states. And Obama/Kerry now seem willing to consider working with Russia in Syria instead of seeking to deprive Russia—dog-in-the-manger posture—of any meaningful role there, even as we thrash around in a no-win situation.
Future global strategy demands a new working plan for global security in which other great powers—whom we may not like—play major roles. Washington can neither afford, nor fulfill, the role of primary global security provider—which, if anything, now seems to detract from America’s reputation and well-being.
Instead, sadly, we witness of the absurd posturing of presidential candidates each seeking to out-macho the other on how they would lay down the law to the world—utterly out of touch with shifting global reality.
It would be sad if American talents have now become primarily relegated to the security and military field. Such goals are eating up our country, raising our opportunity costs, stifling it in crushing and muscle-bound national security institutions whose growing weight, cost and power dominate the foreign policy field. American genius for creativity, know-how technology—even the former reputation of its citizens for being liked and welcomed—is being sidelined in the endless quest to maintain global dominance for “our security.” We are not gaining either.
Is it naïve to suggest maybe we should be cooperating internationally in helping build a new global economic infrastructure? Roads, hospitals, schools, clinics, industries—as the best security investment for the present trillions now spent on military and security-related institutions and projects—especially in the face of the gathering global refugee tsunami? Otherwise we are opening the field to the Chinese and even Russians who are not even seeking to compete in our chosen policeman tasks, confident that we are likely making their quest for influence all the easier.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). This essay is reprinted with permission from grahamefuller.com