After Empire?

by John Feffer

Let’s say the car stops and we get our teeth around the tire. Let’s say that we bite down hard enough to let out all the air from the U.S. empire.

Now what?

Those of us who have campaigned for a radical reduction of the U.S. military footprint overseas, for a major scaling back of U.S. interventionist capabilities, and for a shift of Pentagon funding toward necessary improvements on the home front have spent so much time detailing our objections to the status quo that we don’t have much time left over to consider what would happen if we succeed.

Sure, it’s easy enough to talk about the distribution of the surplus here in the United States. We all have our favorite human needs to fund (infrastructure, education, green energy projects). And certainly some funds would be left over to address global problems as well. All of that falls into the category of “doing good.”

The much more challenging issue is dealing with the other part of foreign policy: “countering bad.”

If the United States were to close all of its military bases tomorrow, withdraw its troops and Special Forces from the 130-plus countries where they’ve been operating, and even stop arms exports, bad things would still happen around the world. Wars would still take place. Governments would still repress their citizens. And countries would still violate each other’s sovereignty.

Those of a more isolationist bent will argue: It’s none of our business, and the United States usually ends up aggravating the problems we swoop in to solve. The usual progressive response is: Strengthen international institutions and empower civil society organizations. These answers contain some necessary insights, but they’re not sufficient.

And because these alternatives are not sufficient, other options have gained an unacceptable credibility.

Which brings me to Barney Frank.

Sharing the Burden

When he was in Congress, Barney Frank was a strong advocate of reducing the military budget, upholding human rights, boosting foreign aid, and supporting internationalism in general. I met him during our efforts to shrink the U.S. military footprint in Okinawa, an initiative he supported at the time, and was impressed with his candor and commitment.

Of course, because Frank was a politician, pragmatism shaped his principles.

Although the Sustainable Defense Taskforce that he chaired back in 2011 recommended more than $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years, Frank himself voted for Congress to contract with General Electric and Rolls Royce for a second engine for the already over-priced F-35. Even a sophisticated jet fighter only needs one engine, and another manufacturer had already won the bid to build it. But the GE plant meant jobs in Frank’s district, and no politician can ignore employment-generation schemes — even if they produce an entirely useless product.

Frank is no longer in Congress. He does, however, write a column for Politico that offers a similar blend of principle and pragmatism. In his latest effort, he quite sensibly takes Republicans to task for demanding substantial increases in U.S. military spending:

I simply don’t understand why Republicans accept the view that the entire burden of providing the world’s military force should be borne by American taxpayers, even leaving aside my belief that advocates of these huge increases in American military spending greatly exaggerate both the threat that disorder overseas presents to us, and even more, to what extent America could effectively resolve these problems by military intervention.

But then, in posing his alternative, he dusts off an old argument that has been present in U.S. policymaking circles for decades: burden sharing. Conservatives have traditionally argued that the Pentagon can get more bang for the buck by leaning on allies to pick up more of the tab for U.S. military bases, spend more overall on their militaries, and take the lead on various military campaigns. Liberals, like Barney Frank, trot out burden sharing as a way of gaining bipartisan support for Pentagon budget reductions. As our allies spend more, we can spend less.

The concept of burden sharing is so mainstream, however, that I wonder why Frank feels the need to devote an entire column to it.

The U.S. government is always trying to pressure allies like Japan, South Korea, and Germany to pay more as part of their host nation support. Through NATO, the United States has relentlessly pushed Europe and Canada to meet their informal obligation of spending 2 percent of their GDP on the military. Yet the burden sharing argument can be found equally in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and libertarians skeptical of U.S. military actions overseas.

In part, Frank’s column was a sideways contribution to the ongoing debate over the budget in Washington. The Obama administration vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act last week — which would have given the Pentagon $612 billion — largely because it objected to spending caps applied to non-defense expenditures. But a deal this week, just as John Boehner heads out the door as House speaker, will provide the Pentagon with $607 billion, up the non-defense spending caps, and raise the national debt ceiling in order to keep the lights on in government until at least spring 2017.

Frank has been trying to persuade his former colleagues in Washington that the Pentagon can safely and sustainably cut $100 billion a year. His colleagues aren’t listening to him. They like the idea of burden sharing. They also like the idea of maintaining the same level of U.S. military spending, which in their minds translates into more jobs in their districts.

But the other reason for talking about burden sharing now is Frank’s argument that Russia and China pose a destabilizing threat to the world order. Frank doesn’t want the United States to face down these threats in a High Noon standoff. Rather, he wants to deputize other countries to hem in the regional hegemons. For that reason, Frank recommends “that it’s time to rearm Germany and Japan.”

A Dodgy Proposition

The strangest part of Frank’s argument is that Germany and Japan are already rearming themselves.

Yes, as Frank points out, the United States spends 3.5 percent of GDP on defense while Germany spends closer to 1 percent (1.2 percent to be precise). But somehow he must have missed the German government’s announcement earlier this year that it would increase spending by more than 6 percent over the next five years as part of a comprehensive modernization.

Japan has traditionally tried to keep its military spending to under 1 percent of GDP. But conservative leader Shinzo Abe is pushing the boundaries. Tokyo has increased its military spending for the last four years and recently submitted its largest increase ever. The Abe government has also passed legislation that will allow the now-misnamed Self Defense Forces to engage in military operations overseas.

Okay, so they’re already rearming, in part in response to the same threat perceptions that Frank identifies. Are they still freeloaders, as Frank suggests?

Japan by no means gets a free ride from the Pentagon. It’s generally covered around 75 percent of the costs for maintaining U.S. bases in the country (compared to percentages around half that by Germany and South Korea). The debate is in the news (in Japan at least) because Washington is currently trying to get Tokyo to increase its share even as the Abe government is petitioning for a reduction. This comes after Washington has already pressured Tokyo to cover the costs of a new military base in Okinawa that the vast majority of the residents there oppose.

As David Vine writes in his invaluable new book Base Nation,

Today, Japanese sympathy payments subsidize the U.S. presence at an annual level of around $150,000 per service member. For 2011 alone, Japanese taxpayers provided $7.1 billion, or around three quarters of total basing costs. In addition to agreeing to pay $6.09 billion to help close Futenma and move marines off Okinawa, the Japanese government agreed to contribute around $15.9 billion toward a larger set of transformations involving bases in Okinawa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Iwakuni, Japan.

As for Germany, with the end of the Cold War and the drawdown of the conflict in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has been closing bases there for the last quarter century. Several major garrisons in recent years have been closed. Paying for U.S. bases in Germany has now morphed into dealing with economic dislocation connected to these closures. Vine also details several cases of extravagant and entirely unnecessary upgrades at U.S. military bases in Germany, some of them just prior to their closure. Prudent Germans would be right not to want to cover such costs.

So, our allies are already upping their commitments. Congress is not reducing the Pentagon’s budget. And militarism continues apace.

But it gets worse.

Unintended Consequences

The United States has historically put itself forward as an honest broker that can deter and mediate conflicts because of its lack of interest in acquiring territory. Territorial expansion, of course, is only one factor that can compromise the neutrality of a mediator or justify the presence of military bases. But still, this argument has persuaded many countries to support a distant superpower in order to balance the regional power closer to home.

Both Germany and Japan have managed to some degree to overcome regional suspicions that date back to their World War II conduct (and earlier). Fearful of a resurgent Russia, Poland has moved closer to Germany. Similar fears of China have prompted the Philippines towelcome Japan’s turn away from its “peace constitution.”

And yet the specter of resurgent militarism in Germany and Japan still makes many Europeans and Asians uneasy. South Korea, for instance, has yet to settle its territorial and historical concerns with Japan. And many EU members are uncomfortable with Germany’s disproportionate economic influence over European affairs. Turning Germany into a military giant will not improve intra-EU relations.

Then there’s the issue of adding yet another driver to the global arms race. It’s bad enough that the United States spends so much and peddles so much. Pushing our “junior partners” to take on more “mature” commitments will only keep global military spending hovering at the $1.8 trillion mark at a time when those resources are so urgently needed elsewhere. Its overall military spending on the decline for some time, Europe has been the one bright spot in global trends. Asia, meanwhile, is on a military spending binge. Adding a resurgent Japan to this mix only makes it more volatile.

Although both Europe and Northeast Asia are comparatively wealthy, they too face economic challenges. Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums for decades, compounded by the Fukushima disaster of 2011. Europe, facing a plethora of challenges from refugees to highly indebted states, is hard-pressed to meet its NATO obligations.

The notion that countries like Germany and Japan would advance as the American empire retreats comforts some liberals by preserving U.S. power projection beneath a veneer of multilateralism. But it’s the mechanism of militarism that is ultimately the problem — not who’s controlling the levers.

Alternatives to Empire

Barney Frank’s burden sharing option is already basically in play. Our key allies are spending more on their militaries. And this hasn’t led to any bipartisan agreement to cut U.S. military spending. What alternatives are there to the United States continuing to go it alone, or embracing Frank’s option of policing the world with more assistance from a couple of hand-picked gunslinger allies?

Let’s start with isolationism versus internationalism.

The isolationists and their fellow travelers make a good point about the limits of U.S. power. But focusing exclusively on domestic affairs is an argument more fitting for 1515 rather than 2015. Today, the globe faces any number of very difficult challenges that no one country can solve by itself: global warming, a refugee crisis, a growing divide between rich and poor. Moreover, Washington is partly responsible for the fires that are burning around the world, so we have an obligation to be part of the bucket brigade. We just need to be sending our diplomats and humanitarian specialists, not our soldiers, to help put out the fires.

Which brings us to the internationalist option. I lean in this direction, but just invoking the United Nations is, frankly, not enough. UN peacekeeping, which just received an infusion of troops and equipment at the UN meeting in September, has worked most successfully when deployed after a peace agreement (as in Sierra Leone and Cyprus). Their efforts to stop the outbreak of violence or reduce its scope — in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia — have more often than not failed. And such missions need constant oversight, for they often suffer from the same problems as other armed forces (for example, sexual violence and child prostitution).

International mechanisms such as tribunals and treaties are equally important. But they require enforcement, which is hampered by lack of resources and lack of international consensus. The best agents of implementation, of course, are civil society actors on the ground. But such actors are most effective where the rule of law is already reasonably strong. What chance do civil society organizations have against forces like the Islamic State in conflict-torn Iraq and Syria?

Clearly, to address the palpable evils of the world, international institutions are not yet up to the task. So, what can be done in this interim period as we beef up the capacity of international institutions and push to reduce the U.S. military footprint?

Here are three modest suggestions:

  • Rather than provoke Russia and China to accelerate their own military modernizations, engage them in new rounds of arms control. Both countries have their own economic worries and could ultimately find negotiated limits on deployment attractive particularly if coupled with other guarantees (like a freeze on NATO expansion or one on new base construction in Japan).
  • Rather than push individual countries like Japan and Germany to rearm, strengthen inclusive regional security mechanisms. If Europe is to play a stronger military role in the world, the burden should fall on the EU as a whole and not one country like Germany. Northeast Asia, meanwhile, urgently needs a regional security structure to handle its myriad territorial disputes. Regional responses to crises can suffer from the same defects as international efforts. But locating crisis-response mechanisms at the regional level can ideally avoid both the difficulty of marshaling consensus at the international level and the self-interested motives of unilateral actors.
  • Rather than add fuel to the fire, support international gun control. The global arms trade — valued to be at least $76 billion in 2013 — has flooded conflicts with enormous firepower. The Arms Trade Treaty, which entered into force at the end of last year, takes a first step by making arms sales more transparent. The next step, an incomparably more difficult challenge, is to reduce the flow.

At the moment, we’re still chasing the car. If we don’t start thinking about concrete alternatives, we’re not likely to achieve our goal. And we might just get run over trying.

Image courtesy of Donkey Hotey via Flickr

John Feffer

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the author, most recently, of Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe's Broken Dreams (Zed Books). He is also the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy (Dispatch Books). He is a former Open Society fellow, PanTech fellow, and Scoville fellow, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and many other publications.


One Comment

  1. The US has turned itself into a banana republic at home and a menace abroad, mindlessly lumbering through Muslim countries producing mountains of collateral damage. Only god knows what will happen when it runs out of wedding parties and hospitals to destroy. Who should be helping?

    The US (and to a much lesser extent the other 4 veto wielding states) has systematically undermined the United Nations, its credibility and its authority. In the beginning, when Washington could pretty much count on always getting its way, the UN flourished, but as more and more nations became involved, the US didn’t always win through. So it periodically flounced off in a snit, sometimes taking its UN dues with it.

    So now, when Washington could use a strong and credible UN, the organization is in a shambles. The UN had a credible plan for revising the Security Council, so Washington made that idiot neocon John Bolton UN ambassador, famous hater of anything UN, to make an even bigger shambles by making so many demands for revision of those revisions that the plan was murdered. Now, the only way Washington can get its way is by force, often behind the skirts of NATO, an organization that should have died with the Cold War.
    The US has made an apocalypse of the Middle East, and not just by triggering a huge wave of violence by invading Iraq and purging it of its character, its identity, its intellectual class, and delivering to the world a vast army of terrorists and terrorist organizations, but also by spawning a true offspring of itself in the form of the right-wing Israeli state, an even worse violator of international law and the Geneva conventions. Washington calls Israel “ally,” but so far as I know, there is no official treaty or contract that governs the conditions of that destructive, out of control relationship.
    Now, thanks to America’s fumbling leadership and the production of a giant wave of refugees which is being left to Europe to deal with, the UNHCR is totally impoverished, thanks to Western neglect and the organization’s decades of feeding and otherwise attending to the welfare of millions of victims of Israeli military occupation spread across god knows how many Palestinian refugee camps in a number of Middle Eastern countries.

    From out of this morass of gloom rises something completely out of American character: a diplomatic success. The Washington-led P5+1 deal with Iran is worth a global celebration, not just another opportunity for Republicans and Israel Firsters to bash Obama. Because it makes up for a lot of “stupid stuff” Obama has done over the course of his presidency. One has to hope that we’ll see similar results with respect to the Syrian situation.

    So how does the US get out from under the responsibility of running the world (badly)? Well, badmouthing China and Russia, making them the excuse for America’s economic and diplomatic woes isn’t working. A 10 percent cut across the entire US military and surveillance budget of $1.3 trillion would be a good way for Washington to start digging itself out of the hole it’s been digging itself into for the last three or four decades. That would pay for a lot of infrastructure repairs, education, and health care. Ending the costly and destructive “special relationship” with Israel would be a good second step. And leading the way in the reconstitution of the United Nations and restoring those international responsibilities to it that Washington and American taxpayers have been (poorly) shouldering would be the third. Because it’s through the UN that the “multipolar world” that so many nations say they want may get a chance to emerge.

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