02/06/2015 11:47 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2015

The Case for Slowly Getting Out of the Empire Business

Catherine Lane via Getty Images

If all you witnessed late last month were the speeches of Republican presidential hopefuls at the Freedom Summit in Iowa, you could be forgiven for thinking that the main thing wrong with U.S. foreign policy these days is that, in countries far from these shores, too few people are currently being killed by American weapons. Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker may each be seeking to present themselves as different kinds of Republicans, but on one thing they seemed uniquely united in Iowa. It was that the U.S. is currently failing to provide what they claim the rest of the world so desperately needs, namely strong American leadership from a president who -- in Scott Walker's words -- "will stand with our allies against radical Islamic terrorists." Apparently the current president is not standing with sufficiently resolution in that fashion.

That Republican claim is a particularly difficult one to take seriously right now, given the robust nature of the military response we can now expect to the horrendous execution of the Jordanian pilot. But it was also difficult to take seriously even earlier, given that on the very same day as the Freedom Summit, the world's press carried reports of a significant escalation in the U.S.-led air war against Islamic State militants in both Syria and Iraq. (The press reported 13 major airstrikes in each country in just 24 hours.) If those press reports were correct (and therefore the political rhetoric in Iowa was not), far from failing to kill enough radical Islamic terrorists, the U.S. is currently heavily engaged in military assaults on ISIS positions of a sustained and unprecedented scale. Given the sophistication of contemporary U.S. military technology, that scale of assault is presumably killing militants and their families in numbers that ought to satisfy even the most rabid Republican militarist, but as the neocons sweep back to influence among Republican presidential hopefuls, apparently those numbers do not!

What was strange about those airstrikes on targets in Syria and Iraq was not, therefore, their lack of scale. It was rather their invisibility in most of the American media, and their capacity to proceed without any formal declaration of war by a Congress that is now fully in Republican control. It is as though the well-publicized Republican unease with the excessive use of executive privilege by this president stops abruptly at the doors of the Pentagon, even though -- from people behind those doors -- there are clear signs that the air assaults now underway are not defeating ISIS. On the contrary, evidence abounds:

  • that ISIS, however horrendous its practices, poses no immediate threat to the United States;
  • that killing some terrorists, far from reducing their total number, simply breeds others;
  • that mission creep (bringing U.S. troops into a combat role) is likely when Iraqi ground forces begin their offensive in the spring;
  • that the American strategy of relying on local allies is no longer working (at least in Yemen); and
  • that the drone technology now being deployed by U.S. forces in the Middle East is leaving even the White House open to a new kind of physical danger.

All of which prompts the question: Why go the Republican way? Why not consider instead a total reversal of course? If this third Middle Eastern war since 9/11 is showing no signs of being any more successful than the other two, why not think about an alternative strategy that shifts the U.S. global posture from offense to defense, and from the privileging of hard power to the privileging of soft? Instead of focusing media coverage, to the virtual exclusion of all else, on the detail of this airstrike or that, maybe now is the time to discuss publicly the general wisdom of the strategy underpinning all those airstrikes. Rather than going back to Iowa, that is, why not start a national conversation instead about the advantages of slowly getting out of the empire business, and of incrementally redirecting our efforts from nation building abroad to nation building at home?


Criticizing the president's foreign policy as lacking machismo is, of course, conventional partisan politics in each election cycle, but criticizing it for too much machismo most definitely is not. The prevailing consensus on both sides of the aisle in Congress is that the U.S. military still needs to be heavily engaged in the Middle East and beyond. The partisan disagreement there is not about engagement but only about its character and scale. Not everyone, however, is of that mind. There are libertarian voices on the right of the Republican Party, and progressive voices on the left of the Democratic Party, prepared periodically to challenge the Beltway consensus. Indeed the president himself was once such a critic -- at least of an illegitimate war in Iraq if not of a more legitimate one in Afghanistan. But such voices tend to be drowned out entirely from the mainstream media's treatment of U.S. foreign-policy options these days, so, if only to alter that substantial imbalance slightly, it is worth thinking through what "getting out of the empire business" might actually involve.

One thing it will not involve is being either crazy or impractical. It is not crazy to imagine a less militarist role for the United States abroad when we remember that such a role is only, at most, seven and a half decades old. It is a role that has been put together and sustained within the lifetime of many of our more elderly fellow citizens, and something that is so recent cannot be as firmly set in stone, as the advocates of an expanded military role claim. Getting out of the empire business is also not impractical when you recognize the war weariness of this generation of American voters. We are now more than a decade away from the horrors of 9/11. We have tried two Middle Eastern wars in our attempt to defeat "terrorism," and it is widely recognized -- within the United States and abroad -- that both attempts have broadly failed. The Taliban are currently resurgent in Afghanistan, and ISIS has swept through much of the Iraq that American troops "liberated" in 2003. Instead of quick military solutions of the kind offered by the Bush administration, at least, we have seen our men and women in uniform bogged down in military and cultural quagmires made more intractable by their presence, while themselves bearing a terrible and ongoing burden of lost lives, lost limbs and lost minds. There is no stomach in America for doing all that a third time around.


To advocate "slowly getting out of the empire business" is not to be isolationist. Nor is it to be reckless. It is instead to argue for a rollback in U.S. military activity abroad that is both moderate in pace and deliberate in execution -- a rollback that is both of those things for reasons that are partially political in character and partly economic.

Politically, the rollback will need to be measured and moderate so that allies abroad, long used to large-scale American aid, are not immediately abandoned and exposed to any rapidly escalating danger. It will also need to be moderate and managed because, in our years of global dominance, we made many enemies, and they will not vanish overnight if we decide to pull our troops home. Indeed initially that rollback may very well embolden them, so that our liberty will initially require extra vigilance. And the rollback will also need to be moderate for domestic electoral reasons. As we have recently seen in a spate of examples, from Benghazi to the Crimea, any serious attempt by a cerebral president to reflect publicly on the necessary limits to American global power will quickly be denigrated by his political opponents. It will be denigrated as both a sign of American weakness and a cause of the very limits on which the president is quite properly reflecting.

Economically, the rollback will need to be measured and moderate because, without the careful orchestration of a move from the production of arms to the production of much-needed civilian consumer goods and social infrastructure, large-scale American unemployment will inevitably follow. But we know that money spent on civilian output has a larger multiplier effect than money spent on defense procurement. We know that large-scale demilitarization was successfully effected after World War II, and that the American experience then is still available as a model for similar military demobilization now. We know of small examples already underway that are successfully converting parts of the U.S. war economy to a civilian one. We know of vast veterans' needs better served by healthcare spending than by armament procurement. We know that American soft power is always more effective when deployed in place of hard power rather than as its corollary. We also know that military intervention abroad invariably creates more terrorists than it destroys, so that ultimately the only way of breaking this cycle is to replace military intervention with a different and more culturally sensitive type of American presence overseas.


If U.S. foreign policy is to be reset in so fundamental a fashion, a series of specific policies need to be put in place and then implemented in an incremental but consistent manner. What those policies might be is exactly what needs now to be publicly and extensively discussed. Among them may well be some or all of the following:

  • the bringing back to the United States of the vast majority of our military personnel;
  • a significant reduction in the number of our bases overseas;
  • the incremental rundown of all covert operations;
  • new limits on our ability to interfere, covertly or otherwise, in the internal affairs of other sovereign states;
  • a revamped willingness to operate under the auspices of international agencies like NATO and the UN; and
  • the resetting of our defensive walls closer to home, first on the far shore and eventually on the near shore of the two oceans that divide us from the Eurasian landmass.

None of those changes taken individually -- nor all of them taken as a whole -- necessarily involves any undermining of America's long-term capacity for effective defense. Indeed, such policy changes might well enhance that long-term capacity if accompanied by a retention and strengthening of the United States' naval superiority, and the associated ability of the Pentagon to deploy rapid reaction forces abroad in the event of a direct assault on U.S. overseas personnel. But placing more and more American troops overseas since the events of 9/11 has not made us safer either at home or abroad, not least because we have yet to get away from policies based on the double standard at the heart of all past imperialisms, the core double standard that allows us to wage covert wars against others while being outraged when others wage covert war on us. That core double standard did not ultimately save earlier empires, and it won't ultimately save us.

All of this resetting of America's security policy is entirely possible for "a continental power bounded by oceans to the east and west, and unthreatening neighbors to the north and south." All, indeed, are changes that others have canvassed before. There is currently a myriad of plans already in existence for defense cuts of considerable size, achievable without undermining national security -- plans that vary from the very modest to the super-ambitious. The Center for American Progress produced one in 2012, Rebalancing Our National Security, taking the U.S. defense budget back to 2006 levels. Chalmers Johnson produced another in 2010 with a more radical intent. He called it 10 Steps Towards Liquidating the Empire, 10 steps that were not dissimilar in kind from those proposed by Rachel Maddow in her widely acclaimed study titled Drift. As she wrote in 2012, "none of this is impossible.... We just need to revive the old idea of America as a deliberately peaceable nation. That's not simply our inheritance, it's our responsibility." It is indeed.


Before anyone throws up their hands in total horror at the very thought of the United States pulling back from so globally active a military stance, we would all do well to remember that prior to 1992 the United States was well used to operating in a bipolar world, one in which significant parts of the global order lay outside America's direct sphere of influence. We should have no wish to return to the tensions of the Cold War; but even so, there is value in the recognition that only since the Soviet Union collapsed has the United States been the one global superpower, under pressure to act directly in one theater of war after another. There is value in recognizing that, far from wanting to sustain the U.S. in its global policing role, we would do better to welcome the emergence of a new multipolar world, to recognize our limits within that emerging multipolar world, and to begin to live within those limits.

There is value, that is, in breaking free from (and emptying our minds of) the notion that American soldiers and politicians need to keep on doing globally in the next 70 years what they just happen to have been doing globally for the last 70, for when we set contemporary U.S. foreign policy against a much larger canvas than that -- a canvas taking in the whole of American history and the grandest of sweeps of our history to come-- it should become clear just how unusual the last 70 years have been, and how poor a guide they therefore are to how America should position itself globally in the 70 years to come.

These arguments are developed more fully in David Coates'
America in the Shadow of Empires (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

First posted, with full academic citations, at