Stephen M. Walt

Imbalance of power

Why does the United States spend more on national security than the rest of the world combined, and why do so many members of the foreign policy community believe that it is either in our interest or our responsibility to interfere in so many places around the world?   As I’ve noted before, one of ...

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.

Why does the United States spend more on national security than the rest of the world combined, and why do so many members of the foreign policy community believe that it is either in our interest or our responsibility to interfere in so many places around the world?  

As I’ve noted before, one of the most striking things about the recent economic downturn is its scant impact on America’s global agenda. States and local governments are cutting budgets drastically, firms are laying off millions of employees, families across the country are trimming expenses and scaling back plans, and even SecDef Robert Gates is taking a modest whack at the armed services’ budget request (though the actual budget will still increase next year). Meanwhile, the Obama administration just revised its budget deficit forecast upwards, to $1.8 trillion (we’re talking real money here). Yet our foreign policy ambitions and international commitments — in other words, the number of costly items on the foreign policy agenda — seems not to have been affected at all.

One explanation is that this unbalanced situation is just left over from the Cold War, when we had good reason to spend a lot on defense and maintain a big overseas military presence. George H. W. Bush did cut defense spending when the Cold War ended (remember the “peace dividend?”), but it started creeping back up again under Clinton, who had his own problems disciplining DOD and kept U.S. forces busy with “dual containment” and various acts of nation-building. It continued to rise once the “war on terror” began in earnest after 9/11, and is pretty much back at late-Cold War levels now.

A second explanation combines some form of “hegemonic stability theory” and the theory of collective action. As Samuel Huntington, Tom Friedman, William Wohlforth, Michael Mandelbaum, and many others have argued in recent years, American dominance supposedly reinforces peace among the great powers, preserves a more-or-less open world economy, keeps the sea lanes free (except near Somalia), and provides assorted other collective goods. The United States does these things our of its own self-interest (or so the argument runs), but that inevitably means that other states can free-ride on its efforts. So the United States ends up spending a lot more than our allies do as a percentage of GDP, but we can’t cut back because it would supposedly jeopardize vital interests. In short, we’re stuck.

A third explanation might be America’s liberal ideology and its sense of mission. In this view, the U.S. spends more because its citizens believe in spreading American ideals around the world. It takes a lot of hard and soft power to do this, and it sometimes leads to costly quagmires or hostile backlashes, but it is our historic mission and we should not shirk it. (Funny how every global power sees itself this way: Britain had the “white man’s burden,” France la mission civilizatrice, and the former Soviet Union claimed it was leading the world to the socialist paradise.)

These explanations aren’t mutually exclusive, and they probably help explain why the United States spends and does more than others do. But they don’t tell us whether our current level of effort is excessive, optimal, or actually self-defeating. On that issue, I recommend Christopher Preble’s excellent new book, The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free. (Full disclosure: it’s in a book series I co-edit, although I wasn’t the series editor who reviewed this particular book). Preble tackles the familiar justifications for American dominance head-on, and shows that the usual pieties about global stability or spreading democracy are far from airtight.

Unlike Preble, I still think a margin of superiority is a good thing, but I agree that we’ve got a much bigger margin than we need and we often use it in the wrong way. Instead of exploiting our favorable geopolitical position and acting like an offshore balancer, and playing hard-to-get so that other major powers will bear a greater share of the burden, the United States has declared itself to be the “indispensable power” and decided that it’s got to take charge nearly everywhere. The result, as you may have noticed, has not been all the salutary. Instead of stabilizing the key strategic areas of the world — something we used to be pretty good at — in recent years the United States has been an actively destabilizing force. And instead of spreading U.S. values, we’ve ended up undermining them here at home and discrediting them abroad.

Moreover, as Preble notes, excessive U.S. dominance encourages others to act irresponsibly. To use Barry Posen’s apt terms, states either “free ride” on Uncle Sam (think Japan, or much of Europe), or they engage in “reckless driving” (think Israel, Georgia last summer, or maybe Pakistan), because they are confident we’ll bail them out if they get into trouble. 

Part of the problem here is structural: when you’re the 800-lb gorilla,  it’s hard to imagine that there are things you can’t do and its easier to succumb to a sense of hubris. That’s what happened to Bush in Iraq, and it may be happening to Obama in Central Asia no matter how much he tries to guard against it. But there’s another explanation for America’s disproportionate dominance and continued global activism: an imbalance of power between organized interests who tend to favor greater involvement and those who tend to argue for restraint.

America’s rise to global primacy was accompanied  by the creation of a well-developed set of institutions whose stated purpose was to overcome isolationist sentiments and to promote greater international activism on the part of the United States. American liberal internationalism didn’t just arise spontaneously as America’s relative power grew, it was actively encouraged by groups like the Council on Foreign Relations (founded in 1921), and a whole array of other groups and organizations. These institutions don’t always agree on what specific actions the United States ought to take, and they aren’t the sort of clandestine capitalist conspiracy depicted by Lyndon Larouche and other fringe groups. But together they stack the deck in favor doing more rather than less.

Who do I have in mind? For starters, there are various civic action groups like the Foreign Policy Association, the World Affairs Councils, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or the United Nations Association. Then there are mainstream international affairs institutions like the Council on Foreign Relations, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, or the Boston Committee on Foreign Relations. (More disclosure: I’ve been a member of all three, and still belong to two). Add to the mix heavyweight think tanks like the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the American Enterprise Institute, or the Heritage Foundation. Again, the people who work in these groups often disagree about specific policy choices, but virtually all of them tend to favor the energetic use of American power overseas.

These institutions of international activism get funding from foundations like the Ford or MacArthur (on the center-left), or Bradley and Smith Richardson Foundation (on the right), as well as American corporations who have an obvious interest in keeping the United States busy around the world.  Wealthy individuals with particular foreign concerns help finance their activities as well. The people who work in these organizations do so because they believe in the mission, but notice that pressing an activitist agenda also creates more government positions to aspire to. After all, if the United States had a more restrained foreign policy and a smaller foreign affairs establishment, there would be fewer jobs to compete for whenever the White House changed hands.

But wait, there’s more! In addition to the various general-purpose groups named above, there are also a vast array of special interest think tanks, committees, groups, and lobbies with their own particular international agendas. Whether the issue is Cuba, Darfur, the Middle East, Armenia, arms control, trade, population, human rights, climate policy, or what have you, there is bound to be some group pressing Washington to focus more energy and attention on their particular pet issue. And with 535 Congresspersons to choose from, there’s a good chance you can find at least one to promote your agenda on the Hill. And let’s not forget that lots of countries have gotten pretty good at manipulating the Washington scene, often by appealing to our own ambitions and telling us how much they really need our help.

By the way, I won’t be offended if you toss in public policy programs like John Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies, Tuft’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, or my own employer, the Harvard Kennedy School. These institutions are dedicated to various forms of social engineering at home and abroad, and to preparing students for careers of public service. I’m all for that, because there are in fact plenty of big problems out there and I’d rather they were addressed by people who were trained to do so. But no matter how well we train our students to weigh alternatives carefully, the raison d’etre of these programs reinforces the same message: don’t just sit there, DO SOMETHING!

By contrast, there are at most a handful of institutions whose core mission is to get the United States to take a slightly smaller role on the world stage. There is the CATO Institute (where Preble works) and maybe a few people at the Center for American Progress and the New America Foundation. And there are plenty of peace groups out there with an anti-interventionist agenda. But these groups are hardly a match for the array of forces on the other side. And apart from Steve Chapman at the Chicago Tribune, I can’t think of a major mainstream columnist or media commentator who is a consistent voice for a more restrained foreign policy. Lots of pundits want a smarter foreign policy (though they often disagree about what that would be), and most of them have a pet issue or two that they like to flog, but how many have been arguing for doing somewhat less as a general rule?

In short, what I’m suggesting here is that America’s role in the world today is shaped by two imbalances of power, not just one. The first is the gap between U.S. capabilities and everyone else’s, a situation that has some desirable features (especially for us) but one that also encourages the United States to do too much and allows others to do either too little or too many of the wrong things. The second imbalance is between organized interests whose core mission is constantly pushing the U.S. government to do more and in more places, and the far-weaker groups who think we might be better off showing a bit more restraint.

Ermal Meta/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.