Want to Win the Midterms? Spend Less on War
The intensification of the liberal-neoconservative alliance under Trump is not good news for Democrats.
In April 1953, newly elected U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower used his “Cross of Iron” speech to make a plea for multilateral peace and disarmament, lamenting the need for nations to “spend unprecedented money and energy for armaments.” Spiraling military expenditure, according to the decorated army general, was properly regarded as a theft from impoverished citizens living in a postwar world badly in need of food, housing, schools, and hospitals.
This explicit linkage of domestic and foreign policy was a key theme of the Eisenhower administration. His New Look strategy sought a balance between economic prosperity and the exigencies of prosecuting an emerging Cold War. Although military spending remained high under his leadership—the United States built nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons during his tenure—he resisted pressure to expand the defense budget. Before leaving office, he warned against subordinating public welfare to an ever-increasing security apparatus, one whose self-fulfilling logic—what Eisenhower dubbed the “military-industrial complex”—endangered domestic liberties and peaceful diplomacy.
His fellow Republicans failed to heed this warning—as have Democrats in the decades since.
For progressives today, breaking with the bipartisan consensus that surrounds U.S. militarism and national security is a moral and strategic imperative. In fact, combining a more measured approach to these issues—the United States currently accounts for more than a third of global military expenditures—with an ambitious domestic policy agenda could help form a winning platform as Democrats approach the midterm elections next month and a must-win presidential contest in 2020. Putting an end to unnecessary military overspending, as well as incredibly costly wars that have inflicted great harm, would not only provide a boon to the national purse but also could find a receptive and ready-made constituency among U.S. voters.
A clear majority of Americans believe that the U.S. military is currently too strong or strong enough, while only 23 percent think the country should play a leading role in solving international problems, according to recent Gallup polls. At a time when Russia—identified by Democrats as America’s primary geopolitical adversary—has scaled back its comparatively low military spending, and the U.S. public favors improved relations over further confrontation with Russia, siphoning off more money for the military makes little sense.
Although worries about terrorism remain prevalent, domestic issues such as education, jobs, health care, the economy, social security, and poverty feature prominently among the policy priorities of U.S. citizens, a Pew poll found earlier this year. The military was not among the public’s top 15 concerns. In his 2016 campaign, now-President Donald Trump opportunistically seized on this trend, as well as the hawkish outlook of his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton, highlighting the likely costs of a foreign policy disposed to conflict escalation and military overreach. A Democratic formula to beat Trump will inevitably involve coupling a more judicious approach to the military with a renewed emphasis on the domestic issues that animate voters.
This policy shift would also help to reconcile Democratic rhetoric and policy behavior, which since Trump took office last year have been badly out of step. Democrats cannot credibly maintain that Trump is an authoritarian threat to civil liberties or presents an increased risk of war with Iran and other countries while also passing laws in Congress that grant his administration pervasive spying powers and new means to wage war. Ironing out these inconsistencies will ensure the party is in a better position to face the electorate and win elections. Democrats must no longer reflexively buttress government and military power.
Of course, a change of this magnitude would not be straightforward. Few issues are as sacrosanct in Washington as the military. Successive presidents from both parties have allocated extraordinary amounts of public money to defense—$717 billion for the 2019 fiscal year—and increased the federal deficit, all with significant bipartisan support. As Foreign Policy’s Stephen M. Walt has written, policymakers face a number of political and institutional incentives that obstruct meaningful changes to defense policy, many of which have little to do with protecting the United States.
A major ideological shift in the Democratic Party is required. Contemporary Democratic militarism is not an historical oddity, or simply the result of a more general societal shift in attitudes post-9/11. Rather, it has been an abiding feature of the party’s worldview since World War II, traceable through the Truman and Kennedy administrations.
That the liberal interventionists at the top of the party have now found common cause with, and have helped to rehabilitate the reputations of, prominent neoconservatives is therefore not surprising. Both schools of thought share fundamental assumptions about the beneficence of U.S. power operating on a global scale. Although neocons are more overt in their enmity toward international institutions, which they see as a constraint on U.S. power, liberal interventionists largely share the view that the use of military force is an effective means of shaping the world in line with U.S. values and interests.
An unfortunate corollary of this outlook has been Democrats signing off on some of the most retrograde foreign-policy decisions of recent years—President Barack Obama’s escalation of a duplicitous program of targeted drone killings and the intervention in Libya in 2011 are two notable examples.
The intensification of the liberal-neoconservative alliance under Trump is not good news for Democrats. The party needs to mobilize its progressive base and energize young voters, many of whom became politicized against the backdrop of the Iraq War and global financial crisis. Forming a coalition with the architects of these disasters will likely produce the opposite effect.
And yet, Clinton’s loss in 2016 has undermined the conventional wisdom of establishment Democrats, creating an ideological vacuum on foreign policy that the left of the party has begun to fill. Last year, in an address at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Sen. Bernie Sanders—the Vermont socialist who challenged Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination—articulated his alternative vision for a “sensible and effective foreign policy.” Invoking Eisenhower by name, Sanders argued for a wider conception of foreign policy, one that spoke to the intersection of U.S. security with issues like domestic and global inequality, climate change and energy security, and the need to foster positive working relations with international partners. He was unsparing in his critique of U.S. interventionism, calling for moral consistency in American values and the protection of human rights at home and abroad. Since the campaign, he has continued to critique U.S. militarism. In an essay for FP this year, he argued that Congress should reclaim its constitutionally mandated authority over the decision to wage war, a power it has ceded to the executive branch.
This line of thinking is not confined to Sanders. Other rising democratic socialists, such as presumptive incoming Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, have mobilized supporters on a similar platform. While perceptions remain that the left wing of the party has been slow to devise a comprehensive international agenda—during the 2016 primaries Sanders faced criticism for placing an undue focus on domestic issues and for delays in assembling a foreign-policy team—recent victories have generated widespread curiosity about what such a plan might entail. Numerous opinion columns have asked that very question in recent months, and momentum is growing for a new approach from the left.
In order to win in 2020, Democrats should embrace the left’s ideas, not fight them. The basis for cooperation exists; working to redress the Trump administration’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris agreement on climate change, and improved relations with Cuba are obvious opportunities for intraparty unity. However, in other areas, Democrats should follow the left’s lead. For example, the party should seek to de-escalate tensions with Russia, find diplomatic solutions to civil war in Syria and nuclear disarmament in North Korea, adopt a more even-handed stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and end U.S. facilitation of the Saudi-led coalition’s brutal war in Yemen. Democrats should also work to promote multilateral solutions to major world problems such as global inequality and displacement, rethink failed counterterrorism strategies, and mount a robust defense of citizens’ privacy and civil liberties.
Of course, trimming defense spending, ending costly wars, and reducing a vast overseas military presence would only help to pay for a portion of the domestic socioeconomic programs—such as Medicare for all and tuition-free higher education—that many on the left have in mind. But it would not be mere symbolism, either. A truly progressive global vision has the potential to build a more prosperous and safer country, to restore mutual trust and cooperation with allies in a more democratic international system, to help safeguard the futures and freedoms of U.S. citizens and people across the world, and to win elections.
Ending the bipartisan pact with Republicans is a prerequisite if Democrats are to achieve these goals.