2 Easy Ways to Shrink America’s Overseas Footprint
Cutting dysfunctional programs offers a start to ending American primacy.
During last month’s Democratic debate, a curious consensus emerged on stage among the candidates on foreign policy. When asked how they would wield American power in the Middle East, the candidates all but admitted that U.S. military dominance abroad no longer served the interests of the United States at home. Former Vice President Joe Biden compared the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which he voted for in the Senate, to America’s failure in Vietnam. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, one of Biden’s rivals for the centrist vote, proclaimed she had “long wanted to bring our troops home.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren pithily summed up her thoughts: “We need to get our combat troops out. They are not helping create more safety for the United States or the region.”
They’re right. Now is the opportune moment for the United States to detach itself from a commitment to global primacy defined by America’s Cold War past: its excessive defense budget (larger than the next seven countries combined) and military presence on all seven continents. As the historian Stephen Wertheim has written, “In the 21st century, finally rid of colonial empires and Cold War antagonism, America has the opportunity to practice responsible statecraft, directed toward the promotion of peace.”
There is a growing belief among foreign-policy experts that America’s overseas footprint is strategically untenable and financially unsustainable. Overseas adventures are also political poison. Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump weaponized this rhetoric against his Republican primary opponents and in the general election against Hillary Clinton—who, he was fond of noting, also voted for the Iraq War. In a special address from the White House in October 2019, the now president said, “We’re getting out. Let someone else fight over this long blood-stained sand. The job of our military is not to police the world.”
But a better U.S. foreign policy does not just mean avoiding another ground war in the Middle East. For even as aversion toward U.S. primacy has become an acceptable stance, that same establishment—which includes Biden—has warned against downsizing U.S. influence abroad out of concern for the security of countries that rely on American power.
The looming challenges posed by China, as well as other concerns, such as Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, have also derailed a practical discussion of how primacy can be abandoned. “China wants to replace the United States as the strongest and most influential power in Asia and beyond,” the Council on Foreign Relations warned in a recent report. Here is the logic: If the United States abandons primacy, it will cede control of world affairs to authoritarian regimes. The world needs U.S. dominance, even if it’s not that great for the United States itself.
But the United States can take concrete steps to end its primacy in global economic development and military spending, two of the most prominent areas of influence, without imperiling U.S. security. Democratizing food distribution and foreign aid, cutting and eliminating unnecessary military spending, and converting superfluous defense programs to peacetime purposes are all feasible steps that the United States can take to reduce its outsized influence in global affairs to the benefit of its allies and a more democratic foreign policy.
These changes require not just a change of presidents but a change in how Americans see their relationship to the world. The United States has global responsibilities, but it does not have global control. To remake America’s foreign policy, we must first be honest about the extent to which the country’s politics, economy, and military still constrict the ability for other regions or governments to solve or share responsibility for their problems.
However, U.S. primacy does not need to be squandered. Those seeking to remake U.S. foreign policy must therefore—at least initially—rely on the institutions that underpin U.S. primacy to end it. The United States can thus rely on its economic primacy to end a foreign policy—in terms of food inequity and military spending—that fails to accommodate the public’s interests and that makes militarism a fait accompli.
Food has been a major source of America’s primacy for nearly a century. Due to generous farm subsidies implemented during the Great Depression, by the mid-1960s the United States had become the world’s leading exporter of grain. In response, the U.S. government promoted cheap wheat exports and increased food aid through Public Law 480, also known as the Food for Peace program. The wheat not sold to developing countries, on highly concessional terms, was stockpiled. While this ensured relatively stable, predictable, and low food prices for those countries, it also left the United States with an unhealthy level of influence on global food markets, a system that both fuels inequality and conflict abroad and promotes the interests of giant multinational corporations over American farmers.
The last global food crisis was a prime example of this dysfunction. Between 2005 and 2008, global market prices for staples like corn, wheat, and rice doubled or tripled, some within months. This meant serious trouble for countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where citizens spend upwards of 75 percent of their incomes on food—more than half of which is imported from abroad. To put it simply, many millions of poor people in poor countries could not afford to buy or grow their own food—and they still cannot.
U.S. food primacy was the primary cause of the price shock. Pitched as a green solution to high oil prices (and backed with billions of dollars in subsidies), in 2005 the United States became the world’s leading producer of ethanol. Food prices tripled not because the world was not producing enough food; the problem was that the world’s biggest food producer had just removed a large percentage of its production from global supply. Nor has the ethanol boom been all that beneficial for American farmers, who financed it with little left to show. In 2018, net farm incomes (adjusted for inflation) sat at about $80 billion, about the same as in 2003. By comparison, during the same time total U.S. farm debts climbed from about $250 billion to almost $400 billion.
This power can be wielded for much better ends. Flexible-fuel SUVs powered (partly) by corn will not stop climate change, and multibillion-dollar subsidies for biofuels would be much better spent helping American farmers pay off the debts they accrued growing them. But this does not mean that the United States cannot use its existing primacy for good—indeed, when 1 out of 4 metric tons of corn and wheat exported globally comes from a U.S. farm, it must. The foreign aid budget must be increased, but equally significant will be increasing contributions to agricultural development programs in other countries to eventually replace that aid. The practice of dumping U.S. agricultural exports under the guise of aid hurts farmers in poor countries while diverting much-needed funds from health, education, and other areas of development; U.S. aid to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake is one flagrant example. It is also in clear violation of World Trade Organization law, a fact not lost on China when the United States accuses it of doing the same for steel.
On the military front, the United States must eliminate anachronistic defense programs that reflect an indefinite commitment to primacy. The most blatant example of these defense projects is the F-35 combat aircraft. Expected to cost American taxpayers a total of $1.5 trillion over 30 years, the F-35’s expense has made it too big to fail from the Defense Department’s perspective.
But the F-35 is also a manifestation of how the United States has relied on primacy through arms sales, cajoling allies and enemies alike to abide its dictates, often to the detriment of global stability. From its inception, the F-35 represented a relic of the Cold War—enticing current and prospective allies (no matter how checkered their human rights records) with U.S. predominance premised on massive air power. Possession of the F-35 would deter aggression from neighboring states—or so it was thought.
The F-35 therefore reifies the Cold War mentality of an arms race, as the technological fetishism surrounding the F-35 invariably offers comparisons with the inferiority of China’s own joint strike fighter, the J-20—which then forces China (and Russia) to reinvest in military production, exacerbating the impression of a looming new Cold War. The presumed implications of the F-35 for great and small powers alike are obvious: Align with U.S. military superiority, or face certain defeat in the event of a global conflict between the United States and China.
History shows, however, that coercive diplomacy through arms sales usually backfires. The Trump administration’s decision to cut off sales and production of the F-35 in Turkey, for instance, has only compelled Turkey to further cement diplomatic ties with Russia. There is no reason to expect that planned F-35 sales to countries such as Poland and Saudi Arabia will lessen great-power tensions between the United States and Russia or lessen Middle East tensions. Eliminating the F-35 can also be an opportunity for the United States to back preexisting treaties that regulate international arms sales. By hanging the F-35 over the heads of friends and foes like a proverbial Sword of Damocles, the United States’ coercive unilateralism has made a global problem worse.
Despite the dubious benefits of the F-35 to U.S. national security, calls to end production of the plane have gone unheeded. Justifications for continued production of the F-35 have been grounded in the desire for the United States to maintain air superiority but also to generate jobs at home. The plane’s contractor, Lockheed Martin, boasts that the F-35 is “powering job creation for America and its allies” in approximately “45 states and Puerto Rico”; while Trump promotes the F-35 as a jobs creator and an opportunity to “celebrate the triumphant return of American manufacturing”—in his view.
Ending sales of the F-35 program abroad must therefore coincide with a renewed project of defense conversion at home, one that echoes efforts at the end of the Cold War by a coalition of grassroots activists, congressional officials, and community members. The vast national economic network of defense industries, and the jobs and economic growth they have historically engendered, has often stymied coalition building on behalf of a peacetime economy and has subverted social democracy in the name of military Keynesianism. (Even Sen. Bernie Sanders has been forced to defend F-35 deployment in Vermont, given the “reality of the damn plane.”) Since 77 percent of Americans are opposed to using defense funds to create jobs in their districts, favoring instead sectors like health care, infrastructure, and clean energy, this is smart defense—and foreign—policy.
A wholesale rejection of U.S. primacy in these terms is unlikely to come from the current foreign-policy establishment—one willing to entertain the decline of primacy but largely in the abstract. It will most likely require those on the anti-war left and right—or the right Democratic presidential candidate—to make these changes. But doing so will lesson geopolitical tensions, making the United States more welcomed abroad and more prosperous at home.
Michael Brenes is the Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University.