America’s Forever Wars Have Come Back Home
It’s no coincidence that, after years of fighting abroad, the United States is beset with paranoia, loss of trust, and increasingly bitter divisions.
“Fortress America” is a derogatory term that usually refers to extreme forms of isolationism. Last week, however, CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria gave the idea a new and equally disturbing twist. In a thought-provoking column in the Washington Post, Zakaria described how excessive concerns for security are making the United States more “imperial” in appearance than the old colonial empires, with embassies, public buildings, and even the U.S. Capitol itself surrounded by barricades, moats, or fortifications. Instead of presenting a welcoming visage to the outside world and to the American people, one that conveys confidence, strength, and openness, America’s public face appears uncertain, vulnerable, fearful, and distant.
According to Zakaria, such concerns have also encouraged an excessive regard for secrecy, new layers of hierarchy and restriction, and a timid and sclerotic approach to public policy. In his words, “the U.S. government now resembles a dinosaur—a large, lumbering beast with much body and little brain, increasingly well-protected but distant from ordinary people and unresponsive to the real challenges that confront the nation.”
I couldn’t agree more, having noticed much the same tendency a few years ago. But the big question is: Why is this happening? Is it simply because the world has gotten more dangerous, or is there a connection between how the United States has been acting abroad and various threats to liberty at home?
I think there is. What follows is somewhat speculative, but there are several obvious ways in which America’s recent conduct abroad has led to greater insecurity, paranoia, loss of trust, and division within the United States, so much so that officials now have to erect barricades all over Washington (and in plenty of other cities as well).
Reason No. 1 is the familiar problem of “blowback.” During the “unipolar moment,” U.S. officials were convinced that a crusading foreign policy would be good for the United States and good for the rest of the world. As former President George W. Bush put it a few years before he took office, remaking the world in America’s image would usher in “generations of democratic peace.” Instead, we’ve seen a steady deterioration in democracy and eroding security at home and abroad. Whatever Americans’ intentions may have been, U.S. actions have sometimes caused enormous suffering in other countries—through sanctions, covert action, support for thuggish dictators, and a remarkable ability to turn a blind eye to the brutal conduct of close allies—not to mention America’s own far-flung military activities. Given the countries the United States has invaded, the bombs it’s dropped, and the drone strikes it’s conducted, it is any wonder that some people in other places wish Americans ill?
Bush used to say that terrorists came after the United States because they “hate our freedoms,” but there is a mountain of evidence—including the official 9/11 Commission Report—showing that what drove anti-American extremism was opposition to U.S. policy. Given what the United States had done—especially in the Middle East—it was entirely predictable that some groups would try to hit it back, and that a few of them would occasionally succeed. To say this is not to justify their actions or imply everything the United States has done was wrong; it is simply to remind us that U.S. actions are a key part of this story too.
Second, the vast sums Americans have spent trying to nation-build, spread democracy, or defeat all “terrorists of global reach” inevitably left fewer resources available to help Americans at home (including the veterans of the country’s protracted wars). The United States still spends more on national security than the next six or seven countries combined, and there’s little doubt that all that money has produced an impressive amount of military power. But the United States doesn’t have the world’s best primary and secondary schools; the best health care; best WiFi; best railways, roads, or bridges; or best power grids, and it lacks well-funded public institutions that can serve U.S. citizens’ needs in a pandemic or enable the country to maintain the technological edge it will need to compete with other countries for the rest of this century. Looking back, the over $6 trillion spent on what Bush dubbed the “war on terror”—including the money spent on unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—could surely have been spent helping Americans live more comfortable and secure lives at home (or merely left in taxpayers’ pockets). Add to the list the decisions to promote rapid globalization and financial deregulation, which did significant harm to some sectors of the economy and led to the 2008 financial crisis, and you begin to see why confidence in the elite has taken a hit.
Third, running an ambitious and highly interventionist foreign policy—and, in particular, one that tries to manipulate, manage, and ultimately shape the internal politics of foreign countries—requires a lot of deception. To sustain public support for it, elites have to spend a lot of time inflating threats, exaggerating benefits, acting in secret, and manipulating what the public is told. But eventually at least some of the truth comes out, dealing another blow to public trust. And when actions abroad prompt blowback at home, government officials feel compelled to impose even more restrictions and start monitoring what ordinary citizens are doing, fueling suspicion and distrust of government even more.
To make matters worse, the architects of failure are rarely, if ever, held accountable. Instead of acknowledging their mistakes openly, even discredited former officials can head off to corporate boards, safe sinecures, or lucrative consulting firms, hoping to return to power as soon as their party regains the White House. Once back in office, they are free to repeat their previous mistakes, backed by a chorus of pundits whose recommendations never change no matter how often they’ve failed.
Why should ordinary Americans trust an elite that has misled them repeatedly, failed to deliver as promised, accrued an ever-larger share of the nation’s wealth, and suffered so few consequences for past errors? At this point it becomes easy to persuade someone that “the system is rigged” and that mainstream media is filled with “fake news.” Donald Trump didn’t learn how to lie in 2016—on the contrary, his career was founded on lies from day one—but he got elected president in part because Americans no longer believed anyone could be relied upon to tell the truth.
Weave these strands together, and you have a fertile environment for conspiracy theories, especially after Americans have been told over and over that a vast array of shadowy and ruthless adversaries were plotting to snatch their freedom away from them. In the 1950s, it was the fear of communist infiltration; after 9/11 it was the supposedly mortal peril of Islam, or immigrants, or a “refugee invasion.” Once you’ve been persuaded that the Islamic State posed an existential threat (as opposed to being a serious but manageable problem), it might not be hard to convince you that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring out of a pizza parlor. Too bad we didn’t spend more time worrying about some real dangers, like a new and highly contagious virus.
What I am suggesting is that America’s actions abroad helped create the dangers Americans now face at home. The United States set out to remake the world in its image, and when some parts of that world pushed back, it reacted the way that most societies do when they are attacked. Americans got scared, lashed out even more, stopped thinking clearly and strategically, and looked around for someone to blame. Instead of seeking out leaders who were genuinely interested in solving the real problems the United States faced, Americans ended up with the performative patriotism of a Ted Cruz or a Mike Pompeo—all swagger and no substance.
I’m not the first to point this out, of course, and the ideas sketched above are surely not the full story. Social media helped get us here, along with the emergence of the galaxy of media figures who figured out you could get rich being hateful, outrageous, and deceitful. I think Julian Zelizer is right to pin some of the blame on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose desire for power alone did more than anyone to destroy the norms of bipartisan cooperation and compromise. And the Republican Party’s decision to pin its political future on gerrymandering, voter suppression, and mobilizing a shrinking base and not on trying to appeal to the median voter is surely part of the problem, too, along with the twisted soul of Trump himself.
But the connection between imperial adventures abroad and domestic turmoil at home should not be overlooked. President James Madison once warned that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,” and we would do well to reflect on his warning today. Endless campaigns abroad unleash a host of political forces—militarism, secrecy, enhanced executive authority, xenophobia, faux patriotism, demagoguery, etc.—all of them contrary to the civic virtues on which a healthy democracy depends. If President Joe Biden genuinely wants to heal America’s divisions on the home front, he needs to start doing less elsewhere. Otherwise, the United States is going to need some bigger walls, and I don’t mean on its borders.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.