The Politics of American Militarism

The military's evolving role in U.S. foreign policy decision-making

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Most Americans would be shocked to learn that something like 95 percent of the foreign affairs budget of the federal government is devoted to the military. National security accounts for about twenty percent of the entire federal budget, but the public seems to have an altogether different perspective: According to a CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted in March of this year, Americans think foreign affairs make up forty percent of the budget, with thirty percent of the budget devoted to the military and the remaining ten percent devoted to foreign aid. Despite the high numbers given the military, the militarism built into the federal budget seems to spark very little concern.

It's no surprise that the average Americans doesn't realize how little we really spend on foreign assistance, or even how much we spent on the military. Foreign aid is a little under one percent of the federal budget, but the public discourse focuses on it so much it's easy to assume it takes up far more of our resources than it does. Similarly, the stupendous cost of the military--with its millions of employees and soldiers, 761 foreign bases, and thousands of U.S.-based facilities--simply doesn't compute with the public. Further, the military has a built-in constituency: supporting the soldiers is a patriotic duty; advocating on behalf civilians in foreign policy, like the State Department's Foreign Service Officers, is at best enabling limp-wristed decadence.

9-11 Ten Years LaterIt is precisely that imbalance between the military and civilian parts of America's foreign policy that is the subject of Stephen Glain's new book State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America's Empire. "American militarism," he writes, "is unique for its civilian provenance." It didn't come at the point of a gun, or with the military formally declaring its control of the government. This militarism is no conspiracy, but is rather a natural consequence of "a uniquely American impulse to choose force over statesmanship."

Glain certainly makes for a compelling argument. The history he charts, which begins in 1947 and ends with the George W. Bush presidency, is extensive and well sourced. The popular perception that Bush was uniquely wrong to abdicate his foreign policy decisions to the military is simply not borne out by our own history. From almost the moment World War II ended, the military has exercised an outsized influence on foreign policy.

At the same time, the State Department is no hapless victim. While I understand Glain's desire to explain American militarism, he does not emphasize enough that the State Department's terrible leadership is as much to blame for the controlling prominence of the Defense Department as anything else. This happened almost regardless of the party in the White House. In the early 1960s, for example, Secretary of State Dean Rusk deliberately sought to remove Foreign Service Officers who rejected the Domino Theory, the idea that a wave of monolithic communism was sweeping across Southeast Asia. Rusk held on to provably false ideas of Maoist China as "a colonial Russian government" (which he proclaimed in 1951 and never rejected), and steadily removed the State Department officials and employees who used their deep knowledge of Asian politics to reject the anti-communist hyperventilation that had gripped Washington.

In many ways, the process Glain describes reminds me of how, post-2001, the Bush administration deliberately ignored its own regional experts when crafting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Glain is certainly correct to note that this is a systemic problem, the State Department isn't exactly a good alternative to the military's overpowering presence in foreign policy. Even so, the military's gradual assumption of normally civilian roles in foreign policy has had disastrous consequences, and Glain deserves tremendous credit for arguing it so forcefully.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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