We like to think of the United States as a peace-loving country, but our history tells a somewhat different story. According to one calculation, we have been at war for 227 years and at peace only 16 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
This record suggests that military conflict is our normal state of affairs. We have spent untold trillions of dollars on defense and warfare, of course, and the cost in American lives and suffering has been high.
We are the world’s only global military power, with an estimated 200,000 troops stationed around the world. We have thousands of military personnel in the Middle East and Africa. We have a large military presence in Asia, including 80,000 troops in Japan and South Korea. We have many troops stationed with NATO allies in Europe.
A question that’s too rarely asked is, what do the American people think of this?
My sense is that most Americans like the fact that the United States is a global power and want it to play an active leadership role. They may grow tired of endless wars, but not enough to demand that we diminish our role in the world. A majority of Americans favor global trade, recognizing its benefits for all partners. They favor open markets and oppose isolationism. They support our alliances and like the idea of working with partner nations to meet economic and security challenges.
They view China as a strategic competitor and are concerned about its spectacular rise, but they favor engagement and cooperation in areas such as climate change and terrorism. They have a clear-eyed view of the threats we face, including cyberattacks, the spread of nuclear weapons and more.
Most Americans are wary of authoritarian states. They support the rule of law and efforts to fight corruption. They back international cooperation in areas ranging from preventing conflict to protecting wildlife and developing alternative energy sources. They want the United States to be a benign power that enables the spread of democracy, political freedom and human rights.
They struggle with the question of intervention but rarely oppose it. When a U.S. leader orders military action, the American people give overwhelming support.
I believe our global military commitments need a lot more scrutiny. When we intervene in conflicts, we should consider the cost, the risks and benefits, and exactly what we’re getting ourselves into.
We need to remember that there are always trade-offs. Money that we spend on warfare is money we won’t spend on diplomacy, development and aid – or on domestic needs. The important question of how to prioritize and allocate finite resources is largely absent from the American debate.
An even bigger question is, how many lives are lost each year because of our military commitments?
Decisions on intervention were some of the most difficult I faced during my years in the House of Representatives. Asked to send U.S. military personnel abroad on dangerous missions, I worried about the impact on these men and women and their families. Would I be willing to bear such a burden for my country? Or, to put it in specific terms, would I be willing to give my life in combat in Afghanistan? The dilemma caused me a great deal of personal anxiety.
It’s interesting that many of the most serious debates about the wisdom of intervention took place not among elected officials but among military leaders. They knew that the men and women under their command would bear the principal burden of the decisions we made.
Matters of military intervention are enormously complex, and there are no simple answers to the question of what role America should play in conflicts around the world. But our government’s actions require much greater transparency and accountability. The bottom line is, these decisions need vigorous, sustained public debate.
By Lee H. Hamilton