When confronted with hot spots around the world, the U.S. has been moving away from diplomatic approaches and toward showing force more often, says new book
Iraq. Afghanistan. Haiti. Bosnia. Libya. Somalia. Liberia. Croatia. The list of countries where the U.S. military or special forces have been engaged over the last three decades is long. But does that mean that the U.S. is relying on military power more than it used to—and more than it should?
According to a new book co-authored by Monica Duffy Toft, professor of international politics, the U.S. is indeed engaging in military interventions more often than before, and for different reasons.
“The rate of interventions has accelerated over time, and since the end of the Cold War, we’ve been pursuing fewer and lower national interests,” says Toft, director of the Center for Strategic Studies and academic dean at The Fletcher School. “We are increasing our levels of hostility while other states are de-escalating. To me, as an American citizen and as a scholar who cares about peace and ending human suffering, that’s really distressing.”
Toft founded the Center for Strategic Studies’ Military Intervention Project, through which 40 Fletcher graduate students and postdocs researched this issue for five years and compiled a comprehensive dataset that is now publicly available. She co-authored the new book based on that research, Dying by the Sword: The Militarization of U.S. Foreign Policy, with Sidita Kushi, former research director at the center and now an assistant professor of political science at Bridgewater State University.
Here are five key takeaways.
The U.S. has switched to a “force first” approach to foreign policy.
Toft calls this the rise of kinetic diplomacy, “the use of force first over other tools of state.” She says, “Traditionally, you think of diplomacy first and use of force as last. But we’ve seen a weakening of the Department of State and the strengthening of commanders-in-chief.”
The book argues that the U.S. has become overly reliant on the use of force. As U.S. Department of Defense budgets have risen, the Department of State budget—which funds diplomatic efforts— has remained static at only about 5% of what is spent on defense, Toft says.
Military interventions are increasing.
According to the project’s data, the U.S. has been involved in 393 military interventions in other nations since 1776. More than 200 of those have been since 1945, and 114 in the post-Cold War era (after 1989).
Just since the year 2000, the project documents 72 interventions. And in one region of the world, the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. has been involved in 77 military interventions, mostly since the 1940s.
Intervention means more than boots on the ground.
The project uses the term military intervention to refer to both the threat of use of force and the actual deployment of troops and materiel into another country.
“More often than not we display the use of force,” Toft says. That might involve sending a U.S. carrier group to the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, for example.
“Actually using force, interstate wars, are quite rare,” according to the analysis, Toft says, although “some academics might say we are under counting, given the way the United States doesn’t officially declare war often.”
Over the entire span of U.S. history, the display of force has been more common than the use of force. However, in more recent years, the use of force has become more common than the display, Toft says.
The stakes are changing—and so are the odds.
Toft also argues that the U.S. is engaging in military actions that are not as central to its national interest, with lower odds of winning, than it did before.
Since the start of the twentieth century, the strongest nations in the world—known as major and great powers—have been fighting harder and winning less often, she says. “In the nineteenth century, they had a 9 in 10 chance of prevailing. And then by 1950, it's 50/50.”
Pointing to U.S. involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan, neither of which ended in victory, she says, “It's much more difficult today.” That’s another argument for reconsidering the increased reliance on military intervention.
The U.S. needs to invest more in diplomacy.
Toft likens the current state of U.S. foreign policy to a game of whack-a-mole, in which the U.S. sees issues popping up and has “only one way of dealing with them, which is the hammer” of military force.
The drawbacks of such a foreign policy approach include siphoning taxpayer dollars away from other priorities, Toft says. She notes that spending $1 million on defense produces about seven jobs, while spending the same money on elementary and secondary schools would produce 20 jobs.
Overreliance on force rather than diplomacy, intelligence gathering, economic statecraft, and the powers of persuasion can also harm the U.S. reputation abroad, causing it to be seen as a threat and to lose its influence, Toft says. “The book is basically a battle cry for strengthening the Department of State.”
“Americans think that the United States should be engaged. I’m not calling for an isolationist position,” she says. “I’m calling for more restraint, particularly when it comes to the use of force.”