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The Opportunity Cost of Endless War is Missing From the Democratic Debates

Foreign policy has been largely absent in the Democratic presidential debates . That has to change.

Analysis | Global Crises

The over-militarized foreign policy of the United States is a significant obstacle to the pursuit of bold, progressive domestic policies, but you likely won’t hear that at the Democratic debate this week or in the ensuing punditry about how each candidate will “pay for” their proposals. Few candidates have pointed out that while there is political momentum for progressive ideas, these ideas cannot be put into action unless there is a profound reorientation of U.S. foreign policy away from endless war. Democrats need to start a serious conversation about the domestic opportunity costs of a bloated defense budget and a failed and open-ended “War on Terror.” 

The U.S. spent $2 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, $6.4 trillion on all war since 9/11, and Congress just approved a $738 billion 2020 Pentagon budget. These numbers don’t even begin to take into account the thousands of lives lost in Afghanistan and in the other countries and regions where the United States has waged it’s so-called “War on Terror.” But they do offer a quantifiable measure of the taxpayer resources devoted to endless wars and the potential funding that could have supported a host of domestic programs.  

To put these into context: the trillions spent using the military to fight terrorism could have paid off over one-quarter of the national debt, over thirty-one percent of the estimated ten-year cost of Elizabeth Warren’s $20.5 trillion Medicare For All plan, forty-percent of Bernie Sander’s $16 trillion Green New Deal, over sixty years of Pete Buttigieg’s plan for early childhood and K-12 education or nearly fifty years of Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.

Candidates argue that their plans would create jobs and drive investment and economic growth. The current allocation of national resources to a military behemoth is one of the least efficient ways to create jobs. Investments in education, health care, infrastructure, and clean energy all create more jobs per dollar spent.

And the economic inefficiencies of defense spending don’t even begin to address the environmental impacts.

According to Brown University's Cost of War Project, the Pentagon is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gasses of any institution in the world. It emits more than some entire industrialized countries. The climate crisis makes it even more urgent that the United States reduces its military footprint instead of sustaining a military behemoth that spews greenhouse gases.

Moreover, those advocating for global emissions reductions must recognize that such reductions will require an unprecedented level of human collaboration across borders. That level of cooperation is unimaginable if the U.S. pursues a confrontational foreign policy centered on military domination rather than diplomatic collaboration and partnerships. A cold war with China, in particular, poses a scenario pitting the top two carbon emitters against one another in a military competition that would almost certainly preclude cooperation on emissions reductions, as well as a host of other trade, human rights, and environmental matters.  

Endless war has other negative effects on America at home, including: military interventions abroad stoking racism at home, the militarization of police and the treatment of marginalized communities as enemy combatants. 

Indeed, to justify the current militarized foreign policy, there’s been a need for an ever-increasing threat picture combined with continuous demonization of select non-Americans. It is not a big leap to redirect that demonization towards immigrants or specific racial or religious groups - American or non-American. 

If Thursday’s debate is like the others, little time and energy will be put into a discussion of foreign policy or its opportunity costs. But a great deal of the debate, and the ensuing punditry, will focus on the costs of individual policy proposals, often in the context of a national debt that exceeds $22 trillion.

Whether at this debate or the next, Democratic candidates will eventually have to address the reality that their proposals — bold and moderate alike — cannot come to fruition unless they are coupled with a reorientation of U.S. foreign policy away from global military domination and the endless wars that come with it. 

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