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Bacevich: Get out of NATO, shut down combatant commands

In his new book, the long time US foreign policy critic says some radical approaches are in order, ‘After the Apocalypse.’

The United States needs to make a major overhaul of its alliances and partnerships in the world, and it needs to rethink which of its existing commitments truly protect the vital interests of the United States. 

In light of the devastating effects of the pandemic on the country, including the loss of more than 600,000 people, we cannot afford the conventional understanding of national security that has prevailed up till now. Above all, we have to shed the self-congratulatory and self-justifying notion of American exceptionalism that has so warped our thinking about our foreign policy.

These are just some of the provocative ideas that Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich proposes in his new book After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed

More: The experience of the pandemic ought to have exploded our militarized approach to national security once and for all. While U.S. forces have been engaged in hostilities for twenty years to ward off a hypothetical future threat, something much more dangerous took the country almost completely unawares and killed more than half a million Americans in less than a year. The national security state was utterly irrelevant when it came time to provide for the security of the nation. Contrary to the believers in America’s status as the “indispensable nation,” our leaders don’t see further into the future than anyone else. In many cases, they refuse to open their eyes to dangers that are right in front of them.

Bacevich wrote this book in response to the multiple, overlapping calamities of 2020 in the hopes of identifying the causes of U.S. failures at home and abroad. With respect to foreign policy, Bacevich explains why “the United States will find itself obliged to revise the premises informing America’s role in the world” and then details how to make some of the necessary changes to U.S. policies. It is these proposed changes that need to be highlighted and seriously considered. “After the Apocalypse” argues for taking some radical but overdue steps in unwinding security relationships that haven’t made sense for decades if they ever did. These changes are integral to adapting to what Bacevich dubs the Next Order.

One of the big changes that Bacevich proposes is to end U.S. involvement in NATO. “NATO has become an exercise in nostalgia,” as it tries to guard against threats that no longer exist while it is incapable of addressing contemporary problems that do not have a military solution. Our European allies have the means to provide for their own defense, but for decades the U.S. has actively discouraged them from building up their own security institutions for fear of undermining NATO. There is growing recognition on both sides of the Atlantic that the current arrangement makes no sense and European states need to assume more responsibility for their own defense. Continued U.S. membership in NATO is not only unnecessary, but it actually impedes European states’ efforts to develop their own capabilities. In short, “U.S. security guarantees to Europe have today become redundant,” and therefore Bacevich proposes that the U.S. should announce its intention to withdraw “within the next decade.” 

If leaving NATO weren’t bold enough by itself, Bacevich goes on to say that the U.S. should close down several of its combatant commands overseas, including European Command, Africa Command, and Central Command. Significantly demilitarizing our foreign policy and moving towards what Bacevich calls “sustainable self-sufficiency” require that the U.S. dismantle large portions of the structures that it has used to engage in fruitless military interventionism. It is important to note that Bacevich does not call for withdrawing from East Asia or ending any of the alliances that the U.S. has there.  

Bacevich proposes that the U.S. replace its strategy of militarized hegemony through a “wholesale transformation of national security policy” in recognition of “the changing nature and distribution of global power.” His replacement strategy entails “clearing away deadfall and cutting back overgrown shrubbery,” which is another way of saying that the U.S. needs to cut away its unnecessary and outdated security commitments to focus on those few that truly matter. At the same time that the U.S. casts aside its peripheral commitments, it will need to focus more on our own part of the world. 

As part of the effort to cut back on unneeded commitments, Bacevich calls for downgrading the “special” relationships with Britain and Israel and instead treating these countries as normal countries that we deal with like any others. “Special” relationships like these have had an undesirable distorting effect on U.S. policies over the decades, and in Britain’s case the relationship has also been detrimental to the other country as well. When a relationship between two countries is warped by sentiment, nostalgia, and passionate attachment, it leads one or both countries to make unnecessary sacrifices and ends up doing real harm to both. 

While President Biden insisted on using this formulation to describe the U.S.-U.K. relationship ahead of the recent G7 summit in Cornwall, the British prime minister reportedly objected to the phrase because he thinks that it makes his country look “needy.” It would be far better if the U.S. and U.K. cultivated a normal, constructive relationship free of the mawkishness and flattery that have defined the relationship for decades. Maintaining the “special” relationship has been very costly for Britain, since it has led more than one government to plunge into unnecessary war in solidarity with the U.S., and the expectation of British servility has bred an ugly willingness on our government’s part to abuse Britain and take it for granted.

The case for downgrading the relationship with Israel is even stronger. Unlike the U.K., Israel is not and never has been an ally of the United States. Unlike the U.K., Israel has never fought alongside the United States in any of our wars, but it has agitated against American diplomacy in the Middle East and sought to sabotage significant diplomatic achievements. Despite being a recipient of substantial U.S. aid, Israel offers Washington little in return for the political and legal liabilities that it creates for our government. 

The notion that the United States should have “no daylight” with Israel has typically meant that Washington is expected to sacrifice its national interests to satisfy the preferences of the Israeli government, and this has led to a very unhealthy dynamic where a head of the Israeli government presumes to dictate to the United States what its own policies ought to be. In addition to making the U.S. complicit in the Israel government’s war crimes, this arrangement pushes Washington towards confrontation and conflict with other states in the region that do not and cannot threaten America. 

The Biden administration has set out to prove that “America is back” and that all its current security relationships will be restored and enhanced. This is exactly the opposite of what Bacevich recommends, and it shows how much of a throwback to an earlier era Biden’s foreign policy is. We need a foreign policy based on the understanding that our alliances and partnerships exist to advance U.S. interests and are not ends in themselves, and it looks an awful lot like the strategy of sustainable self-sufficiency.

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