This article is the winner of the first ever Quincy Institute essay contest, The Next Chance for Peace? calling for students to write an essay for the ages — making the case for why Congress and the executive branch should curb exorbitant spending for warmaking, and why the average American should care about the ballooning defense budget.
Last year, referring to the possibility of escalation that the Russo-Ukrainian war entails, President Joe Biden announced that America and the world are closer to a destructive nuclear war than ever since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Perhaps no other statement from the highest level of government could so directly affirm the failure of American grand strategy and foreign policy in the post-Cold War world. What seemed to be a Hollywood sci-fi scenario that the average American in the 21st century did not even think about is now a possibility that experts, policymakers, and world leaders like President Biden discuss regularly.
As America and the world grapple with the tectonic shifts that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has unleashed, war budgets around the world keep increasing. In 2022, global spending on defense reached an all-time high of $2.24 trillion dollars. The U.S. defense budget accounted for almost 40 percent of the total, surpassing the next 10 countries combined, including China, Russia, India, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
Yet, America’s ever-increasing military expenditures have hardly translated into success stories in the 21st century. The trillions of dollars pumped into questionable military adventurism abroad, such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, have yielded equally questionable results not only for U.S. interests and national security, but also for global security. America’s overreliance on the military to achieve policy objectives and the unilateral actions pursued without an international mandate have backfired in the form of a growing coalition of dissatisfied states that refuse to accept a world order that they see as unjust and hierarchical.
In April of 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his famous “Chance for Peace” speech in which he compared the enthusiasm for a just and peaceful world after WWII to the unstable, hostile, and unpredictable environment of the Cold War. “The eight years that have passed have seen that hope waver, grow dim, and almost die. And the shadow of fear again has darkly lengthened across the world,” he said, before laying out his vision of a just and peaceful order and warning against the unbalanced political influence of military interests.
Today, 70 years later, the world faces the same “shadow of fear” as the unpredictable war unleashed by a revisionist Russia shakes the international system. Biden’s promised end of “America’s forever wars” that was supposed to bring stability and predictability back to the realm of international affairs while also allowing the United States to reorient its resources towards a much-needed domestic revival did not materialize.
While the war in Ukraine poses a significant threat to U.S. national security interests and necessitates an appropriate policy response, including security assistance to Ukraine for self-defense, U.S. military spending was growing even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This pattern should raise questions about whether the United States should have increased spending on the military in response to the crisis in Ukraine.
The war has also turned into a talking point for those whose direct interests tied to military spending overshadow the actual interests of the American people. Many are now pushing for the concept of a long standoff with foreign rivals, without accounting for the real costs and implications that will be borne by ordinary citizens, both in America and abroad.
In foreign affairs, discourse and reality are sometimes interwoven in complicated and nuanced ways. Conflict can arise as much from actual strategic disagreements, security considerations, and national interests as from discourse and perceptions. In this context, embracing conflict and promoting discourse that emphasizes a long-term confrontation is a dangerous path for America to follow. The very cause of WWI has been attributed to the perceptions of threats and the interpretation of actions by states as “hostile,” leading some scholars to argue that European leaders “sleepwalked” into a conflict they neither desired nor expected to win easily.
The question for Americans today, especially the new generation that will be inheriting a more unstable and dangerous world, is whether they will allow America to sleepwalk into a conflict that the United States neither needs, nor can afford to win. Traditionally, American voters do not attach much importance to foreign and defense policy issues. Yet, the citizens of a country that will be spending a record $842 billion on the military cannot afford to close their eyes on such critical policy issues that, in fact, profoundly affect their livelihoods.
The question is not whether America should abandon its legitimate security needs and interests, nor neglect the foreign threats that necessitate spending on the military. We must understand how much of the current spending is actually justified. We also need to assess the efficiency of the military to protect the American people and interests abroad without overextending resources wastefully and prompting a dangerous arms race that will paralyze growth, development, and more importantly — the long-term prospect for peace and a new, more just world order.
This is why young Americans should be especially concerned with the unchecked influence of special interests that seek to inflate threats, instill the inevitability of long-term confrontation in the world, and justify ever-increasing spending on the military. The new generation will be the primary bearer of the burdens, costs, and consequences that decisions taken in Washington today will have. Ultimately, it boils down to a simple question of the kind of vision young Americans have for their country and for their world.
This question is especially critical given America’s own undeniable internal strife. Those seeking to downplay the legitimate critique of the overreliance on military forget or deliberately neglect that foreign policy is ultimately dependent on domestic policy. Both experts and the general public now agree that the once-hailed American democracy is threatened. The inflection point for America is serious: the country is facing a crisis of identity, social cohesion, a growing discontent with the economic model that has marginalized an ever-growing segment of the population, and what is more concerning — a waning belief and trust in the country’s most foundational institutions.
Those championing a new age of unnecessarily militaristic and confrontational foreign policy that relies on growing and unbalanced defense budgets should rethink the use of those resources. A stroll in the streets of Portland or in the infamous Skid Row in Los Angeles could be beneficial to re-evaluate priorities and distribution of limited resources to deal with the most pressing issues America faces. Ultimately, the strength and attractiveness of the United States on the global stage and America’s competitiveness vis-a-vis its rivals depends on the domestic revival of a country that has been decaying silently for decades in virtually all key aspects.
This is why a new generation of Americans must step in to seize the new chance for peace before it is too late. As the world order continues to fracture, only a wave of democratization of the most undemocratic sphere of policymaking in Washington can trigger the kind of reassessment and accountability the American people should expect from their elected leaders.
Unless we take steps now to usher in an overdue reckoning in Washington, we may miss, as President Eisenhower said, “a precious chance to turn the black tide of events.”