Most Americans think of the military power of the United States in roughly the following way:
[The world is a dangerous place. There are war-making aggressive, hostile forces in the world, countries which oppress their own people and threaten others, as well political movements that are prepared to use violence to get their way. We must oppose these threats to our national security. But we are not aggressors. We have a Department of Defense, not a Department of War. We use our military power to defend freedom, to defend democracy, to protect America, but not to dominate other countries and people. If sometimes serious problems arise from our use of military power, as in the Vietnam War or in the Iraq war, mostly these reflect bad judgment, poor information or inadequate understanding of the context rather than bad motives or malevolent goals. Even though we are not perfect, we are a moral force in the world and use our military power for moral purposes. ] That is the dominant view of the American military. Three stark facts about the reality of American military power stand in tension with this idealized view.
1. The United States spends orders of magnitude more on the military than any other country. As indicated in Figures 20.1 and 20.2, in 2008 military spending in the United States accounted for nearly half of the world’s total military spending. This is more than the next 46 highest spending countries in the world combined. It is 5.8 times larger than the spending on the military in China, 10.2 times larger than in Russia and almost 100 times larger than in Iran. If you add to the American figures the spending by the strongest allies of the United States – the NATO countries, Japan, South Korea and Australia – the total comes to 72% of the world’s total. The United States is not simply the world’s only superpower; our military dwarfs that of all potential adversaries combined.
2. The use of military power is a pervasive aspect of U.S. foreign policy. The United States uses military power as a central instrument of national policy throughout the world more than any other country. The threat of force and the actual use of force are frequent strategies in pursuit of what are perceived as United States interests. To facilitate this, at the beginning of the 21st century the United States had over 730 military bases and installations in over 50 countries (see Figure 20.3). It once was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. In the 21st century it never sets on the U.S. military. The U.S. has directly used its troops to overthrow the governments of other countries or to attempt to do so more frequently than any other country since the end of WWII. The Iraq War is only the most recent example. It also has frequently subsidized proxy military forces for these purposes when, for political reasons, it was difficult to use its own.
A partial list of the interventions since the end of WWII is given in Figure 20.4. Some of these interventions involve the overthrow of democratic regimes (e.g. Iran 1953; Guatemala, 1954; Dominican Republic, 1965; Chile 1973). Others involve fighting insurgencies against authoritarian regimes which we supported (e.g. the Philippines, 1948; Vietnam, 1960-75), or supporting insurgencies against regimes we opposed (Cuba, 1961; Angola, 1976-92; Nicaragua, 1981-90; Afghanistan, 1981-88). In only two cases – the Korean War in 1951-53 and the first Gulf War, 1990 – was the United States responding to military aggression by a foreign state which had any plausible bearing on American national security. The United States uses its military to impose its will around the world, not simply to defend itself from military attack.
3. In the U.S., the domestic economy and internal politics are deeply affected by the military. The military budget constitutes a huge part of government spending, and of necessity, this reduces the flexibility for domestic programs. Figure 20.5 indicates that if we include in military spending the current cost of past wars (mainly interest payment on debt attributable to past military spending, military pensions and veterans administration spending), then for Fiscal year 2009 total military spending was just under 45% of the annual Federal budget.
Since this has been true, with some ups and downs, since around 1940, the result has been a deep penetration of military spending in the American. Particularly in the context of a state that has been reluctant to directly create jobs through public investment in the civilian economy, military spending has become one of the principle ways that the Federal Government intervenes in the economy through contracts for military products. In addition, military spending is one of the main ways that the government provides funding for research and development, which often has large spillovers for the civilian economy. The manufacture of weapons is also one of the sectors in which the U.S. has a large positive trade balance, thus adding to its importance for the overall health of the economy. Whenever there are proposals to end particular weapons systems or close military bases, members of Congress from the affected region object on the grounds that this will harm the economy. Often they do not even bother to debate the issues on grounds of military policy of efficiency. Political coalitions form around military spending for economic reasons, and this further distorts the role of the military in foreign policy.
These three facts suggest that the United States in the 21st Century is not simply a society with a strong military; it has become a militaristic society. Militarism can be defined as a political and ideological orientation towards international affairs in which three conditions are present:
(1) The use and threat of military power is a central strategy of international policy.
(2) The military plays a pervasive role in the economic and political life of a country.
(3) Military strength is the highest priority of government policy.
Militarism is not just the “policy” of a particular administration; it is institutionalized into our economic, political, and social structure. Over the past half century American militarism has been built up by administrations lead by both the Republican and Democratic parties. It is supported, although perhaps with differing fervor, by both parties, and the leadership of both parties advocates an American role in the world that depends on militarism. All American politicians in leadership roles argue that we must have a strong military that is flexible in ways that enable it to be deployed on short notice around the world.
No viable presidential candidate can stand up and say: “the American military should be used exclusively for the defense of the United States against attack. We should dismantle bases abroad, and bring our troops home. Our military budget should be tailored entirely for defensive purposes. If military action abroad is needed for humanitarian reasons, then this must be done by international authority, not by unilateral action of individual states.” Such a position is completely outside of legitimate political discourse in the United States.
Note: This book is a joint project with Joel Rogers based on an undergraduate sociology course, “Contemporary American Sociology”, which we have taught since the early 1990s. The draft posted below is the final draft, August 2009, before being copy-edited by the publisher.
Contemporary American Society, University of Wisconsin – Madison
. Table of Contents
1 Prologue: Values and Perspectives
2 What kind of a country is this?
. Part I. Efficiency & Freedom
3 The market: how it is supposed to work
4 The market: How it actually works
5 The environment
8 Health Care
9 High Road Capitalism
. Part II. Fairness
10 Thinking about Equality, Inequality and Fairness
12 Persistent Poverty and Rising Inequality
13 Solutions to Poverty
14 Racial Inequality
15 Gender inequality
. Part III. Democracy
16 Capitalist Democracy: how it works
18 Taxation and the Affirmative State
19 Democracy and Corporate Media
20 Militarism & Empire
21 Unions and Democracy
22 Democracy from below
23 Alternative Futures