On Tuesday, the New York Times had a piece by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, a professor of American foreign relations at San Diego State University, that misunderstands America’s foreign military presence, misrepresents its role today, and mis-prescribes how to “fix” it. The piece, uninspiringly titled “Come Home, America,” rehashes old liberal talking points, then mashes them up with neo-isolationist aims of pulling American troops out of their remaining strongholds in Europe and Asia (primarily Japan). But her call for global American withdrawal is a little too slick for its own good.
It’s easy to prescribe withdrawal when you set up a straw man to frame your argument. Thus, Hoffman daringly asks about our troop locations abroad: “Why are we still fighting World War II?” The problem is, we’re not still fighting the Good War, as she acknowledges in her next sentence. Our global posture is based on Cold War commitments taken on starting in 1947; the fact that we used our presence in the occupied territory of former enemies to base American troops is no more proof that we are still fighting WWII than the Marshall Plan was evidence that we had resurrected the Dawes Plan and thus were still rebuilding Europe after World War I. Conflation of this sort is an easy, but terribly misguided, reading of different historical eras, and an example of how the legacy of one can slide into another.
But Hoffman’s real worry seems to be that we continue to act as the world’s policeman even after the fall of the Soviet Union (though I would argue that this is a role we increasingly perform while seated at the corner doughnut shop with a cup of hot coffee in our hands). Our unnecessary commitment, according to Hoffman, is evidenced by our tens of thousands of military personnel still based around the world, but particularly in Europe and Japan. This overseas basing is akin to an original sin that dates, in her view, to the immediate post-World War II years. “Some historians,” she claims (without citing any such historians), “say Truman scared the American people into a broad, open-ended commitment to world security.” From that, apparently, flowed a radical turn in America’s foreign policy, burying the wise counsel of leaders from George Washington to Henry Cabot Lodge.
But the problem is, times change. An argument against the entangling alliances of the 18th century doesn’t demonstrate how to deal with global totalitarian threats such as Nazism or Communism. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman learned that, to their credit, and their successors followed their lead with great success (as Hoffman points out).
So what’s the problem today? Well, to paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen, Hoffman is arguing: “I knew the Communists. The Communists were friends of mine, and China and Russia, you’re no Communists.” (Well, the Chinese are, but never mind). To Hoffman, today’s global troublemakers are just skinny street punks, not worthy of the Charles Atlas–like figure of America’s military. And it is here that her argument falls apart.
“Germany and Japan . . . are perfectly capable of defending themselves and should be trusted to help their neighbors,” she claims. “It’s time they foot more of the bill or operate their own bases.” Consider Japan first: It already spends more than $50 billion annually on defense, so it’s not exactly shirking. And yet, Washington and Tokyo also realize that no nation in Asia can outspend or outbuild China, so teamwork is necessary. Moreover, and unforgivably, Ms. Hoffman utterly ignores that Japan’s neighbors don’t trust it at all and are decades, if not centuries, away from accepting meaningful Japanese help on security issues, and therefore the Japanese can’t “help their neighbors” even if they tried. The U.S.’s “hub and spoke” structure of bilateral alliances remains irreplaceable in Asia, and it requires troops in Japan.
As for Germany (and many other American allies): Wishing something will not make it so. Berlin is ending conscription and cutting the size of its military. Britain (which will have its smallest army since the 19th century), France, and other NATO partners are all cutting defense, too. The absence of U.S. troops will not make our broke European partners suddenly build up, even if they could afford it. She is flat wrong, moreover, when she writes that “the Libyan crisis showed that our allies can do a lot.” In fact, it showed precisely the opposite, as anyone who followed the European-led operation knows: Britain and France ran out of ammunition within days of commencing airstrikes, and the U.S. Air Force and Navy provided crucial intelligence, communications, and supplies, even conducting their own operations.
But further, Hoffman appears entirely comfortable with greater risk and uncertainty in both Europe and Asia. She asserts, for instance, that “China’s authoritarian capitalism hasn’t translated into territorial aggression, while Russia no longer commands central and eastern Europe.” This is an easy wager to make when you assume we will be spared the consequences.
Tell that to Japan, which faces near-daily incursions by Chinese maritime patrol vessels into its administered waters near the Senkaku Islands, or to Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia, who are all trying to protect their territory from Chinese fishermen and Chinese state-owned patrol craft. That’s not to mention China’s suppression of Tibet or its missile buildup across the Taiwan Straits from the only democratic ethnically Chinese state. Russia, meanwhile, boasts of modernizing its military and nuclear forces, while it meddles in Ukraine and other neighboring countries. Yet, despite these threats, Ms. Hoffman considers it “irrational” to plan for a potential two-front war.
After misdiagnosing the global environment and misunderstanding America’s security needs, Hoffman then prescribes a flawed policy. She argues that Washington should continue to pressure Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs, and then she praises multilateralism, of course, and offers vague nostrums about “championing the right of small nations, including Israel, to ‘freedom from fear,’” whatever that means.
It’s all very inspiring — and profoundly unrealistic. Like it or not, American influence comes from our military and economic strength. Thus, it is particularly galling that Hoffman states that our military commitments, which have helped free hundreds of millions of vulnerable people, “drain” our resources, without even mentioning America’s ruinous entitlement programs.
As for her prescriptions, we have decades of evidence that woolly-headed multilateralism doesn’t work, and that disruptive actors (such as Pyongyang and Tehran) simply use negotiations to buy time for their weapons programs. We know that our allies will continue to cut their defense budgets, at least until they get scared enough to embark on a destabilizing arms race fueled by nationalism and a sense of strategic vulnerability. And we definitely don’t want to reach that point.
What Hoffman misses is that we pay such costs to ensure stability, not to go looking for foreign monsters to destroy. It is what the military calls “phase zero” operations: shaping the international environment, assuring partners, dissuading potential adversaries. By any measure, it is cheaper than actually fighting.
American isolationism helped bring about the train wreck in Europe that led to World War II. Our global engagement since then has made the last seven decades the most peaceful in history. Removing American troops from around the globe would be like changing a cooking recipe: You can take out any ingredient you want, but the result will taste quite a bit different — most likely, in this case, like cordite and blood.
— Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.