Americans like to imagine that their political disputes stop at the proverbial water’s edge. The opposite has been nearer to the truth ever since the nation’s founders split over whether to support France in its revolutionary wars in the 1790s.
For the past three decades, however, consensus has reigned. Having bested its Soviet rival in the Cold War, the leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties believed that the US should bestride the world.
That view might now be changing. Beneath the furious volleys between President Donald Trump and his critics, a common understanding has emerged. This year, for the first time ever, the presidential nominees of both major parties are promising to end the “endless” or “forever” wars in which they acknowledge their nation to be engaged.
In an era of severe political polarisation, the rise of endless war as a bipartisan bugbear is a stunning development. It reflects the public’s clear sentiment. Roughly three-quarters of Americans, according to a series of polls this year, favour bringing troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Twice as many Americans say their country spends too much on the military as too little. A mere one in four believes that military interventions in other countries make the United States safer. These days, a president might do more to unite the country by pulling forces back from the world than by deploying them against the next enemy.
Whether American leaders are willing to act accordingly may be another matter. As a trove of documents known as the Afghanistan Papers revealed in December 2019, US officials have long doubted that the war in Afghanistan could be won. Yet that conflict grinds on, now approaching its 20th year.
Even rolling back the war on terror, however, would not necessarily suffice to bring endless war to a close. Well before 9/11, the US began to use armed force nearly continually around the globe. “Notable deployments of US military force overseas,” as judged by the Congressional Research Service, have occurred in every year since 1940 except five. (Moreover, that quintet of exceptions – 1947, 1957, 1961, 1977, and 1979 – was non-consecutive, lest anyone get too used to peace.) The profligate use of force has come to define the US’s self-appointed vocation of “global leadership”.
This outcome should not be too surprising. Those who decided to install the US as the world’s armed superpower understood that something like endless war would be the consequence. During the Second World War, when President Franklin D Roosevelt’s postwar planners sketched out the future, they wanted the US to continue where the British empire left off. In 1941, before the US entered the war, planners devised what one of them, military analyst George Fielding Eliot, described as “a policy essentially offensive in character”, in which the US and Britain, in that order, would station troops around the globe to stop aggressors in their tracks. “America had to accept its imperial destiny, give up its defensive attitude, and accept its responsibility,” advised another planner, Francis Pickens Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations. Incessant conflict, hopefully low in intensity, would be the price of leading the world and preventing a totalitarian rival from doing the same.
There was no conspiracy. The luminaries of mid-century American foreign policy said much the same in public. In 1944, Roosevelt argued that “world order” would require persistent armed enforcement. Like a policeman, the US, preferably in tandem with the United Nations, would act swiftly “whenever and wherever there is a threat to world peace”.
As the Cold War began in 1947, none other than George Kennan, the senior diplomat who devised the policy of containment, took to the journal Foreign Affairs to spell out his prescription: “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points”. The US government proceeded to take “counterforce” literally, more so than Kennan intended.
In 2019 the vice-president, Mike Pence, became only the latest official to lay bare the implications of global dominance when he told graduating cadets at West Point military academy, “it is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life”. Pence listed every region of the world as a potential theatre of US war.
The administration in which Pence serves is not inclined to do what is needed to stop American war-making. Nor is the Democratic ticket headed by Pence’s predecessor, Joe Biden.
Both Trump and Biden speak of endless war in a narrow sense. They restrict the phenomenon to ground troops long engaged in combat, principally in Afghanistan (where Trump has so far failed to terminate the US mission and Biden pledges only to reduce troop levels). Routine killing by drones or special forces does not appear to qualify – an elision that suggests that these lethal methods, which minimise US casualties, might truly prove endless.
A final omission may be the most significant in the long run: neither candidate is pledging to bring home many of the roughly 200,000 troops stationed outside the US or to reduce the nation’s commitments to defending many dozens of countries, including 29 Nato members, Japan and South Korea.
Perhaps the next president, whether Trump or Biden, will remove American ground forces from Afghanistan, and Syria and Iraq too. He might then declare in triumph that forever war is no more. In all likelihood, the US’s war will continue nonetheless, both in less spectacular guises in the greater Middle East and in the conventional form to counter a rising China and a vexatious Russia.
Still, another future stands just on the brink of the possible. End one endless war, and the appeal of ending another may grow. A generation of Americans who have seen their nation inflict violence abroad, while mistreating its citizens at home, may yet demand real peace.
Stephen Wertheim is deputy director of research and policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and is the author of “Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy” (Harvard)