The Roots of Washington’s Addiction to Military Force

By Monica Toft and Sidita Kushi:

Over time, the United States has become comfortable using greater levels of force abroad. This was not the case at the country’s inception: in the first eras of statehood, the United States engaged minimally outside North America, as many of its conflicts related to defending its borders, the frontier wars, and westward expansion. The United States’ involvement in World War I and World War II ushered Washington into global leadership and much greater global engagement. After the Cold War and especially following the 9/11 attacks, the percentage of armed disputes in which the United States was involved that were initiated by U.S. adversaries dropped precipitously. The United States now finds itself in an era in which militarily, its adversaries are provoking it less frequently—and yet Washington is intervening with armed force more than ever.

This is an unfortunate trend. For evidence, look no further than the disastrous U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The overly frequent resort to use of force also undermines U.S. legitimacy in the world. As the U.S. diplomatic corps and American influence abroad shrink, the country’s military footprint only grows. Global opinion polls show that more than half of the world’s population now views the United States as a threat. There could be a change in the offing, however: as China becomes a more potent power, the United States will be more likely to refrain from engaging in foreign interventions because it could end in a showdown with another superpower. And that ultimately could lead U.S. policymakers to pursue diplomatic and economic initiatives that could bolster the United States’ soft power and global credibility.

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