There Will Not Be a New Cold War
The Limits of U.S.-Chinese Competition
As U.S. President Joe Biden seeks to resurrect American leadership on the world stage, the perennial question of how the United States should respond to international crises looms large. In his latest book, the political scientist John Mueller offers a refreshingly straightforward answer: Washington should aim not for transformation but for “complacency,” which Mueller characterizes as “minimally effortful national strategy in the security realm.”
Mueller’s case rests on two claims. The first is that war is in decline; not only do wars occur less frequently, but the idea of major wars has effectively gone out of style. The second is that the U.S. foreign policy establishment is prone to panic and often blows potential threats out of proportion, thereby justifying military interventions that frequently prove counterproductive. Because Americans face fewer threats than they think they do, the United States should shrink its military.
Mueller is a provocative and original thinker. He was one of the first scholars to argue that war was in decline, and he has made the case that the threats posed by terrorism, cyberattacks, and even nuclear war are overblown. His latest book synthesizes decades of work and marshals reams of historical evidence to chronicle a litany of mistakes abroad—from the Vietnam War to the invasion of Iraq—that add up to an unflinching indictment of U.S. foreign policy since 1945.
The Stupidity of War reflects strands of thought popularized in recent years by self-proclaimed “restrainers,” analysts who object to the United States’ muscular post–Cold War foreign policy. A growing chorus of restrainers argue that U.S. hegemony should not be preserved for its own sake and that the United States should not throw around its military might every time a potential new threat emerges. Mueller reaches similar conclusions via a slightly different route, claiming that since 1945, U.S. foreign policy has been characterized by unnecessary interventions that “have mostly failed to achieve policy ends at an acceptable cost.”
Mueller frames his book as a critique of conventional wisdom and establishment thinking. But its specific targets are not immediately clear. Who, exactly, thinks war is smart? As the United States winds down its war in Afghanistan and refrains from placing many boots on the ground in other theaters, such as Syria and Yemen, few scholars or analysts are arguing for aggressive U.S. military deployments. At the moment, debates about U.S. grand strategy are dominated by figures who harbor deep anxiety about the durability of the liberal international order and others who have argued for limited humanitarian interventions in the face of atrocities abroad.
Neither of those positions is necessarily at odds with Mueller’s argument. For proponents of a rules-based order, a strong U.S. military is less important than diplomacy, economic statecraft, and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations. Mueller’s preferred foreign policy would be consistent with those priorities, as long as they don’t involve the use of military force—although he equivocates on the question of humanitarian intervention, arguing that U.S. forces could be deployed under the auspices of the UN to “police destructive civil wars or to depose regimes” but that such interventions are becoming increasingly unlikely owing to lukewarm domestic support.
A growing chorus argues that the United States should not throw around its military might with every potential new threat.
So if proponents of a U.S.-led, rules-based order and liberal interventionists are not Mueller’s intended targets, then who is? One possibility is the Beltway thinkers who argue that U.S. military strength explains the “long peace” of the last 75 years. (Mueller references the historian and foreign policy commentator Robert Kagan and the current national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in particular.) But if his aim were to persuade these opponents, insulting them with his title and mocking them with a “sardonic litany” of their own arguments in the book’s appendix would be an unworthy approach.
Mueller’s true audience seems to be his fellow restrainers, and his contribution to the debate is a particular logic of restraint. The United States’ fundamental mistake, he argues, is not so much overextension as it is the overhyping of threats—and especially the threat of war. So, for example, the United States should retrench not because China’s rise is inevitable but because the decline of great-power war will not reverse. The world has become a largely safe and secure place, at least for Americans and U.S. interests. Maintaining a large military is simply unnecessary. Mueller’s advice boils down to this: Washington should just calm down.
Mueller stakes much of his argument on the claim that war is in decline—that is, that the total number of wars and battlefield deaths has decreased since 1945. But although he is correct that this thinking has gained traction in policy circles, his conclusions are distorted by a narrow definition of war. He focuses on wars between rich, northern countries (plus Japan). But war, or something close to it, continues apace between India and Pakistan, Russia and Ukraine, and Iran and Saudi Arabia. Even more misleading is Mueller’s exclusive attention to international conflicts. He neglects civil wars in his analysis, even though civil wars have become the dominant type of war since 1945. The argument about war’s decline came into vogue around 2011, following the publication of books such as The Better Angels of Our Nature, by the psychologist and scholar Steven Pinker. Ironically, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, the number of ongoing conflicts began to increase right around the same time. Despite that reversal, the “decline of war” thesis remains influential.
Another problem with that thesis is that the data that Mueller and others rely on are slightly distorted. For instance, the data sets they reference typically use battle death thresholds: for a conflict to count as a war, a minimum number of military personnel must have died. But over the same time period that war has supposedly declined, there have been dramatic improvements in military medicine that have shifted many casualties from the “fatal” to the “nonfatal” column. This shift has made it harder for any event to qualify as a war today, regardless of the nonfatal toll it exerts. It also undermines Mueller’s claim that the United States has a long-standing aversion to casualties, as the general public is relatively indifferent to the human and financial costs of nonfatal war casualties.
Mueller connects his argument that war is in decline to the notion that the idea of war has become obsolete in the minds of Americans. The public opinion polls he cites do not explicitly demonstrate such a change in public thinking, but he gives “the growth of aversion to international war and of an appreciation of its stupidity” as yet another reason why Washington should adopt a foreign policy of restraint. But if the American public really does generally believe that war has gone out of style, and public opinion matters greatly for U.S. foreign policy, then why has the postwar period been characterized by U.S. interventions and adventurism? One possible answer is that Mueller is simply wrong: the American public does not believe that war is obsolete. Another is that the defense industry is served by the maintenance of a large U.S. military with frequent foreign deployments. Members of Congress are concerned about base closures in their districts, defense contractors want to secure sales to the Pentagon, and the military worries that its skills will erode if they are not put to use. As the international relations scholar Elizabeth Saunders and others have argued, elites shape public opinion on foreign policy, rather than the other way around. Mueller rejects this assertion, which is puzzling given that it would help explain why a supposed widespread public belief in the obsolescence of war has not actually fostered a policy of restraint.
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question in The Stupidity of War is what is at stake for Mueller and his position. Theorists do not develop grand strategies just for the sake of it. Strategies are meant to serve ends, and Mueller’s ends are obscure. Does Mueller aim to save American lives? To prevent global atrocities, as his apparent amenability to humanitarian intervention might suggest? Or to secure U.S. interests? If so, what are those interests? Mueller is frustratingly silent on these important questions.
Mueller does not quite say so, but almost everyone—including restrainers—would agree that the preservation of American democracy should be a lodestar of any U.S. foreign policy. Put in those terms, Mueller’s conclusion is correct: for the time being, at least, the United States should shrink its military and resist the temptation to put a finger in every foreign policy pie. Washington should do so not because war is on the decline or because alleged external threats are overblown, although Mueller often makes a convincing case for the latter. Instead, temporary restraint makes sense because the current state of U.S. domestic politics demands that the country turn its attention inward if it is to do itself or anyone else any good.
Among the supposedly overblown threats Mueller identifies are the boogeymen of China, Iran, and Russia. These states’ regimes, Mueller assures readers, will eventually collapse, just as the Soviet Union did. The United States, by contrast, remains stalwart. Even its incompetent response to the COVID-19 pandemic could not dent American power, Mueller argues: “The country is so strong, it can’t even be destroyed by itself.”
In the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, that claim seems less convincing than it might have been just a year ago. Ongoing attempts to restrict voting, deep structural inequalities, extreme polarization, and the lack of a collective understanding of facts have created a dangerous cocktail. As the political scientist Rachel Myrick recently argued in Foreign Affairs, domestic polarization also reduces U.S. credibility abroad. When domestic political institutions are struggling, it is hard to identify what foreign policy priorities should guide grand strategy.
Redirecting time and money toward the preservation of U.S. democracy is the smart move.
U.S. foreign policy has helped enable some of these worrying domestic trends. The military has become the default tool of U.S. foreign policy, asked to accomplish goals it was never designed to meet. The fetishization of the military should give all citizens pause, especially when it seeps into domestic affairs. Consider, for example, the scenes of police officers donning riot gear and deploying tear gas—sometimes purchased as surplus from the Pentagon—to confront protesters on the streets of dozens of American cities in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.
The United States’ resources are finite, and redirecting time and money toward the preservation of U.S. democracy is the smart move. The United States spends many times as much on defense as it does on education or the environment. But for reasons including constitutional principles and the possibility of extremism in the ranks, it should be clear that the military cannot protect American democracy from threats emanating from within the country.
This does not necessarily mean that the United States should “substantially disarm,” as Mueller suggests. If the United States can right its domestic ship, the military may have critical roles to play in bolstering international institutions, responding to atrocities, and confronting climate change. A strong U.S. military can further these goals by supplying troops and other support to peacekeeping efforts and by responding to the security threats that will inevitably emerge from climate crises. And although its track record on counterinsurgency leaves something to be desired, the U.S. military has had success in disaster relief and humanitarian aid, missions that can inspire confidence in the United States among foreign publics.
As Mueller notes, military restraint comes with risk; after all, not all international threats are overblown. For example, owing to climate change, the prospect of conflict in the Arctic region—and perhaps in other places significantly affected by global warming—seems much more likely today than it did 20 years ago. But a strong military is hardly sufficient to tackle such challenges, and the value of military strength becomes questionable if it comes at the expense of civilian institutions. Allies around the world will look askance at a United States whose commitment to democracy at home appears uncertain. Focusing on the restoration and protection of American democracy will be much more helpful for U.S. standing in the world than would building an ever-stronger military alone. What—and whom—is grand strategy serving otherwise?