Foreign policy involves a variety of complex and interrelated tasks entrusted to the national government. A shortlist includes building strategic alliances, developing trade agreements, improving diplomatic relationships, issuing sanctions, distributing foreign aid, providing disaster relief efforts, and designing environmental protection agreements. When all of these are managed effectively, peace endures and citizens prosper. When they are mismanaged, conflict emerges, national security can be compromised, and citizens’ wellbeing is jeopardized. At their worst, these conflicts can evolve into war.
War occupies a unique and controversial place in U.S. history and contemporary foreign policy. The U.S. has been involved in at least one war for 224 of its 241 years (93 percent of its existence). Maintaining consistent militant involvement in global affairs requires considerable resources.
Currently, the U.S. has 400 military bases in 80 countries and spends as much as the next seven largest armies to maintain its global presence. Military spending continues to increase, even amidst public controversy.
Has our persistent use of military power secured freedom in the U.S. and abroad?
We can certainly find examples of war effectively securing liberty. After all, the U.S. freed itself from Great Britain by fighting a revolution. The Civil War ended slavery, granting rights to nearly four million previously enslaved Americans. More recent military involvement in WWII and the War on Terror defended against tyranny and violent extremists. Although these events were catastrophic on many margins, war might be a “necessary evil” to defend freedom from foreign enemies.
However, we often forget the cost of war extends beyond human casualties and the destruction of property. War, whether won or lost, vastly expands the size and scope of government.
In his book Crisis and Leviathan, economist and historian Robert Higgs finds government expands most rapidly during a crisis, especially war. Through a mechanism called the “ratchet effect,” government maintains its expanded size and scope even after the crisis ends. This creates a lasting change in the relationship between government and its citizens – and between U.S. actions abroad and at home. Once government power expands, it almost never contracts.
Research indicates governmental power poses the greatest threat to liberty. Political scientist R.J. Rummel finds democide - the killing of innocent people by their government - accounted for over 262 million deaths in the past century. This was six times higher than the number of deaths caused by war over the same period.
Personal freedoms in the U.S. are also under attack as governmental power expands. In the last few decades, the federal government has increased the use of surveillance technology, funded efforts to enhance the militarization of local police forces, and authorized the stealthy use of drones to monitor private activity. As economists Chris Coyne and Abigail Hall note in their book, Tyranny Comes Home, all of these tactics were first developed by the military for foreign affairs. Now they impact domestic policy and raise questions about freedom in the U.S.
So, which is it? Can peace and freedom only be maintained through the strategic use of military might? Or does the greatest threat to liberty come from our government?
Next semester, I will lead our Mancur Olson Scholars in a semester-long discussion of these and other pressing questions related to foreign policy. If you or someone you know might be interested, I invite you to join the conversation and apply.
Students at NDSU interested in participating in this discussion can apply for the spring 2020 Mancur Olson Reading Group. The deadline to apply is Nov. 27, 2019.
Meet the Author
Raymond March is a fellow at the Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise (PCPE) and the Independent Institute. He is an assistant professor in the NDSU Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. Read his bio.