To repair the damage inflicted by that disruption, Biden resorts to Gamalielese, promising “creative approaches that draw on all the sources of our national power: our diversity, vibrant economy, dynamic civil society and innovative technological base, enduring democratic values, broad and deep network of partnerships and alliances, and the world’s most powerful military.” Most revealing in that self-flattering compendium is what Biden leaves out: any discussion of what the world’s most powerful military has been up to of late.
I will leave it to others to explain how diversity enhances national power. But in the other arenas that Biden cites as sources of power, trends since the end of the Cold War have been mixed at best. In hopes of refuting the indications of decline that those trends suggest, successive administrations have called on the armed forces of the United States. The thoroughgoing militarization of basic U.S. policy—never openly admitted—has been one result.
So narrowly construed, Biden’s tribute to the “world’s most powerful military” qualifies as accurate. As measured by their capacity for delivering lethal target effects, whether on land, sea, air, or in outer space (and probably in cyberspace), U.S. forces are in a league of their own. But the following statements are also true:
A penchant for armed intervention abroad finds the United States using force more frequently than any other nation on the planet; while promising peace, U.S. presidents have delivered something akin to perpetual war.
Sundry interventions, especially those undertaken since 9/11, have exacted enormous costs, with trillions of dollars expended, tens of thousands of U.S. casualties sustained, and far larger numbers of noncombatants killed, injured, and displaced.
Despite heroic efforts, U.S. troops have rarely accomplished the mission assigned; the principal results of intervention have tended to be political instability and further violence.
Particularly revealing on this point is the fact that Biden’s interim strategic guidance omits any mention of Iraq or Libya, and includes just a single glancing reference to Afghanistan, which apparently will see the last U.S. troops withdraw a tidy twenty years after 9/11. The defining U.S. military campaigns of the past two decades, not one of them—least of all Afghanistan—has yielded anything remotely like success. A fair judgment would be that all three produced catastrophic results.
A similar point can be made with reference to other manifestations of American militarism that Biden chooses to overlook. These include military spending and arms exports—in both categories, the United States leads the world—and the continuing danger posed by nuclear weapons. For some reason, modernizing the entire U.S. nuclear strike force has become a Pentagon priority. This too escapes mention in Biden’s strategic blueprint.
Add to the mix sustained domestic political dysfunction, massive inequality, mushrooming debt, recurring economic crises, an astonishingly inept response to COVID-19, and a deeply divided electorate, and it becomes pretty clear that seeking to affirm U.S. military supremacy is unlikely to fix what ails the nation.
Then there is this further complicating factor: the looming prospect of freedom as presently exercised becoming environmentally unsustainable. In the days and years ahead, preserving freedom may well require Americans to embrace a more modest conception of what it entails—less “stuff,” reduced mobility—while simultaneously forfeiting privileges that Americans have long taken for granted as part of their birthright. Lurking in the background is the nightmare of the United States of America one day finding itself on equal footing with los Estados Unidos do Brasil or some equivalent country not classified as “indispensable” or “exceptional.”
As president ad interim—that may be his historically designated fate—Biden may well succeed in finessing the choice until the end of his presidency. But the day of reckoning approaches. When that day arrives, then and only then will a serious conversation about strategy become possible. Then Americans will confront the need to choose.