Empire state of mind: the illiberal foundations of liberal hegemony.

Author:Coyne, Christopher J.
 
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The global reach of the U.S. military is truly staggering. Consider that "[t]oday US military operations are involved in scores of countries across all the ... continents. The US military is the world's largest landlord, with significant military facilities in nations around the world with a significant presence in Bahrain, Djibouti, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Kyrgyzstan, in addition to long-established bases in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and the UK" (Bilmes and Intriligator 2013, 9). In addition, the U.S. Central Command is currently carrying out various military-related activities in at least twenty' countries in the Middle East. Further, the United States "has some kind of military presence in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, U.A.E. [United Arab Emirates], Uzbekistan, and Yemen" (Bilmes and Intriligator 2013, 9). This list does not even include the U.S. government's significant presence and influence in Africa: "[T]he US Africa Command ... supports military-to-military relationships with 54 African nations" (Bilmes and Intriligator 2013, 10). Consider further the U.S. government's use of special-operations forces. A recent review of the global use of special-ops forces concludes that "[d]uring the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, [they] deployed to 133 countries--roughly 70% of the nations on the planet" (Turse 2015).

Yet another indicator of the U.S. military's global reach is the prevalence of bases around the world, as cataloged in the Department of Defense's annual Base Structure Report. For fiscal year 2014, the department operated more than 470 bases in foreign countries and an additional 4,000 bases in the United States and its territories (2014, 6). The department's total real estate portfolio is significant, consisting of "more than 562,000 facilities (buildings, structures, and linear structures), located on over 4,800 sites worldwide, and covering over 24.7 million acres" both domestically and internationally (2014, 2). Other estimates of U.S. bases on foreign soil are even greater. For example, David Vine calculates that "today there are around eight hundred U.S. bases in foreign countries, occupied by hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops" (2015, 3).

The U.S. military's massive boot print is not a recent phenomenon. The United States has been engaged in a state of permanent war for decades, and the U.S. government has been intervening in global affairs for centuries (see Shoup 1969; Johnson 2000, 2004; Bacevich 2002, 2010; Kinzer 2006; Dudziak 2012; Duncan and Coyne 2013a, 2013b; Posen 2014). Attempts to catalog U.S. interventions abroad have documented hundreds of cases starting in the late 1790s (see U.S. Department of State 1967; Goldwater 1973; Collins 1991; Torreon 2014).

Deepak Lai captures the U.S. government's activist foreign policy in the conclusion that "[t]he United States is indubitably an empire. It is more than a hegemon, as it seeks control over not only foreign but also aspects of domestic policy in other countries" (2004, 63). There is no reason to think that this deeply engrained mentality will change anytime soon. In recent comments regarding the Department of Defense's fiscal year 2015 budget request, Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox stated that "[t]here is just too much to do in the world, and we need clever ideas on how to be everywhere, do everything with fewer forces across the entire joint force" (qtd. in Lyle 2014).

What mentality does the proactive and militaristic foreign policy of the U.S. government require? We answer this question by identifying the defining characteristics of the interventionist mindset. The U.S. government's current grand strategy in foreign policy has been described as "liberal hegemony" (see Ikenberry 2012 and Posen 2014). From this perspective, the U.S. government uses its position of global power to exert influence over others while promoting Western liberal values, including constitutional democracy, the rule of law, economic freedom, individual rights and freedoms, and an appreciation of the forces of spontaneous orders (see Posen 2014, 5-6). The U.S. military has been the centerpiece of this strategy of liberal hegemony, which requires "a sustained investment in military power whose aim is to so overwhelm potential challengers that they will not even try to compete, much less fight" (Posen 2014, 5).

We point out the inherent tension in this position. Proponents of the current U.S. grand strategy claim a commitment to liberal values. However, successfully implementing the strategy requires, attracts, and reinforces a mentality fundamentally at odds with liberal values. The adoption and reinforcement of this mentality is incentivized by government bureaus that reward those who successfully implement the government's foreign-policy strategy. Within this system, those who rise to the top will tend to be those who are most comfortable and willing to engage in illiberal behaviors toward foreign populations.

We proceed as follows. The first section discusses what constitutes foreign intervention, the core characteristics of the interventionist mindset, and how this mentality is at odds with liberal values. The second section explores the internal incentives of the government apparatus used to design and implement foreign policy that reward the adoption and reinforcement of the interventionist mindset. And we conclude our argument in the third section.

The Interventionist Mindset

For our purposes, the term foreign intervention refers to the use of the discretionary power held by members of one government to achieve some desired end in another society (Coyne and Hall 2014). At the core of foreign intervention is the desire by the intervening party to impose a desired state of affairs on another population. The specific desired end will vary depending on context, but the key point is that foreign interventions by their very nature are at odds with the prevailing status quo. If they were not, the intervention would not be necessary in the first place.

Where there is a disjoint between the intervener's desires and the target population's desires, mechanisms of social control will be required to raise the cost of resistance and ensure compliance. Examples of the tools of social control used by the U.S. government in past foreign interventions include surveillance, curfews, segregation, bribery, censorship, suppression, imprisonment, torture, and violence. Given the nature of foreign intervention as well as the type of activities required for success, a certain type of mindset is required that includes some mix of the following characteristics:

  1. Extreme confidence regarding the interveners' ability to solve complex problems in other societies.

    Foreign interventions require the belief that a small group of elites can redesign entire societies according to a grand blueprint. Moreover, it requires the belief that this blueprint can be implemented in the desired manner. According to this logic, all issues are to be treated as technical engineering problems, which can be resolved with appropriate resources in the hands of the intelligentsia. The very idea of externally driven "nation building" perfectly captures this extreme sense of confidence because it assumes that entire nations, including all of the complex institutions necessary for a well-functioning society, can be designed and built by outsiders.

    One of the implications of treating the world as a simple rather than complex system is that interventionists downplay or completely ignore the possibility that their actions create perverse unintended consequences. This neglect is evident in the recent U.S. government intervention in Libya. The original U.S.-led intervention in Libya in 2011 was hailed as a success because it helped depose Muammar Gaddafi without any U.S. military boots on the ground. Although the operation was supposed to be the model of a limited, humanitarian foreign intervention, it resulted in chaos and instability both in Libya and in the broader region.

    Consider two headlines from the New York Times that capture the lack of appreciation for the possibility of negative unintended consequences. In 2011, the newspaper ran an article titled "U.S. Tactics in Libya May Be a Model for Other Efforts" (Cooper and Myers 2011). As mentioned, many policy makers and pundits at the time hailed the intervention as a success and model for subsequent interventions. Four years later the headline was "ISIS' Grip on...

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