Each new generation is different. They look at the world in a whole new way that the previous generations never thought about before or in great detail. Sometimes the differences are huge, and sometimes they are minor. And often they cause misunderstandings. So it is no wonder that younger generations of Americans find current government policies distasteful, particularly when it comes to defense spending and foreign policy.
You might have seen a cartoon floating around describing how clever the Scandinavian countries are to have devised a means to provide free higher education for their citizens while the US is letting its citizens build up student debt. It makes the usual liberal arguments that higher taxes and a smaller defense budget would help make free higher education a reality in America as well. And because Millennials are either just starting their college careers or graduating, this cartoon appeals to them the most. Why are we spending anywhere from $800-900 billion on defense when we could be using that money to help solve social inequality and the student debt problem?
There are many problems with what the cartoon is saying, particularly when it comes to free tuition. However it also leaves out a big detail that has influenced the reasoning for such a high defense budget. The Scandinavians were not expected or able to rebuild the modern world after WWII. America was.
After VE Day, Europe was in shambles. 6 grueling years of war had wiped out most of its infrastructure needed to rebound. America, through the Marshall Plan, was willing to supply the necessary resources to rebuild Europe to avoid placing the responsibility on the Germans which had in part caused both the war and the global depression. America was also doing the same for Japan. However the Marshall Plan was facing frustration with the Communist regime in Russia. Stalin was unhappy to see that Germany had twice invaded his country, each time nearly grasping victory. Twice, in his mind, had the unrestrained behaviors of capitalist countries dragged the Russians into costly wars. Enough was enough and it was time that Communism spread beyond the Russian borders. This meant assimilating Eastern European nation states into the USSR to serve as buffer states from between Russia and the West and to be prime examples of the virtues of a communist regime. America and much of the West found this to be a terrifying display of power that threatened to end their way of life. And considering the problems with the USSR’s command economies, it is very likely Europe would still have been in ruins had Russia been allowed to extend its reach westward. Of course this was prevented by the American military and the ability for America to transfer large amounts of wealth into military capabilities. The USSR was unable to keep up and dissolved in 1991. This victory came at a price. The manpower and resources that went into containing the Communists and rebuilding the modern world did not go toward expanding and perfecting domestic programs like the education and healthcare systems. Europe can only afford to boast about how great their healthcare is and how free their tuition is because Americans have made it possible for the last 70 years.
Unfortunately, many Millennials don’t appreciate this important history lesson. For us WWII and the Cold War are ancient history. We can’t appreciate what it was like to practice drills for nuclear fallouts at school along with fire and tornado drills. The closest we can come to feeling the same dread as the Cuban missile crisis is the terrorist attacks on 9/11. And as much as the news media and pundits like to compare the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Vietnam, they had nothing on the political ramifications people thought would take place if the communists won. Yet trying to convey these experiences often comes across as needlessly paranoid which tends to reinforce the idealist approach that 20-somethings have for foreign affairs. A great example of this is the Ukraine crisis. Many see this as Putin trying to rebuild the Russian empire under the USSR. To do nothing but reduce military spending would be giving America’s most recent enemy a chance to catch up. Yet a typical response from a Millennial would be to say, “I want less student debt. I want the poor and needy to be given what they need because that is how I see myself. Why do we want to spend more time and money on a foreign war? Didn’t we learn anything in Iraq and Afghanistan? Besides we already outspend Russia, why spend more?”
Of course this isn’t just a generational problem. It is also a difference of ideology as well. There are many on Capitol Hill, in school rooms, news broadcasts, etc. who did experience the horrors and tragedies of the Cold War yet believe it is time for America to reel-in its global defense system. Though generally a liberal position, notable Republicans like Ron Paul are also proponents of this view. For them the time for war and becoming involved globally is over. Now is the time for us to stay home and address domestic issues. This is a very admirable sentiment, but it ignores the historical record of American history.
From the beginning America has been involved abroad. After gaining Independence and ratifying the Constitution, the Founding Fathers were debating which contemporary power should be their allies. The popular choices were Great Britain, whose naval power was viewed in awe and political philosophy was the precedent for American government, and France, the ally for independence as well as a culturally desirable country. The debate between the two was so strong that it even makes an appearance in George Washington’s “Farewell Address.” The often quoted line, “steer clear of permanent alliances” suggests that Washington was appealing to an isolationist view. However if one were to reread the address in light of its historical context, he was attacking those who wished to stand with France and participated in the Citizen Genet Affair. And that was not the end of America as an actor on the world’s stage. There were the Barbary Pirates, the land purchases and wars to make settlers safe, and our relations with those in the Caribbean and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. And even when Presidents like Woodrow Wilson, LBJ, and W. Bush campaign to not send American troops overseas or to spend the resources of the federal government on foreign ventures, they end up having to do the opposite. The reason is because as empires or nation states expand, they must compete for resources, trade, or both. And these often cause friction which in turn can cause hostile relations.
But why do we need to be so widespread? Why do we need to be in everybody’s business? Because when modern nation states begin trading goods, they also share ideas. This creates what is known as globalism, a system where countries around the world become more connected and interdependent of each other through trade, military cooperation, and or culturally. Thus what affects one country has the potential to affect others even if indirectly. See WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the conflicts of the Cold War, and the recent Great Recession for examples. This makes isolationism improbable and limited intervention nearly impossible to execute. Whether we like it or not, America will have to remain involved in foreign affairs. The question is whether we will learn from history and try to efficiently prepare ourselves for whatever comes our way? Or do we continue to hope that things have changed and Americans can go back to looking after Americans?