President Theodore Roosevelt summed up his version of American foreign policy in the early 20th century thus: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
But America’s stick wasn’t all that big at the time. For most of its history, the United States was a big country with a small peacetime military. That changed after World War II.
But in an op-ed in the New York Times, University of Texas history professor Jeremi Suri suggests history, and our experience in Afghanistan, conspire to send us a message: we’d be better off with a smaller military.
“Over the last 70 years, we have invested an enormous amount of our treasure in the military,” Suri said. “And although the soldiers, and our leaders have been extraordinary in their efforts, we have not achieved the results we have wanted.”
Because it has maintained a large military over the past 75 years, the U.S. has been able to deploy troops quickly around the world. But those deployments haven’t resulted in success, Suri argues.
Public opinion has also moved away from support for ever-increasing military spending, Suri says, and while attitudes have shifted back and forth over the years – sometimes supporting a beefed-up force, sometimes opposing it – ongoing wars in the wake of the 9/11 attacks have led to a prolonged reduction in support for massive military expenditures.
“We’ve had 20 years of more extensive international engagement than we have seen since the early Cold War,” Suri said. “And I know talking to my students that they are much more skeptical than any prior generation since World War II has been about what our military can do,” he said.
Suri says the expansion of military power during the past 70 years came out of a belief that the U.S. and its allies needed to project massive force around the world to keep the peace.
“The challenges of rebuilding societies [today] look very different than they did after World War II,” he said.
Suri says long-term military occupations, like those in Germany and in South Korea, should be ended, but that the U.S. should focus on immediate crisis spots instead.
“We should also not have military forces at the border,” he said. “That is not the appropriate role for them, at the Mexican border.”