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Transcript: Questioning U.S. Military Primacy

A transcript of Episode 21 of The Politics of Everything, “American Military Supremacy is Not Inevitable”

Laura Marsh: Today, the United States has the most powerful military in the world. It has more tanks, ships, and planes than any other country. It has over 70 percent of the world’s soldiers, and over 750 foreign bases. The U.S. spent $730 billion a year on defense. That’s more than China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil spend combined. America’s leaders have argued that this is unavoidable. As Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeline Albright, once put it, if America has to use force, it’s because we are the “indispensable nation.”

But what if that was not the case? I’m Laura Marsh, the literary editor of The New Republic.

Alex Pareene: And I’m Alex Pareene. I’m a staff writer at the magazine.

Laura: Today, we’re talking about America’s military dominance.

Alex: How did the U.S. decide to become the world’s preeminent power?

Laura: And could it decide not to be?

Alex: Later in the episode, we’re talking about Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, who is fighting in a runoff in Georgia to win back her seat and retain Republican control of the Senate.

Laura: This is The Politics of Everything.

Historian Steven Wertheim wants to challenge the idea that the U.S. has no choice in its role. In his new book, Tomorrow, the World, he traces America’s rise to global dominance, and asks if the U.S. is destined to continue on the same path. Hi Stephen, thanks for coming on the show.

Stephen: Thanks so much for having me on.

Laura: Before we get into the history that the book covers, I want to ask you about what U.S. primacy actually means. The U.S. obviously has larger armed forces than other countries, but what do you mean when you’re talking about global supremacy?

Stephen: I mean the commitment, the consensus—a bipartisan consensus—that the United States should be responsible for leading the world’s order and enforcing it by armed force.

Laura: In practical terms, what kind of power does that give the U.S.?

Stephen: Well, it gives the United States lots of military power. The theory is that it also gives the United States lots of other good things: general influence; underpins, perhaps, economic relations and even the notion of order; suggests keeping rules and laws in place that are supposed to restrain other powers. I’m not sure that it actually confers all those things, but the theory is that much of what Americans want to see in the world is somehow ultimately undergirded by the U.S. projection of military power globally.

Laura: Everything you’ve just described sounds actually quite good, you know? One can imagine saying that this seems like a very good order for the world to have. What made you start to question America’s place in the world?

Stephen: Well, in high school 9/11 happened. I paid a lot of attention to the debate over how America should respond, and followed for two decades now what has become a forever war waged by the United States in the greater Middle East. As I undertook my own studies historically, I started to think about the larger structure of power that’s in place, and this kind of unquestioned consensus that of course it must be a good thing for the United States to be the military hegemon of the world. So few people in my own time seem to want to ask critical questions about whether that was the right role for the United States to play, and even why—explain, just please explain why—we are we doing this. I wanted to look back in history and ask, well, where did this consensus come from? 

Alex: I think we’re very close in age: I was also in high school during 9/11. And I wonder if you share my feeling that that generation of political leaders’ casual invocation of the necessity and goodness of American superiority just rang hollow to the degree that you found it confusing why it was everywhere.

Stephen: That’s right. I mean, in retrospect it might have been more in the interests of those who wanted to maintain a political consensus around U.S. military leadership to be more accepting of smaller critiques, and, for example, admit that the war in Iraq was a terrible disaster and actually hold some people accountable. I think in a way this attachment to U.S. military force has created a real disaffection among a lot of Americans, especially the younger generation. I think it’s unfortunate, because I’m not an accelerationist.

Alex: If they’d had a couple of war crimes trials, maybe fewer of us would just reject the entire American superiority argument!

Stephen: Yeah—please, please be good liberals, do the whole game of coopting more radical critiques, bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, take this talking point about endless war and make it harder for people like me to use! But the system seems unwilling or unable to do that. And it has opened up, I think, a real questioning by many Americans, left and right, and especially younger Americans, about what this enormous structure of military power is supposed to achieve.

Laura: I think what you’re saying is that the moment of awakening is the post 9/11 period, the Iraq War. But what you’ve written is a book that focuses on World War II. Why did you want to go to that moment in history?

Stephen: Throughout my lifetime, there’s been a drumbeat of nostalgic calls to return the United States to the moment of untrammeled good that was World War II. We see it in recent history, with complaints that the Trump administration was trying to undo the U.S. post-war liberal world order, so-called. I thought, wait a minute, perhaps our current problems are rooted in the very moment that Americans tend to think is their greatest moment as a nation, World War II—it’s the moment that re-founded the modern United States. And so I wanted to think about why exactly the United States made a commitment at that time to be the preeminent military power in the world, when prior to World War II, in fact that was very much not what American leaders were pursuing.

Laura: Before 1945, what was America’s stance towards the rest of the world?

Stephen: Before the war, because I think the pivotal moment of change comes actually in 1940 and ’41, the United States had a foreign policy consensus that took the avoidance of armed entanglements in the so-called old world of Europe and Asia to be one of the core tenets that the United States should pursue. To be clear, the United States was a significant colonial power by the turn of the 20th century. But all this time, American presidents and intellectuals claimed it was one thing for the United States to attain dominance in the new world, but it would be quite another for us to similarly pursue dominance in Europe and Asia.

Alex: So the idea was that we as a nation could do basically whatever we wanted in what we considered our own backyard, our hemisphere. It was like, we do not need to get involved in whatever war Europe’s having now, they’re having them all the time, we don’t need to involve ourselves in that, right?

Stephen: That’s right. So this is not a vision of pacifism or anything like it, to be clear, but what it does mean is that a real rupture had to take place to breach this tradition of avoiding military entanglements and try to dominate the world as a whole.

Laura: So according to the traditional story that’s told about what happens in World War II, why did that change?

Stephen: The orthodox account goes something like this: The United States was once isolationist; maybe by World War I there were people who disagreed with that isolationism, and saw that the world was becoming more interconnected; the isolationists really didn’t want the United States to get involved in World War II; there was a battle between these two groups; and only after Pearl Harbor did it become obvious that the internationalists were correct, and the United States got involved in World War II. And then there’s some confusion in this narrative about exactly the extent to which the United States set out to be the dominant power after the war, but certainly by the cold war, the commitment to project its armed force globally was in place.

Laura: Where does the idea that the power America gained was kind of thrust upon it, that it was some form of unwanted destiny?

Stephen: The real answer is that that’s deeply embedded in American ideology, the ideology of exceptionalism, but the way that ideology is connected to actual events is to say, the United States was slumbering, it really didn’t want to get involved in international politics before Pearl Harbor, and then because it was attacked in this sneak attack by Japan, everyone woke up to the obvious threat, and from then on the United States acted differently.

Alex:  So that’s the story as I guess I remember it from school and maybe movies. What is the problem with it, in your view? 

Stephen: So it can’t possibly be the case that the United States was isolationist and isolationists were at the vanguard of American foreign policy, because no one even thought to use the term “isolationism” until the 1930s with any widespread currency. It was only as a set of Americans decided to make the United States a supreme military power that they started to call their opponents isolationists.

Laura: So when they’re using that word, what do they mean? What is an isolationist?

Stephen: What they’re doing is engaging in a conceptual slippage. They are trying to say that because somebody opposes the use of force on a global scale in Europe and Asia that they don’t want the United States to engage in any kind of interaction with the outside world.

Laura: I see, because I think when most people hear the term “isolationist,” they think it means when a country has a policy that it would never get involved in anything that happens outside its own borders.

Stephen: Right.

Laura: And what you’re saying is that has never been the case in American history. There’s never been a moment when the U.S. has been completely disentangled from every other country in the world, ever.

Stephen: Right. It’s just nonsense to say that the United States practiced anything like isolationism. In fact it’s so much nonsense nobody thought to use that term in reference to the United States until a very late date for a specific reason in the 30s and ’40s.

Laura: So one thing I’m trying to get straight is the difference between the orthodox account and the account you’re putting forward. Because in one, it seems like the entry of the U.S. into World War II is a reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor; in your account, it’s a more considered decision, is that right?

Stephen: So as the war in Europe began, toward the end of 1939, a whole set of American experts—people in universities, think tanks, and, in particular, the leaders of the Council on Foreign Relations—went down to Washington, and they got the state department to sign off on making the Council on Foreign Relations the semi-official site of U.S. post-war planning, even before the United States had entered the war and before, frankly, almost any American thought the United States should enter World War II.

Alex: I want to just ask a very basic question here: What is the Council on Foreign Relations?

Stephen: It’s a think tank. And it was part of the formation of a foreign policy elite in the United States that got going really after the First World War. By in a sense outsourcing post-war planning to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Roosevelt administration could avoid its becoming known that the U.S. government was already doing post-war planning, which could suggest an effort to get the United States into the war.

Laura: One thing I’m trying to understand is why this version of events calls into question the role America now has more than the traditional account does. Why should the fact that we decided to get involved make it more likely that we shouldn’t be involved anymore?

Stephen: One thing the history shows is that advocates of U.S. military dominance, most of them, in candid moments, understood that they were not acting to keep United States from being invaded. The United States was safe in North America. Likewise, the United States economy was prosperous, it did not need to take up arms in order to maintain the conditions of American economic prosperity at that time. So what it was doing was pursuing goals that were larger than that, and hard even for its advocates to articulate in concrete terms. The case for the U.S. becoming the dominant power in the post-war world hinged on a notion that world order would otherwise be under threat. 

The other reason why I think this history calls into question the current U.S. role is that the original argument for U.S. military primacy was premised on the idea that totalitarian powers might conquer much of the world. But once totalitarian conquerors disappeared, U.S. armed dominance came to be, in my view, something like an end unto itself. Given what we’ve seen in the last three decades, given the nature of the world in the 21st century, I think we have to ask, is the alternative to U.S. military dominance really worse than what we have seen to date, and where we might be going in the future?

Laura: I think that’s a good question: What is the alternative?

Stephen: I think the answer is a little bit different if you look at different regions. It seems very clear to me that if the United States were to withdraw from its endless wars in the Middle East, not only would it be significantly better off not sending people to die on a constant basis, but the region would also be better off. With respect to Europe, I would say something similar, even though the dynamics of Europe are really different. The ostensible reason that the United States is forward-deployed in Europe and insists on being the main arbiter of security questions there is to guard against the threat that Russia might conquer Europe. This is just not a plausible thing, and even if it were plausible, there is no reason why capable, wealthy European states with better healthcare systems than we have cannot judge these threats for themselves. So I think for those two regions the answer is really clear. The more difficult question is East Asia, given the rise of China, because China poses—or at least many in DC think that it poses—a similar kind of threat to what the axis powers pursued in the middle of the 20th century, and what Soviet-backed communism pursued: world domination by a power that could be described as totalitarian, certainly is illiberal. I don’t think that that’s a significant threat right now. China for all its troubling behavior on a number of fronts has not had a significant record of armed aggression. China deserves careful attention, but we still have an opportunity to play a more modest military role in East Asia, incentivize our partners and allies to step up. We should really not want to get into World War III with China if it’s not necessary to American security and if we can avoid it.

Laura: I think that the term that you’re using frequently is restraint, having some kind of presence but not being the overwhelming power. Even that seems like a pretty tough sell in American politics. What does it mean to be discussing these ideas and looking at this history at this moment?

Stephen: Something deep is changing in the United States right now. We just lived through the first election in American history where both candidates from major parties acknowledged that their country was engaging in endless war and vowed to end it, whether they meant it or not. That’s interesting. So am I terribly bullish that the kind of change I’d like to see in American foreign policy will happen over the next four years? Absolutely not. But I do think a number of positive steps may be taken, and when I look at a 10- or 20-year horizon, I think a tremendous amount of change may well be possible.

Alex: All right, Steven, thank you so much for talking to us today.

Stephen: Thank you so much.  

Alex: After a short break, we’ll talk to Alex Shepherd about the Senate runoff elections in Georgia.

Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler comes from a family of Midwestern farmers. She studied at the University of Illinois, got an MBA at DePaul University in Chicago, and worked in the private sector until 2019, when the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, appointed her to fill a Senate seat vacated by Johnny Isakson, who left for health reasons. This year, as a Senator, she conveniently offloaded some stocks just in time to escape the worst losses of the pandemic. Now she’s competing with Democrat Raphael Warnock in a runoff election, in one of two races up for grabs in Georgia. The contest is incredibly consequential. If Loeffler wins, Republicans will retain control of the Senate, and make life very, very hard for Joe Biden.

We’re joined now by Alex Shepherd, a staff writer at The New Republic, to talk about who Kelly Loeffler is, and why the insider trading fiasco hasn’t heard her more. Alex, just to start off, how exactly did a farm girl from Illinois end up a Senator from Georgia?

Alex Shepherd: I think if you listen to the way that Kelly Loeffler tells it, she is somebody who grew up on a hardscrabble soybean farm, and clawed her way to the top by sheer force of will and pluck. I think the real story is that she got there the way a lot of U.S. Senators have gotten there: She worked in the financial sector for a long period of time, amassing a small fortune, and then—I guess this is a little different than some other senators—she married the head of the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange. At that point, her fortune ballooned. She became the establishment Republican choice when a Georgia Senate seat opened up in late 2019. And she’s sort of clawed onto that seat ever since, fending off a Trumpist challenger whom I think the president still secretly wants, Doug Collins. But also she’s done it by tacking to the right and casting herself as one of Trump’s most important allies in the Senate.

But in general, she’s not the kind of person you look at and say, “This is a savvy campaigner, this is somebody who has a lot of experience in Georgia politics.” She hasn’t even lived in the state for very long. And I think that’s where some of the stuff about growing up on a farm comes from.

Alex Pareene: You’re right, she leans on the farming background a lot for, I think, rural  authenticity purposes. But Midwestern soybean farms are not little mom-and-pop operations. The American Prospect reported that, in addition to her father running a trucking business, they received literally millions of dollars in federal subsidies for their crops.

Alex Shepard: I mean, I was trying to dig into the specifics about her family’s financial situations, but I think if you just look at the disclosures that we do have from farm subsidies, the suggestion is that this is not a character out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, this is somebody who’s largely lived a pretty charmed life and amassed a sizable fortune to the point that she owns a professional sports franchise.

Laura: You’ve written about her for this issue’s “Oligarch of the Month” column. How rich is Kelly Loeffler?

Alex Shepherd: So this is one of the great mysteries. It’s difficult to tell even with financial disclosures, in part because so much of the wealth is tied up in stock. You can’t say that she is the richest member of Congress, so everyone comes up with a funny way to say it: “She’s likely the richest member of Congress”? But the general estimates are somewhere in the $500 million mark. The high estimate is about $800 million.

Laura: The photo that ran with your article in the magazine is her and her husband Jim Sprecher standing in front of their mansion in Georgia. You can see the front door, there are two big columns, lots of marble—it’s a real mansion, it’s not just a big house. That, I believe, was the most expensive real estate transaction in Atlanta history.

Alex Shepherd: My favorite thing about this house is that it has a name, and that name is Descante.

Laura: Pardon?

Alex Shepherd: According to this real estate article that I read, it’s a 15th century Italian word, and it means the highest harmony to the main melody of life.

Laura: Oh, how musical. Because once you get rich, then you have to prove that you are cultured.

Alex Pareene: It’s very funny the authenticity games you have to play as a wealthy person who has decided to enter electoral politics and what you have to do if you’re just being a normal wealthy person. Like on the one hand, when you’re trying to buy your way into high society, you’re like, “My house needs a name.” And then when you’re running in a runoff election, you’re like, “No one look at my house with a name.”

Alex Shepherd: When you start to read about these places, nothing about them makes any sense. One article referred to its “Versailles parquet.” And I was like, it sounds nice. I have no idea what it is.

Alex Pareene: We were looking into that for my kid’s bedroom—Versailles parquet.

Laura: Well, I guess all this discussion of her wealth leads into the main question I have about why Kelly Loeffler is even able to come in second in this last Senate race, and how she’s made it to a runoff, which is that the main thing that she’s known for is her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. What happened there?

Alex Shepherd: She sold $20 million in stocks after receiving a briefing about just how bad Covid-19 was at a time when most Americans weren’t thinking about it at all. Shortly after Kelly Loeffler joins the United States Senate, in January of this year, she is part of a closed door briefing of United States senators. The senators are told that this virus is very deadly, it’s going to result in a significant disruption of the United States economy. On the same day, Loeffler starts to unload stocks, and over the next few weeks, liquidates close to $20 million in stock holdings. Once Covid hits, those stocks lose a third of their value. She also buys two stocks, one of which is a company that makes telework software. So these are very prescient stock trades. While these investment decisions are being made, Loeffler is publicly backing the Trump administration’s line—“This is just like the flu, it’s going to go away.” Eventually, she is among four U.S. Senators whose trades are investigated by the Department of Justice and I believe the Senate Ethics Committee as well—Richard Burr, Jim Inhofe, Dianne Feinstein, and Kelly Loeffler.

Laura:  Obviously that happened quite a long time ago. Have there been any consequences for her?

Alex Shepherd: So Loeffler’s position is that she didn’t know about it, and that the timing of this just happened to coincide with this briefing from Dr. Fauci and others. Given her portfolio—and given that her husband is also the CEO of a company that is in charge of the New York Stock Exchange—it’s sensible that there would be third-party advisors making these decisions. And yet I think even that explanation overlooks the bigger problem here, which is that Loeffler was knowingly downplaying the risks of what was coming. And while she was doing that, whether she knew about it or not, she was making sure that her own house was very much in order.

Laura: In terms of there being an inquiry, that’s all over now?

Alex Shepherd: So the Department of Justice closed its inquiry in May, and Senate Ethics, I think, did around the same time. And I think because of the involvement of a third party, this case was probably not going to be prosecutable, although that says more about United States’ enforcement of insider trading laws in general. When you look into the actual circumstances here, it remains extraordinarily shady.

Alex Pareene: I can talk about congressional insider trading all day. It was fully legal until 2012.

Laura: Wait, what?

Alex Pareene: Yeah! It it was legal for members of Congress to insider trade until 2012. And then a round of insider trading scandals led them to pass the Stock Act, which finally made it illegal to insider trade for members of Congress. Originally the bill said that every stock trade they made and all their financial disclosures had to be available in an online database. And right after they passed it, they passed a new law that changed it, so that to get the records, you’d have to go to the basement of an actual Capitol building and print them out for, like, 15 cents a page. So it’s pretty difficult to get in trouble for insider trading in Congress.

Alex Shepherd: Yeah.

Laura: The thing I’m still trying to wrap my head around is, Okay, the investigation has been dropped. To be at the center of that story, though—surely that still has to be in the minds of voters. And 1.2 million voters in Georgia decided that Kelly Loeffler is the person that they want as their Senator. She got 25 percent of the vote. How does that happen?

Alex Shepherd: I think that there are a couple things happening here. One is that  these races are playing out in culture-war terms, and Loeffler has responded to these allegations as if these are political charges being made against her because people don’t like the president and they don’t like how much she likes the president.  I think the other thing is that Loeffler is running a campaign that is in large part opposed to Covid-19 restrictions, in a state whose governor, Brian Kemp, has been on the front lines of fighting against any sort of mask mandate or other restriction, to the point that they’re doing a campaign events that are largely unmasked. Florida Senator Rick Scott recently appeared without a mask at one and then tested positive.

Laura: So looking ahead to the runoff, if someone were to look at the last round, Warnock got 32 percent, Loeffler got 25, and her Republican rival, Doug Collins, got 20. Just looking at the math there, it seems like if you add up the two Republicans, you get a winner against the Democrat. What’s the likely outcome, in your opinion, of that runoff election in January?

Alex Shepherd: The way that Georgia runoffs work, they’ve always favored Republicans in the past. I think the Republicans are doing everything they possibly can on a national level to make this a referendum on the “stolen” election that happened on November 3. I do think that Georgia is a mystery all of a sudden, but Loeffler is clearly the favorite in this race and should probably be expected to win.

Alex Pareene: Well, that’ll give us plenty of time for various financial scandals to point at and ask why voters don’t care about them.