Imagine if you were the President of the United States and, angry at the incessant nagging of your national security advisers, you decided to put their terrible warnings to the test. An effective (albeit insanely risky) way to do this would be as follows. First, you'd spend four years publicly mocking these consultants while gutting their employees and filling their offices with loyal but incompetent hacks. Then in the last two weeks of your term in office – arguably the most fragile moment in any government – you would unleash a riot that diverts the country's attention from absolutely everything else and makes it uniquely vulnerable to attack. And then you'd sit in front of the TV, skip all of your intelligence and just watch what happened.
While his motives may have been different, Donald Trump did so during his disastrous four years as president. And the results were unexpected, to say the least, especially given the kind of warnings we've all heard from national security experts over the past 20 years. Between January 2017 and January 2021, the United States suffered only a handful of domestic attacks by Islamist extremists. And none of the country's main opponents – Russia, China or Iran – took advantage of the chaos by taking major violent military steps against it. (Hacking was a different story, but it never reached the level of a kinetic attack or triggered a similar response.)
What explains this remarkable result? John Mueller, a distinguished political scientist at Ohio State University, provides an answer in his new book, The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency. The attacks never took place, argues Mueller, because despite what you've heard, the United States today is not facing any major security threats. The only dangers are the feverish imaginations of US politicians and defense planners.
The full thesis of Müller's important, albeit highly idiosyncratic, book goes something like this. Point one: war is stupid and always has been. Point two: Since the First World War, more and more citizens and their leaders have recognized this truth. Point three: This has now led to an almost universal "aversion to international war" and a "culture or society of international peace". This culture has made the traditional war between developed states "obsolete, if not completely obsolete".
However, the US government has consistently failed to recognize this reality due to its habit of making wild extrapolations based on a few rare events – mainly the Korean War and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. US security experts viewed these experiences as frightening harbingers of things to come, rather than the extremely luck-dependent one-offs that they actually were. The reality, however, is that today's international environment is not very threatening for the United States. Mueller's snack? The country doesn't need its huge standing military and should shrink it right away.
Muellers is the latest in a series of books by restrainers who argue that the US's highly militarized pursuit of hegemony is a dangerous flaw that has done very little good and great damage domestically and internationally. (Other recent examples include Stephen Wertheim's Tomorrow, the World, and Andrew Bacevich's The Age of Illusions.)
Your arguments are important and deserve wide hearing, especially at the beginning of the Biden administration when the feeling is that the world is entering a new era and the future direction of US foreign policy seems to be winning. Books like Muellers should help inform the debate. So it is worth taking a closer look at his central observations.
Müller has emphasized since 1945: "The United States … has never really faced a really significant security threat that continues to this day." During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was never really interested in attacking the United States. Although she dreamed of expanding her empire, she tried to do so by sparking communist revolutions abroad, not through military conquest. The threat posed by radical Islamist terrorism is similarly low today. There have been extremely few successful attacks in the United States since September 11th. Even around the world, the number of annual deaths from Islamic terrorism roughly equals the number of Americans drowning in their bathtubs each year.
Washington's other major fixations – a scheming Russia and a resurgent China – should also be kept in mind. Both countries are powerful and their leaders often speak threateningly. But both operate trading states that depend on global stability and peace. And neither Vladimir Putin nor Xi Jinping have Hitler-like ambitions to conquer large new territories by force.
Which leads to Mueller's third key point, his argument against Washington's insistence on maintaining its vast military. Not only is this criminally expensive (Müller estimates the price at a cool half a trillion dollars a year), but the expense comes with enormous opportunity costs: Müller makes an estimate that the United States would deter the Soviets if it deterred the money The Cold War had instead been invested in the domestic economy and would have "generated an additional 20 or 25 percent of production over the long term". Worse still, the existence of the United States' vast arsenal has proven irresistibly seductive to the country's leaders who cannot resist reaching for it when problems arise. (When you have a billion dollar, precision-guided stealth hammer, everything looks like a jihad nail.)
If Muller had stopped there and wrapped up his book with some policy, the stupidity of war would have deserved a place on the White House bookshelves for the administrations to come. But he doesn't do any of these things, with the unfortunate consequence that the book is too easily discarded.
First, while Mueller's foggy and curious affect can be amusing at times (threats are not just "seen" but "spied on"), he is so determined to challenge conventional wisdom on every run that he gets into wild deviations. These do not serve the larger argument and distract – as if he paused for a long time to insist on the futility of the anti-Vietnam war movement. Meanwhile, if Müller indulges in an inflammatory moral dudgeon on random subjects, the results get worse when he realizes – seemingly out of nowhere – that abortion is a "high-tech form of infanticide" that is "used to eradicate." has led “more life than in World War II. "
Worse still, Müller sometimes swings so hard at the fences that he sniffs completely. For example, while minimizing the threat Iran poses to the United States, he likened the 1979-81 hostage crisis to a mere case of "house arrest," as if incarcerated US diplomats were allowed to sleep comfortably in their own beds while the harrowing one 444 day episode. (They weren't.) Even more problematic, while downplaying the threat posed by China, Müller cheerlessly rejects Beijing's dealings with his Uighur minority as merely "graceful". His intention here may be to come across as bold or ironic, but the result is ugly and morally dull.
Passages like this are likely to alienate readers, which is a shame since the essence of the book is so important. War is stupid, after all – a truth all leaders should work even harder on to keep track of things. The stupidity of war, however, has an even bigger flaw. Like the work of so many restrained people today, Mueller's argument is almost entirely negative; He does a great job killing some sacred cows, but he never really delivers the subtitle of his book by outlining an alternative U.S. foreign policy. Although he writes positively about the virtues of "appeasement" (which he believes has an undeservedly bad reputation in Munich) and "complacency", he does not give much insight into what those principles would look like in action. And that's a shame. The loophole makes readers wonder what US policy towards China, Iran, and Russia would look like in Müller's ideal world.
And the oversight allows him to skip many of the difficult questions a military cut would force Washington to ask itself. For example, if the United States withdrew its forces from around the world, it would have to rely more on proxies to accomplish its goals (or simply allow them to serve their own). But the past few years have shown what it looks like to let the Saudis and Israelis run free in the Middle East, and it's not nice. Could the United States take any more of this? Maybe, but if we are really serious about avoiding more US military operations, the question should be openly discussed. Similarly, a smug appeasement of China could lead to a world order much more shaped by Beijing's preferences than Washington's. Could the United States adapt to such a world? Maybe, but Müller does not tell us what compromises and sacrifices this would mean.
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question concerns one of Müller's strongest arguments in favor of dismantling the United States military machine: that its existence has repeatedly led the country's leaders to use it. If this prospect worries Müller so much, why doesn't China's rapid military build-up seem to concern him? After all, his general case for complacency is based on his argument that China is a status quo player with little appetite for military adventure. But if the construction of huge arsenals inevitably entices their owners to use them, won't Beijing soon find military adventures that cannot be resisted?
In the end, none of this may matter. As Mueller acknowledges, few current US policymakers are likely to accept them, no matter how strong his arguments. The political risk of appearing weak and allowing an attack on the watch is simply too great. Even so, the country is in an inward mood and its new president is a cautious pragmatist who has been very skeptical of military missions in the past. (Joe Biden was one of the few directors in the Obama administration who opposed, for example, the robbery that killed Osama bin Laden.) If a book like Mueller's can help heighten that caution, we could all be better off be.