The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency
by John Mueller
Cambridge University Press, 2021, 332 pp.
The subtitle of John Mueller’s excellent new book suggests that something unusual is in store for the reader. If someone is called complacent, he is hardly being complimented; how then can there be a “case for complacency”? In brief, Mueller thinks that most of the threats and dangers that confront nations are really not that much to worry about, if they are not altogether imaginary. One example will give you a grasp of what he means. Mueller, who teaches political science at Ohio State University and is associated with the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, attracted substantial public attention in his earlier book Overblown (2006) when he said in the face of the 9/11 bombings that terrorist attacks posed little cause for concern, and he reiterates this claim in The Stupidity of War: “Overall, extremist Islamic terrorism in total claimed some 200–400 lives yearly worldwide outside of war zones, about the same as bathtub drownings in the United States. (p. 128. Page references are to the Amazon Kindle edition).
Getting overly concerned about threats itself poses a danger, and this one Mueller does not think is exaggerated. “A prominent finding in this book is that, even as international war has gone into decline, threat has been persistently inflated and militarized efforts to deal with some of them have been applied, often with tragic results as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq” (p. 193).
In what follows, I’ll discuss several examples of Mueller’s assessment of various alleged dangers, both in the past and facing us now. The first of these is one that may have already occurred to many readers. What about the Cold War? Didn’t the United States need to maintain massive nuclear armaments in order to deter the Soviet Union, whose leaders held an ideology that called for world revolution to establish communism?
In response, Mueller points out that “Stalin anticipated that there would be a harvest of congenial revolutions after the war [World War II] as well as internecine rivalries among capitalist states, developments that Communist doctrine had long held to be inevitable. It was obviously understandable that the capitalist countries of the West found this threatening. However, aggressive, conquering Hitlerian war by the Soviets themselves does not fit into this scheme of things at all, and it would foolishly risk everything” (p. 29). But didn’t Soviet caution stem from American nuclear deterrence? “No,” says Mueller. “[T]hose who would so contend need to demonstrate that the Soviets had the desire to risk anything that might in their wildest imagination come to resemble the catastrophe they had just endured” (p. 34). Readers of Murray Rothbard will recall that he held the same view. The communist threat to America was in essence through internal subversion, and spending vast sums of money on weapons is no way to counter that.
Mueller uses similar reasoning to downplay the danger of nations hostile to the United States arming themselves with nuclear weapons. In contrast with anguished concern lest North Korea launch a guided missile attack on America, Mueller says we have little to worry about: “North Korea sports the most pathetic, insecure, and contemptible regime in the world, and survival is about the only thing it has proved to be good at. It surely knows that launching a nuclear bomb somewhere against a set of enemies that possesses tens of thousands of them is a pretty terrible idea” (p. 175).
But what if he is wrong in his complacent judgments? Isn’t it better for the United States to be on the “safe side” by using its massive military superiority to dominate the world? Why minimize the dangers of threats when we can substantially curtail them, if not get rid of them altogether?
Mueller’s counter to this is that the quest for hegemony is futile but costly in lives and resources. By contrast with Samuel Moyn, who in Humane fears that that the efficient use of military force may lead to the domination of the world by a few global superpowers, he is skeptical of the whole concept of American “hegemony.”
Moreover, insofar as they [the concepts of “primacy” and “hegemony”] carry meaning, the militarized application of American primacy and hegemony to order the world has often been a fiasco. Indeed, it is impressive that the hegemon, endowed by definition [with] … a grossly disproportionate military capacity, has had such a miserable record of military achievement since 1945…. There is also the absurdity of getting uptight over something as vacuous as the venerable “sphere of influence” concept (or conceit)…. Setting aside the degree to which American “influence” could be said to dominate anywhere … it doesn’t bloody well matter whether China or Russia has, or seems to have a “sphere of influence” someplace or other. (p. 165)
One objection may have occurred to the reader. Even if Mueller’s sanguine judgments strike us a reasonable, isn’t it the course of wisdom to prepare for the worst case? Mueller thinks that China isn’t aggressively striving for world supremacy, but what if he is wrong? What if terrorists become effective and lethal, no longer the bumbling idiots he portrays them to be? Mueller says we should “hedge our bets” and have forces in being to cope with unexpected threats, but we ought resolutely to reject using the worst conceivable outcome to guide policy. Here he follows the eminent naval historian and defense strategist Bernard Brodie: “[A]larmism, based on what [Bernard] Brodie once called ‘worst-case fantasies’ perpetrated by a ‘cult of the ominous’ has dominated thinking about security” (p. 18).
What is one to make of Mueller’s case? One difficulty with it is a pervasive problem in contemporary political “science.” Arguments are put forward that are based on inductive generalizations from empirical data, but these generalizations do not suffice to establish scientific laws. Mueller lays great stress on the fact that over a long period of time, deaths in international conflicts have decreased (though this does not apply to civil wars). This he sees as a hopeful sign that war is on its way out. He says, for example, “Thus, international war seems to be in pronounced decline because of the way attitudes toward it have changed, roughly following the pattern by which the ancient and once-formidable formal institution of slavery became discredited and then obsolete.” (p. 13) This is speculative and lacking in rigor. In addition, he often supports crucial parts of his various judgments about countries and cases by quoting other political scientists who agree with him. But to look for genuine science in this area may be to ask for too much, and Mueller’s bracing challenges to the “conventional wisdom” merit our closest attention. His books deserves to be put on the shelf next to one of the best books on foreign policy I have ever read, Eric Nordlinger’s Isolationism Reconfigured, (Princeton, 1995) to which he rightly draws our attention (p. 193). He has certainly succeeded in showing that “although there are certainly problem areas and issues in the world, none of these presents a security threat to the United States large or urgent enough to justify the maintenance of a large military force-in-being” (p. 142).