Most Americans do not support our country’s militaristic foreign policy strategy or find it to be effective. A new resolution from Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) offers solutions and a promising vision for how America could engage with the world.
The 20th anniversary of 9/11 following the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan last year marked a significant milestone in the US Global War on Terror. In light of the withdrawal, the Eurasia Group Foundation polled Americans’ foreign policy views after two decades of war. The results are definitive: An overwhelming majority of Americans desire greater restraint on defense activities and spending.
The study found more than three-quarters of Americans believe that, unless the United States is under direct attack, the president should be required to seek approval from Congress before ordering military action abroad. US weapons sales to foreign nations continue to lack public backing, and twice as many Americans want to decrease the defense budget in favor of redirecting resources domestically. When it comes to young adults, that number increases fivefold in favor of cutting funding to the Pentagon.
If Americans overwhelmingly support enhancing defense oversight and restraint, why didn’t Congress or the Biden administration take more decisive action on defense policy reform?
These sentiments are not new. According to a 2004 Pew Research Center poll, most Americans think the top priorities of US foreign policy should be to “follow moral principles” (72%) and “follow a cautious approach” (66%). A “Forceful” approach was ranked lowest of all, receiving support from only 23% of Americans. Only a year after the war began, as the dubious justification for the invasion of Iraq emerged, 59% of Americans blamed the Bush administration for being too eager to use force instead of engaging in diplomatic solutions.
Fast forward 16 years to 2020. President Joe Biden campaigned on promises to end the now deeply unpopular “forever wars” and re-center human rights in American foreign policy. He handily won the popular vote in the 2020 election, in which 57% of registered voters reported foreign policy was a priority. With Democrats also controlling Congress, it seemed plausible that defense reforms aligned with the public’s pragmatic interests in oversight and restraint would take center stage under the new administration.
That turned out to be far from the case. While Biden withdrew troops from Afghanistan per a deal brokered between the Trump administration and the Taliban, the often inaccurate and legally-disputed air campaigns in Iraq and Syria continue. After a year in office, he has failed to follow through on many of the campaign promises that his administration has sole authority over, including limiting arms transfers to human rights abusers and revising landmine policy. In many ways, Biden’s foreign policy is nearly indistinguishable from Trump’s.
THE DISAPPOINTING ACT
In December 2021, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Not only did Congress increase defense spending, but the 2022 NDAA contains few of the desired changes in defense policy that the majority of Americans support and voted for. Specifically, five amendments that would have directly addressed the public’s interest in limiting presidential war powers, reducing foreign arms sales, and reining in astronomical defense spending did not make it into the final version of the NDAA.
For one, Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN) attempted to include language repealing the 1991 and 2002 Iraq war authorizations, which have long outlived their original mandates and have been used to justify a dangerous executive expansion of war powers.
A second amendment offered by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) would have prohibited continued US military presence in Syria without explicit congressional approval, preventing the continuation of yet another unauthorized war in violation of the constitution.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) also proposed an amendment that would have expressly prohibited US arms sales to any country that has engaged in war crimes or gross human rights violations. The US is the world’s largest arms dealer, selling weapons to countries that contribute to corruption, instability, and conflict — and 40% of our weapons customers commit human rights abuses against their own citizens.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Ocasio-Cortez also proposed cutting the defense budget by 10% to address the widespread waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars spent on the Pentagon and support domestic priorities.
Finally, Rep. Lee (D-CA) and Sara Jacobs (D-CA) proposed an amendment that would reduce the amount of funding authorized for the 2022 defense budget to be no more than the amount requested by the president. This is significant because each year, Congress allocates more money to the Department of Defense than it requests, and much of that is defense industry pork. In 2022, Congress tacked on $25 billion more than what the military said it needed for national defense.
WHO IS CONGRESS LISTENING TO?
All of these amendments failed. If Americans overwhelmingly support enhancing defense oversight and restraint, why didn’t Congress or the Biden administration take more decisive action — or hardly any at all — on defense policy reform? The answer is rooted in what many disillusioned Americans already believe: Their votes do not matter. Data show US policy is overwhelmingly skewed to represent the interests of the wealthiest Americans and big businesses who spend billions on lobbying efforts every year.
A study conducted by Princeton University researchers found the wealthiest top 10% of Americans have 78% of their policy preferences represented in Congress’s decisions, followed by business groups with 43% of their preferences supported, and interest groups with 24% of their preferences supported. Last are average citizens, who have only 5% of their interests represented in Congress’s policy choices. The study points out that when Congress does pass popular laws, it is only because those policies are also preferred by the wealthiest and most influential Americans. In summary, “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
As it turns out, the priorities of elites — the profit-driven defense industry, ancillary foreign policy experts, and corporate financiers who own and invest in them — are at odds with what matters to everyday Americans. This incentive structure is not only undemocratic, it is ineffective. After 20 years of war and trillions of dollars spent on defense, Americans view the US as having failed to achieve our goals in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, we are now faced with horrific and ongoing humanitarian crises, increasing terrorism, global democratic backsliding, and remain ill-prepared for impending climate disasters.
THE PUSH TO REORIENT US FOREIGN POLICY
Despite the overall inertia in Congress, there are dedicated legislators working and organizing for the changes American’s want to see. On Jan 19, 2022, Rep. Jayapal (D-WA) and Lee (D-CA) introduced the Foreign Policy for the 21st Century Resolution to reorient the US away from militarism and toward diplomacy and public accountability.
In addition to expressing the need for human rights conditions on weapons sales, greater arms control, and cutting down on wasteful Pentagon spending, the resolution provides a necessary reframing of how we think about national security. For decades, Congress has fixated on US military primacy as the dominant tool of foreign policy at the expense of diplomacy. For context, defense expert William Hartung found the federal government allocated more funding to defense contractor Lockheed Martin in war-related contracts in 2020 than was provided for the State Department and the Agency for International Development budgets combined. While the military will always play a role in defending national security, the Foreign Policy for the 21st Century Resolution urges action to ensure it is not the primary method of American engagement in world affairs.
Furthermore, the resolution expresses the need to invest in solutions to the most pressing threats facing the United States today, including future pandemics, natural disasters, economic inequality, disinformation, and rising white supremacist violence. These are not challenges that can be solved through military means or more dangerous and redundant nuclear weapons. In fact, militarism is one of the drivers of climate change, political polarization, and factors that keep the US perpetually in or at the brink of conflict.
The polls are clear: Americans do not want to engage or invest in more war. Yet, most of our elected officials continually choose to maintain the calamitous status quo to our collective detriment. The fact that over the last month, majorities in Congress voted for a record-setting Pentagon budget to pursue a foreign policy strategy that most Americans do not support, while at the same time moved to undermine voting rights, demonstrates the unsettling truth about the priorities of the US government. It is high time to end Congress and the executive branch’s business-as-usual approach to security. Americans must unite behind a more principled and effective defense strategy, as outlined in the Foreign Policy for the 21st Century Resolution, that will best protect our nation and world — not elite interests.
Hanna Homestead is a security policy researcher, recent Columbia SIPA graduate, and emerging expert with the Forum on the Arms Trade.