Why you should care
Because the U.S. may not have to go it alone on international security.
At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, U.S. President Donald Trump reassured the assembled political and business heavyweights that “America first does not mean America alone.”
That also could be the mantra for U.S. military strategy. Despite talk of a border wall and an overall Fortress America vibe these days among some members of the American body politic, the reality is that the U.S. is intricately involved in the military affairs of the world.
According to spokesman Ken McGraw of the U.S. Special Operations Command:
In 2017 America’s elite troops, including Navy SEALs, Delta Force and Army Special Forces, conducted missions in about 70 percent of the world’s nations.
That tally includes an estimated 8,000 personnel in combat and non-combat roles as the U.S. works actively with the militaries of more than three dozen countries and funnels money and equipment to armed forces in nearly 130 nations. The tab: $20 billion per year.
This dense web of bilateral agreements poses a few challenges, including relationships with the occasional unsavory partner. Take Indonesia, for example. Recently, in Jakarta, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis laughed and smiled as Kopassus, the Indonesian Army special forces group that conducts unconventional warfare, counterterrorism and special reconnaissance, put on a show — drinking snake blood, rolling in glass, breaking bricks with their heads and walking on fire. The military spectacle culminated in a hostage-rescue exercise set to the theme song from Mission: Impossible.
The U.N. is by far the best bang for the buck. It tends to go to places the U.S. wants, but more cheaply and effectively.
Rachel Kleinfeld, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The dog-and-pony performance sent the cabinet member known as “Mad Dog” back to the Pentagon to consider improved military cooperation. One obstacle — the Leahy Law, named for U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. It bars U.S. assistance and training to foreign military units known to have committed gross human rights abuses. That’d be Kopassus. The Pentagon has restricted funding to the group since 1999, when Indonesia conducted what Human Rights Watch called a “scorched earth campaign” in East Timor.
“U.S. support is a pretty broad statement — we have all sorts of relationships with all sorts of different countries,” says Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Generally, they are highly mutual. Many governments want the status and the security that comes from the U.S., while the U.S. offers security guarantees to countries in exchange for not developing weapons, among many other things.”
The largest area of current operations — outside Afghanistan and the Middle East — is Africa, where about 6,000 U.S. troops are engaged in security and counterterrorism missions against al-Qaida affiliates al-Shabab, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram. Two-thirds of American personnel are based in Djibouti, home to the only official U.S. military base on the continent. The Defense Department has also allocated about 1,700 special forces “advising and assisting” local soldiers in battlefield guidance, although these elite warriors also take part in a broad range of missions, including retaking enemy territory and capturing terrorist leaders.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has decreased its military contributions to multilateral treaty organizations and institutions, such as NATO and the United Nations, which are better equipped to assess and manage threats, according to Michael O’Hanlon of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution. In 2015, the U.S., as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, contributed about $2 billion of the $8.3 billion U.N. peacekeeping budget — a tiny fraction of the $598.5 billion U.S. military budget for the same year, according to the Congressional Briefing Book. In 2017, when President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. voted to cut $150 million from its contribution to U.N. peacekeeping and bolstered its own military spending by $80 billion.
“It costs the U.S. more than $1 million per U.S. troop in Afghanistan per year,” O’Hanlon says. “The total actual U.S. cost of the Afghanistan mission now exceeds $20 billion a year.” The entire U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations budget is less than half that, and it funds 16 or 17 missions around the world with more than 100,000 total troops.
“It’s extremely short-sighted strategy to pull from the U.N. and put into the U.S.,” Kleinfeld says, pointing to a 2017 Rand Corporation report that found U.N. peacekeeping operations can be “an effective means of terminating conflicts, insuring against their reoccurrence and promoting democracy … and have a robust positive effect on peacebuilding outcomes … [which is] stronger when peacekeepers remain.” In other words, U.N. peacekeepers are good at their jobs, especially if they stick around.
While Mattis contemplates reinvesting in the cobra-biting Indonesian troops, Kleinfeld suggests more U.S. contributions to the U.N. in terms of money and Security Council presence — but that would entail a reversal of the Trump doctrine to date. “The U.N. is by far the best bang for the buck,” Kleinfeld says. “It tends to go to places the U.S. wants, but more cheaply and effectively and with a lot more predictable outcomes.”