Impact Stories
September 13, 2023 – Foreign Policy

Tufts scholars: Dignity undermined by military-first foreign policy

Tufts scholars: Dignity undermined by military-first foreign policy

In Dying by the Sword, Tufts University scholars Monica Toft and Sidita Kushi provide the only historical and data-driven review of U.S. foreign policy trends from 1776 until the present. Their book offers evidence that, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has drastically escalated use of force abroad without having concrete strategic goals. This approach undermines U.S. national interests and human dignity. 

The Charles Koch Foundation spoke with Toft and Kushi about their book.

CHARLES KOCH FOUNDATION (CKF): We’ll get to your findings in a moment, but first tell me what sparked your interest in this topic? 

TOFT: I’m a military veteran. I don’t want U.S. troops in harm’s way if they’re not really advancing national interests. And if our intervention doesn’t protect human rights and doesn’t positively impact the economic growth of a state, it’s worrisome. Before beginning research for Dying by the Sword, I finished a book on civil wars. I found when outside states intervene in these conflicts, it prolongs war. The United States is, of course, one of the biggest interveners in civil wars. That knowledge prompted questions: Are we over-relying on the use of force and are we actually advancing democracy and prosperity when we intervene? I wanted to answer these questions. 

KUSHI: I’m from Albania. When the United States intervened in Kosovo, it saved my ethnic Albanian family members there. That’s how I became interested in humanitarian military intervention in general. Additionally, as an immigrant, I have a strong sense of idealism about what the United States should offer. On a personal level, I want to ensure the United States lives up to its promises. After diving into the research, I quickly realized I wasn’t aware of some of the more specialized operations the United States had waged. If I, as an academic, didn’t always know where the U.S. military was going, for what purpose, and at what cost, I can only imagine what average Americans knew. Our book gives citizens data to decide whether the United States is living up to its ideals through its foreign policy.

CKF: Tell me about your findings. Is the United States utilizing and exhausting diplomatic options before resorting to military intervention? 

TOFT: As scholars, you’re supposed to have a hypothesis that’s either confirmed or disconfirmed. We really didn’t know what the data were going to show. But the conclusion was clear, so before you open the book, you see what we found. The cover is an image Franz Kafka used in his novel, Amerika: the Statue of Liberty holding a sword not a light. We found that, over time, the United States has turned away from using statecraft — even coercive diplomacy where a nation makes escalating threats in hopes an adversary will comply — as a first resort. We now use force first seeming to follow the philosophy that “might makes right.” The point that best illustrates this movement is that the United States has more special military operators deployed throughout the world than ambassadors. 

CKF: How is Dying by the Sword different from other studies of U.S. use of force? How does it open up the debate about this issue?

TOFT: There hasn’t been an adequate dataset that could help explore questions about U.S. use of force and whether it has made the world and the country safer. We started our research by looking at existing literature and data. They couldn’t fully confirm how engaged the United States has been and what were the implications of intervention. That’s not a knock on other scholars. Our dataset wouldn’t be possible without their work. We’ve advanced quite a bit as a field in recent years. Data gathering and recording methods have improved. 

KUSHI: We have a robust dataset where we’ve collected every instance of U.S. military intervention we could confirm, but alongside every point is an examination of more than 200 variables that measure the nature of the intervention and its objectives. We measured costs, human rights indicators within the target state before and after intervention, and, of course, U.S. national interests. We also have written case studies. A reader can look at our dataset and then get an overview of what those indicators say about an intervention. It’s in those case studies that readers will really be able to engage with what worked and what didn’t work. 

CKF: Why, over the last two decades or so, has the United States favored intervention over other levers of statecraft? 

TOFT: It’s a combination of factors. Initially it obviously was the United States establishing itself separately from Britain. The American Indian wars were next, which were fought against sovereign nations with whom the United States had treaties, and these were about trying to expand and secure borders. Skip forward to the 20th century and we were trying to rescue the world from authoritarianism. So, it really depends on the period, but the cumulative effect is that today we have an institutionalized tool for war. And our bias is to use it. As Madeleine Albright said, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall.” 

CKF: The book shows cracks in foreign policy decision-making really grow in the 21st century. What did you find regarding post-9/11 intervention?   

KUSHI: The United States has always used its military to pursue its interests across historical eras, but as it grew more powerful, its military forays grew and expanded across the globe. During the Cold War for instance, our strategy and interests relative to the Soviet Union were clear, which limited some of our worst impulses (although not all). Even in the 1990s in Kosovo, we used only limited air strikes for about 70 days and that was after multiple diplomatic channels were exhausted. And when our clear goal was reached, that air campaign stopped. Contrast that with Afghanistan where we defeated the Taliban and stayed for two decades with little to show for it. Over the last couple of decades, the United States has struggled to identify the objective of its interventions and the interests it is pursuing with these interventions

In Iraq, you start to see the limits of U.S. militarism. We quickly overthrew the government, but because we didn’t use much diplomatic expertise and levers, we didn’t have the linguistic and cultural knowledge needed to navigate the dynamics on the ground such as different factions and their competing interests. We also didn’t know what Iraqis needed or wanted. So, our initial military win turned into a much longer war. 

CKF: What are the implications of the shift you illustrate? Monica, you’re a veteran. One of CKF’s principles is honoring human dignity. How does a foreign policy that resorts to force first undermine dignity? 

TOFT: This question is one that’s bothered me as I’ve gotten deeper into our research — the human element of our strategic operations. Any military leader, or leader for that matter, will tell you sending people into war is the most difficult decision they will make. But the U.S. military is subordinate to civilian leadership. Its leaders must follow civilian orders. Policymakers shouldn’t ask military leaders to sacrifice life if they cannot define what our national interest is. Especially not if diplomatic avenues haven’t been exhausted or even attempted. What I would hope is when a president promises to defend the U.S. Constitution, part of that pledge includes not putting another human life in peril if it isn’t absolutely necessary. Right now, our civilian leaders are letting us down. It is their job to define our national interests and then make the determination as to when to use force. I’d hope that decision is not made in haste since the consequences are extraordinarily harmful, even if just.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Monica Duffy Toft is academic dean and professor of international politics and director of the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Kushi is assistant professor of political science at Bridgewater State University and a non-residential fellow at CSS.