Drone Diplomacy: America’s Intervention Problem
06-17-2019 05:58pm

Drone Diplomacy: America’s Intervention Problem

A new research project aims to tally the bill of American military intervention and spotlight the need for a return to diplomacy and statesmanship

A few years ago, as she researched civil wars around the globe, international relations scholar Monica Duffy Toft noticed two emerging trends: regions where there had already been a civil war were far more likely to engage in conflicts, and third party intervention was the biggest factor in extending or sparking them. And the country that most commonly intervened? The United States.

It seemed counterintuitive to Toft, the Director of the Center for Strategic Studies and a Professor of International Politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School outside Boston. Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, a development that left the United States as the world’s lone superpower, the rate of American intervention had increased astronomically. Conventional wisdom held that a period of relative peace globally would bring lower threats abroad and less need for U.S. intervention. There should have been a peace dividend.

“I became really concerned about defense spending,” she says. The United States, fueled by what Toft calls an “addiction to intervention,” spent nearly $700 billion on military spending in 2018.

So last September, Toft started work on her ambitious Military Intervention Project (MIP), which aims to create a comprehensive database that catalogs the costs — financial, military, social and otherwise — of all the military conflicts in American history.

According to the MIP data, the U.S. has undertaken over 500 interventions since its founding in 1776. More than a third of those have taken place since 1999, a frenetic pace of foreign military engagement that Toft found startling.

The United States’ increased reliance on kinetic diplomacy, Toft’s term for diplomacy that relies solely on the use of armed force, led her to launch the MIP, which seeks to quantitatively measure the overall costs, benefits, and unintended consequences of all US military involvements abroad and to provide historical narratives for how they came about and their consequences. By laying bare the numbers and the history, Toft, who served four years in the U.S. Army as a Russian linguist, aims to highlight what she considers the backwardness of current U.S. military policy and the utter breakdown of traditional statecraft and diplomacy.

Toft traces the explosion of kinetic diplomacy to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, after which President George W. Bush declared his administration’s ambiguous “war on terror” and then, more specifically, to the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The subsequent increased reliance on special forces operations and drone strikes have only accelerated the trend.

“We’ve completely forgotten about diplomacy,” she says. “Our diplomatic core and the State Department has been woefully underfunded and under resourced for decades. This is not just a Trump administration phenomenon; this has been going on for decades.”

Data collection began last fall, and the work requires meticulous research. So far, Toft’s team has identified more than 200 variables, including political, economic, and social data points to analyze the various interventions. To this point, the team, which has numbered as many as 30 students and research assistants, is focused on the post-1945 time period, from the end of World War II to present day. It’s the logical time frame to tackle first, as variable comparisons across the past century are easier to make. Once you start comparing conflicts from the past 75 years to the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, says Toft, there are fewer ‘apples to apples’ comparisons.

One example: political parties. Since World War II, the two-party system has become relatively cemented, so when comparing interventions one variable can be whether the Democrats or Republicans held the House, Senate, Oval Office, or some combination thereof. That’s not quite so easy the further back you go in the history books.

“It turns out it’s really hard because we’ve had so many political parties,” explains Toft. “We tend to think it is only Republican or Democrat, but you go back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and we had a host of other parties. Just consider that the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party (yes, you read that correctly) used to be the two main parties at the country’s founding. So it just gets more complicated when you start to code different variables for statistical analysis.”

The MIP isn’t the first project of its kind, but the aim is to make it the most comprehensive set of data ever compiled on the subject of military intervention.

Toft’s goal is to complete the data collection by June 2020, and her team is already posting data and insights gathered so far on the MIP project page at the CSS web site. The page will continue to be updated as the project moves along.

The ultimate goal is to build a searchable online database where anyone can research the costs of intervention throughout American history, by dollars, lives, geographical region, or whatever variables they choose. Though it will require additional funding to complete, Toft and her team aim to arm the American public — from legislators and policymakers to the general citizenry — with the data they need to determine for themselves whether the cost of intervention is worth the price and sacrifice.

“I hope that other scholars take up the mantle and the job of also investigating this from different vantage points — this hyper militarism, this over securitization of U.S. policy,” says Toft.

“Secondarily, I hope that policymakers look at this and say, ‘Wow, we need to look at this strategy.’ Perhaps restrain the use of force and look for alternatives including trade and diplomacy.”

“And then of course, the hope is that the voters would put pressure on policymakers to say our government budget is best spent elsewhere,” she concludes. “Because it is really crazy when you look at the defense budget, as opposed to other budgets. It’s really out of control.”

Learn more about the Military Intervention Project here.

03-03-2021 08:40am

How does social media impact democracy?

We ask NYU Center for Social Media and Politics codirector Joshua Tucker what we do — and don't — know about social media and democracy.

Read more

02-24-2021 08:32am

What is the biggest challenge in immigration reform today?

Within Rice University's Baker Institute, Tony Payan and Pamela Lizette Cruz bring fact-based insights to a charged national conversation.

Read more

02-17-2021 09:01am

Questioning the status quo

We learn from Doug Berman, Executive Director of the Drug Enforcment and Policy Center at The Ohio State University.

Read more

Sign up for our newsletter

Regular news and impact stories