How Perpetual War Became U.S. Ideology

Why the United States has found itself in a seemingly endless series of wars over the past two decades.

My first piece for The Atlantic, “How Perpetual War Became U.S. Ideology,” is posted.Some excerpts:

The United States has found itself in a seemingly endless series of wars over the past two decades. Despite frequent opposition by the party not controlling the presidency and often that of the American public, the foreign policy elite operates on a consensus that routinely leads to the use of military power to solve international crises.

Neoconservatives of both parties urge war to spread American ideals, seeing it as the duty of a great nation. Liberal interventionists see individuals, not states, as the key global actor and have deemed a Responsibility to Protect those in danger from their own governments, particularly when an international consensus to intervene can be forged. Traditional Realists, meanwhile, initially reject most interventions but are frequently drawn in by arguments that the national interest will be put at risk if the situation spirals out of control.


While neoconservatives and liberal interventionists have led post-Cold War U.S. foreign policymaking, traditional realists continue to dominate the academic study of security policy and even the rank-and-file military and intelligence communities. But their more ideological brethren are better positioned to win the day politically.

The Cold War not only provided a neat national grand strategy, the prospect that superpower competition could lead to global nuclear annihilation greatly restrained the inclination for adventurism. That may be why, for example, no one seriously suggested a Responsibility to Protect Ugandan innocents from the atrocities of military dictator Idi Amin; Uganda was a Soviet client state. Similarly, a U.S. invasion of Libya to affect regime change after Muammar Gaddafi’s 1980s terrorist strikes against our citizens would have been unthinkable. There was simply too much risk of escalating U.S.-Soviet tension.

Those days are gone. Bush senior proclaimed a “new world order” after the quick and decisive victory in the 1991 Gulf War, thinking that a permanent international consensus to enforce norms of decency had been forged. Though that grand vision never came to pass, the notion that the United States and its allies were now free to project power to “do good” has remained intact.

This has coincided with a still-ongoing revolution in global communications technology. With the rise of network news channels that can broadcast far-away violence into American living rooms, and more recently of social media technologies that give voice to oppressed peoples in all corners of the globe, this environment has made it much easier for advocates of humanitarian intervention to make their case.

Realist arguments about national interests, unknown risks, and post-conflict reconstruction have proven far less able to sway Americans than are television images of humans being slaughtered. Whereas the victims of Idi Amin were statistics, those dying in the Arab Spring have faces, names, and Facebook accounts.

The passionate zeal of the liberal interventionists and neoconservatives satisfies an emotional hunger that has been a part of our political system since the emotion-laden days of the Cold War, when the public first came to view U.S. foreign policy as a tool of good to be deployed against evil. Both ideologies use the language of morality and appeal to our shared humanity. People want to do something about tragedy and it’s easy to persuade them that doing the right thing will be worthwhile. Realists may often be right, but they are rarely convincing.

The heart of the argument is between those. I invite you to read it at the link.

FILED UNDER: Environment, Published Elsewhere, Science & Technology, The Presidency, World Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    “The United States has found itself in a seemingly endless series of wars over the past two decades.”

    Two decades? As I pointed out here before, I’m 70 years old and in every decade of my life, my country has been at war someplace.

  2. john personna says:

    I don’t know sam, if you put some threshold of “trooms in the field” for a real “war” it looks different.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @sam: What jp said.

    During the Cold War, there was perpetual motion in brushfires and the like. But only Vietnam and Korea were significant conflicts. And both were directly tied to the fight against Communism, however ill advised.

    Since 1991, we’re constantly intervening in other people’s civil wars, usually for purposes unrelated to US national interests. That’s a very different mindset and one that means perpetual, rather than merely frequent, war.

  4. john personna says:

    I have been an admirer of “The New American Militarism” by Bacevich (2005). I’m thinking over James’ article in that context. The two seem broadly compatible.

    Perhaps the sad thing is that while the real swing toward militarism is over, the wars remain.

    The public has lost its appetite, but less so … the elites?

  5. James Joyner says:

    @jp: My original title was “Elite Consensus: Perpetual War.” And, yes, my belief it that the elites naturally converge on intervention even when the public is leery. Neocons see it as a duty to spread democracy and American power while libs see it as a duty to protect the weak; the destination is the same either way.

    Normal people ask: Is it worth it? Elites have other considerations: What will the message to others be? How will it look in hindsight if we let this atrocity stand?

    Interestingly, that consensus does not exist in academic security policy circles; it’s relegated to policymakers.

  6. Rock says:

    Make that the last seven decades. In my long life I can not remember a time that the USA was not at war with another country for some reason. I don’t know whether the Cold War or intervention in places like Somalia and Lebanon or the Cuba Missile Crisis should be including. We go from one crisis to the next without end.

    1939-1945 World War II
    1950-1953 Korean War
    1960-1975 Vietnam War
    1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion
    1983 Grenada
    1989 US Invasion of Panama
    1990-1991 Persian Gulf
    1995-1996 Intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina
    2001- Invasion of Afghanistan
    2003- Invasion of Iraq
    2011- Libya

    American Wars

  7. narciso says:

    The proxy strategy, of providing military and security assistance to regional players, ‘the Nixon Doctrine,’ failed first with the fall of the Shah, and the Gulf War buried it, for the next twenty years, AQ has been waging war on us, or haven’t you been paying attention, the earliest sign was in Somalia.

  8. john personna says:

    Rock, you can drop Grenada/Panama as too small, clearing the 80’s Likewise, dropping Bosnia clears most of the 90’s, or gives a 91-01 decade.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Rock: I address that in the piece:

    During the Cold War, there was a bipartisan elite consensus against the U.S. involving itself in wars not believed to be directly tied to protecting vital American interests. This included two major hot wars in Korea and Vietnam and more than a dozen quick strikes and proxy conflicts aimed at stopping the spread of Soviet Communism, ranging from Cuba to Afghanistan to El Salvador. And there were a handful of interventions in the Middle East to protect Israel and retaliate for terrorist attacks.

    Everything but Vietnam and Korea were tiny footprint ops; all were tied directly to stopping Soviet expansion or protecting access to oil.

    @narciso: Almost all agreed that we should attack al Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11. But the fight there has become one against the Taliban and for democracy promotion; AQ is in Pakistan. And Iraq had zero to do with AQ until the occupation became flypaper for would-be jihadists.

  10. john personna says:

    FWIW, I think the pendulum swing in public opinion went like this:

    – cold war rise in militarism
    – post-Vietnam avoidance
    – post-Kuwait re-awakening
    – post-Iraq avoidance

    I think the problem we have getting out of I&A has more to do with institutional momentum, and risk avoidance, in government.

    I’m not sure that the elite hawks are really even hawks. They just have a hard time quitting.

  11. narciso says:

    The other precedent was the British experience in the NorthWest frontier against various branches of the Deobandi, from their base in India, from the first war, which ended disastrously in 1841, to the subsequent engagements in 1881 and 1819, with the many expeditions in between,

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    I think this is a subject on which Mead’s notion of four forces in American policy and opinion sheds some light. The problem we have is that three of the four (Jacksonians, Hamiltonians, and Wilsonians) agree that continuing war is a Good Thing. Cf. “Military-industrial complex”. The small number of remaining Jeffersonians (mostly paleocons like Pat Lang and a few stragglers like me) are pretty much lacking in influence.

    Two of the three have effective veto power: if the Hamiltonians refuse to pay for it or the Jacksonians refuse to fight it, war can’t proceed. So far there are few signs of either of these things happening.

    Much of the conversation above focuses on how persistent the situation is. That’s due to the emergent phenomenon character of U. S. foreign policy. You’ve pointed it out yourself, James. Note how similar the Obama foreign policy is to the second term Bush foreign policy.

    There have only been a couple of major deviations from that policy over the last 70 years. At this point I think it’s fair to think of the Carter foreign policy and the Bush first term foreign policy as deviations from that norm. Bush’s first term foreign policy took a major Wilsonian (read: neo-conservative, classic Wilsonians). Jacksonians like James were fooled into believing that the objectives were ones they could sign on to. It’s pretty clear that both Iraq and Afghanistan are grand Wilsonian projects which look increasingly like fantasies with the passing of time.

  13. john personna says:

    Here’s a claim to put out there, to explain this mess:

    Exiting Iraq and Afghanistan would cost Obama the Presidency.

    As much as we might acknowledge exit as the better path, there is a strong tribal element to politics. No one likes a loser. We’d, without a doubt, rotate in a new “chief” for a clean slate.

  14. narciso says:

    When we ‘declared victory’ in Afghanistan, last time, there was a struggle between the most favored faction by our side, and those that received most funding, by the ISI and General Intelligence, The fact that we didn’t aid Massoud led to the takeover of the Taliban, which in time welcomed AQ, the truth is the CIA aided Haquanni, and Khalis who gave us the former, and
    Sayyaf and Hekmatyar from whose rank came the latter.

  15. Iraq may have had zero to do with Iraq before its liberation began, but that is far from meaning that Iraq had no role in sponsoring terrorism. It’s not like terrorism began with AQ. Oh, and then there’s always the flypaper strategy, which seemed intentional as I recall.

  16. john personna says:

    Thank you for that moment of complete insanity, charles.

  17. narciso says:

    Don’t confuse him with facts,Charles, after the Gulf War, Saddam’s nominally secular Baathists made more connections with Salafi outfits, like Hekmatyar and EIJ, where new AQ head, Zawahiri, arises from, and the loosening of restraints on preachings of said doctrines in the country,

  18. DC Loser says:

    James – First, congrats on getting your piece into The Atlantic. I’m surprised that so far nobody has mentioned the All Volunteer Force as an enabler for such adventurism. It’s kinda like the raison d’etre for the French Foreign Legion. If our boys (and girls) aren’t being drafted unwillingly, and these are all ‘volunteers,’ nobody’s complaining.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    First and most important: Congratulations, James, breaking into the The Atlantic is a big deal.

    Second, good piece.

    I wonder of the professionalization of the military isn’t a significant contributor here. There are no draftees or draftees’ mothers to complain. And the military is seen rightly as highly competent.

    The fact is that in great power historical terms all of these wars have been small potatoes. I’m not belittling the importance of US deaths, but even Vietnam, with 60,000 dead over the course of a decade from a population of 200 million pales compared to so many other tragic events. The British Army suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Somme. Gettysburg was almost as deadly in a few days as Korea.

    The rest of these wars have been very small-bore affairs, the sorts of things the British Empire got itself into on a more or less continuous basis.

    Given the fact that professional militaries don’t complain, and given the fact that in historical terms our losses have been small, I think an important element is the lack of pushback from the populace. In that environment politicians have a relatively free hand and can focus more on legacy and morality.

  20. michael reynolds says:


    Great minds thinking alike. Although your evidently superior typing skills allowed you to beat me by 4 minutes.

    Damn my two-finger ways.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @DC and @Michael Thanks. And, yes, I’ve argued elsewhere that AVF is a major contributing factor, in sustaining wars if not launching them. We’d be much more reluctant to hang on to see how it goes if draftees were protesting in the streets and their parents were angry.

  22. mantis says:

    Oh, and then there’s always the flypaper strategy, which seemed intentional as I recall.

    You’re welcome, Iraqis! Hope you enjoyed being flypaper for terrorists!

  23. ponce says:

    “since the emotion-laden days of the Cold War, when the public first came to view U.S. foreign policy as a tool of good to be deployed against evil.”

    Germany and Japan weren’t considered evil during WWII?

  24. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: Germany and Japan weren’t considered evil during WWII?

    During but not before. Hitler was up to all manner of mischief for years before we went to war with him. And Japan invaded China way back in 1937. We sat it out until Pearl Harbor, only providing aid and loans to the Allies.

  25. Dave Schuler says:

    We sat it out until Pearl Harbor, only providing aid and loans to the Allies.

    It took Pearl Harbor to overwhelm the Jeffersonians’ objections to interventionism. Prior to that the argument wasn’t a good vs. evil one so much as a national interest one.

  26. john personna says:

    Narciso confuses creating allies with … I don’t know some crazy spin.

    Baath in opposition was in our intrest, and GHWB was smarter than the most (on either side) admit.

  27. john personna says:

    Btw, I support a draft/national-service for the reasons DC/michael state, and as semi-WPA

    (phone shorthand)

  28. Gregory Mann says:

    You miss an even bigger point, Mr. Joyner.

    We have been in perpetual war since WW II. I think that the US has intevened in some other country like on an average of evey 18 months.

    Many would argue that the US has been in perpetual war since the Europeans landed on North America.

  29. Jared Day says:

    Mr. Joyner

    I read with interest your piece on “Perpetual War” – and the central question is one I have often asked. I have long considered myself a realist in foreign affairs – but I will have to say, with recent events, I have found myself to be a deeply conflicted realist. I think you are definitely on to something with your focus on the role of the international media – but I think you are constrained by a somewhat outmoded emphasis on the traditional foreign policy framework of “realist v. interventionist.” I am not a foreign policy expert – but I am an expert in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. I think the history of that movement can shed some useful light on the dilemma you lay out. You may be familiar with Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (2007) which examines the impact of print and television coverage on the national conscience from the 1940s to the 1960s.

    The point I would make here has several aspects: first that, as with the Civil Rights Movement, it is easy for average people (both in the US and most other places) to look away from even the most heinous forms of individual brutality and mass slaughter – so long as it is conceptual, remote, and we do not have to confront the visceral realities of our on-going inaction. Consider the Holocaust: FDR, Churchill and Eisenhower were never held up for severe censure in their lifetimes for their relative inaction in the face of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews and others, even though they knew of it. Average people were largely unaware of it – and, given the technological limitations of the day, it was easy to keep the abject horror of the Holocaust at arms length.

    I think you correctly lay out the moral/ethical constraints laid on the superpowers by the Cold War dynamic from 1946 to 1991. But looking at the 1990s, consider the way events unfolded first in Bosnia, then Rwanda, and then Kosovo. The UN peacekeepers and the Europeans did not act to stop the slaughter in Srebrenica and no one took action to stop the genocide in Rwanda. If I understand your argument correctly, both instances might reflect a traditional realist’s response to such tragedies. But here’s the difference: there was far more real-time coverage of these events than before. Moreover, both the UN, the Europeans, and Clinton quickly became impressed by the *downside of inaction.* The UN, the Europeans (both their individual leaders and as collective nation states) and Clinton paid a price for their lack of will, their unwillingness to stand up for supposedly deeply held principles, and for paralyzing indecision. Indeed, I would argue that most of the rest of the world stopped taking Europeans seriously as military powers to be reckoned with by the end of this set of conflicts. Clinton saw this dimension and chose to intervene in Kosovo. This is not to say that “Clinton was right to intervene” – rather it is to simply note that the price for choosing to do nothing increased in the 1990s.

    In recent years, it seems to me that the costs for inaction have only increased. Consider the counterfactual of what might have happened in Libya had NATO not intervened and there had been a massacre in Benghazi. It is easily conceivable given the technologies of our time that we would have been exposed on a nightly basis to grainy YouTube clips of men, women and children being slaughtered in all kinds of heinous ways – night after night, all over the world, often in real time, with continuing anguished cries for outside intervention complemented with widespread condemnations of the moral bankruptcy of western powers and the US in particular. Now, it still could be the case that the realist position would *still* be the correct one – but in this kind of environment realists need to be aware that the costs for great power inaction are rising. IF the US has any claim to moral leadership in the world, the pressure to exercise that leadership will not only increase from abroad but may also grow here at home. Countries such as China and Russia make few claims to moral leadership in the world – and this certainly seems to simplify their responses to broad-based wanton brutality. But, speaking as a deeply conflicted realist, I don’t look to them as models for an American realist foreign policy. Given the growth and increasingly broad-based use of new media technologies by average people, this dilemma will only grow in the years to come.

    Jared Day
    History Department
    Carnegie Mellon University

  30. ponce says:

    We have been in perpetual war since WW II.

    I think James’ point is that since the end of the Cold War America justifies its wars on humanitarian grounds.

  31. Southern Hoosier says:

    During the Cold War, a hot war with the Soviet Union was unthinkable. It would have been the end of mankind as we know it. Instead of one major war, we and the Soviet Union fought dozen of little wars by proxy. Since the Soviet Union fell December of 1991, why are we still fighting these little brush fire wars?

    Though that grand vision never came to pass, the notion that the United States and its allies were now free to project power to “do good” has remained intact.

    Sounds like theThe League of Nations after WWI, the UN after WWII and rather than create another failure, just transform NATO into something it never was intend to be.

  32. An Interested Party says:

    …but that is far from meaning that Iraq had no role in sponsoring terrorism. It’s not like terrorism began with AQ.

    Well I guess that fits in with waging a war against a tactic as opposed to a war against those who struck our country on 9/11…who has made the argument that Iraq had nothing at all to do with terrorism? Rather, the argument was that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, which of course it didn’t…

  33. anjin-san says:

    GHWB was smarter than the most (on either side) admit.

    Bush 41 was a very solid foreign policy president. Outstanding both in Gulf 1 and handling the implosion of the Soviet Union.

  34. wr says:

    “Everything but Vietnam and Korea were tiny footprint ops; all were tied directly to stopping Soviet expansion or protecting access to oil.”

    Or, like Granada, making a Republlican president look manly after the disaster in Beirut.

  35. James Joyner says:

    @wr: Grenada was much more complicated than that. Reagan suffered little political fallout from the terrorist attack in Beirut and there was broad public support for the invasion, which was almost a pure rescue mission with a bit of anti-Cuba nonsense thrown in.

  36. All this seems far oversimplified to me, and the inner connections of many battles with the Soviets were late in popping up. Here is my starter set of a few major factors leading to our wars:

    1. Humanitarianism, certainly. World Policeman Syndrome, Freedom for all!
    2. Halting Soviet expansion
    3. Preserving Middle East Oil, especially Saudi
    4. Halting, or attempting to halt, Communist expansion in the Far East (militarily successful, but politically a defeat)
    5. Troop power using volunteers:
    6. A combat ready, modernized Armed Forces with advanced weapons capabilities, including stealth, and guided munitions, plus transport and logistics…an almost irresistable force.
    7. Superior battlefield communications and intelligence gathering capabilities
    8. A surplus of experienced and successful fighting generals and under-officers, together with the prior three factors making it much easier to pull the trigger in more recent times.
    9. Turning back actual aggressions in Korea and Kuwait
    10, Answering a perceived threat from Jihadists
    11. Revenge for 9/11
    12. The military establishment always needs a cause, or at least a target, and a set of plans
    13. Hawks in positions of power and influence
    14. An accepting public, at least initially.
    15. Belief that we can pay for such wars without examining costs too closely… until recently!
    16. Military-industrial complex rooting from within and without!
    17, Foreign nations, leaders and peoples providing and creating situations and opportunities, large and small, seemingly without end, and encouraging us to take a hand

    Throw into pot, stir, and you get the mess we are in now.