Against the Interventionist Trolley Problem

By Thucydides Frappe

There is no serious discussion about rethinking US foreign policy, left or otherwise, without addressing the use of force. Unfortunately for the left, critiques of its foreign policy are dominated by fundamentally unserious use of force debates, frequently in the form of a family of hypotheticals we can call the Interventionist Trolley Problem. The Interventionist Trolley Problem assumes a practically unlimited US military capability and broad international sanction for American intervention; leftists are judged on their willingness to pull the lever, using American force to intervene in one or another crisis. In various forms, the Trolley Problem appears any time a liberal supporter chastises a skeptic of humanitarian intervention about how they would meet “a problem from hell,” or a conservative interventionist bemoans the “cost of inaction” to dissuade advocates of US military retrenchment.

The critique provided by the Interventionist Trolley Problem is unserious because it relies on assumptions that a left government would have to destabilize, if not upend. A left government will not just be deciding whether or not to intervene in a hypothesized conflict, it will also be making decisions about how much of its resources will be devoted to domestically-focused policies, which of its internationally-focused resources will be defense-related, and a broader suite of domestic and international policy agenda items that will dramatically change the competing priorities all policymakers grapple with as they consider waging war. Because leftist government demands a radical redistribution of priorities and resources, no leftist foreign policy is possible without questioning the assumptions behind the Interventionist Trolley Problem.

It takes a military-industrial complex to raze a country

The first and most obvious assumption in US intervention debates is that the US role in the international system and US military capabilities allow for a plausible intervention in the first place. For decades, the true costs and requirements of many military interventions around the globe have been downplayed because they represent incremental additions to an already enormous investment in US military capabilities. The archetypal military intervention since the 1980s has been defined by the following model:

  • The US, through foreign basing, overflight permissions, and naval and air forces with global reach, is able to project overwhelming conventional force within the theater of operations.
  • An aerospace campaign using standoff and precision-guided munitions (increasingly supplemented by other specialized capabilities, such as special operations forces, cyberespionage and cyberattacks, etc.) is able to strike desired targets without substantial risk to US forces in theater.
  • The environment is made sufficiently permissive for US ground forces massed in-theater to invade at relatively low risk, or the threat of ground invasion is made sufficiently plausible to set favorable conditions for coercive bargaining. Alternatively, should the costs and risks of ground operations remain unacceptably high, sufficiently capable allied or proxy forces proceed instead.

The conditions and capabilities for such a model do not emerge from nowhere, and indeed, they are largely byproducts of broader US foreign policy and military strategy. The military capabilities that allowed the US to smash conventional military defenses in Iraq or Libya with relative ease were developed to win World War III with a rival superpower. The US did not field the B-2 stealth bomber, the Tomahawk cruise missile, nearly a dozen nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, or develop the concept of AirLand Battle with the purposes and requirements of toppling much weaker states chiefly in mind. Inheriting a military designed to win a high-intensity war with the Soviet Union in an era of undisputed US hegemony has acclimatized proponents of intervention to the safe assumption that carrying out any imaginable intervention is only a question of the degree of will, rather than material capability. After all, if the US has already decided it needs hundreds of billions of dollars of military capability every year to ensure that it can win or deter a notional war against nuclear-armed great powers with advanced conventional capabilities, what is a few billion more to dismember a lightly defended hostile state or two? Or, as Madeleine Albright put it “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

Enabling this global projection of power and mitigating its direct costs, the US has a structure of international alliances and partnerships, with attendant diplomatic, military, and economic relationships. A crucial example, especially in recent US wars, is the availability of foreign ground forces to take on the most dangerous and politically risky tasks of military operations. Wherever possible, the US relegates the bloody and dangerous tasks that would require large numbers of US infantrymen, like manning remote checkpoints and providing the bulk of forces for block-by-block urban combat, to foreign soldiers who American policymakers and voters alike treat as expendable. In addition to providing various enabling and supporting forces, the US also generally ends up taking on a substantial portion of the cost to train and equip these forces, often to dismal immediate results and even worse second-order effects (the role of arms provision to corrupt or demoralized partner forces in driving proliferation to US enemies is a whole issue in and of itself). Military aid, the sale of advanced weapons systems, the provision of other forms of aid, favorable trade deals, and other incentives are offered to ensure local actors put their own lives on the line. Beyond the immediate material cost, this also requires a US foreign policy architecture willing to accommodate corrupt or abusive governments, and sometimes even governments playing a double game at a direct cost to other US objectives (e.g., US-Pakistan relations since 9/11). A US posture capable of intervention on a global scale has and will continue to require material and moral entanglement with autocratic, kleptocratic, and sometimes atrocious regimes.

All of the assumptions above would face significant challenges from a left foreign policy standpoint. For example, it is easy to imagine a left foreign policy that would abandon military-led counterterrorism operations across the globe, resulting in the closure of bases and the end of close political-military relationships with a variety of states that have used their ability to offer access, basing, direct military support, and intelligence as leverage to curry favor from the US. A left foreign policy that ended the global war on terror and curtailed relationships with abusive regimes would significantly curtail US access to many countries. These and other actions could significantly reduce the size and scope of US basing access and forward deployed military forces, which would increase the diplomatic and logistical impediments to quickly launching interventions. The US’s uncertain future ability to achieve in-theater superiority already poses a challenge for the inherent assumption of overwhelming US conventional superiority that underpins contemporary intervention debates. The proliferation of technology and redistribution of global economic power and military capabilities derived from it will pose increasingly high direct and indirect costs to US attempts to achieve and exploit the conventional military superiority that its wars of choice have mostly taken for granted. However, the same military trends that make it possible for rising powers to achieve a measure of localized superiority against US forces poses even greater barriers to their ability to project power against the United States and their own near-peers. If a left foreign policy’s objectives do not require the ability to achieve in-theater dominance against near-peer competitors on their home turf, the resulting US military capabilities (and their global posture, alluded to above) will face much higher opportunity costs from its interventions.

Put more simply, because debates about decisions to intervene are always contextual, based on the military balance and geopolitical situation at hand, the ways in which a left foreign policy would change the context of the intervention debate matters. While many liberal internationalists have tried to refashion the decision to intervene in various crises as a moral imperative arising from foundational principles of the international order, this exercise only makes sense in the context of relatively stable assumptions about the global distribution of power and US military capabilities in posture. Even assuming the moral questions are settled, the successful application of those principles are inseparable from the military capabilities and strategies the intervening state is willing to employ, and those, in turn, cannot be assessed without asking what resources it has available and what competing priorities an intervention might detract from or other resource requirements the intervention might create in the future. In conventional foreign policy debates, the moral justification for intervention is generally taken as a given, including the assumption as a matter of international and domestic law that the US executive will find a justification to intervene whether the UN and Congress provide one or not. But so too is it taken as a given that the US has room in its already enormous military expenditures for more war, and that proponents of intervention need not overly concern themselves with how intervention will be balanced against other military priorities (to the frequent dismay of many military planners and subscribers to the Realist foreign policy school), foreign policy priorities (to the frequent dismay of diplomats and aid workers) or overall national priorities (to the dismay of anyone who would prefer dollars spent on defense be spent on urgent domestic needs).

Putting the left policy back in left foreign policy debates

It is difficult to imagine a successful, enduring left policy agenda that will not ultimately reduce, especially in relative terms, US military spending. Reducing defense spending will not be a panacea for the enormous costs of building a just commonwealth, and unyoking a huge portion of US economic activity from a military-industrial complex that enables the path-dependent logic of permanent war and unyielding pursuit of global military superiority will be a costly, complicated endeavor in and of itself. Even America’s tremendous and once-again-growing military budget cannot itself contain the resources required to mitigate tremendous class, gender, and racial inequities, create the physical and social infrastructure to guarantee a dignified and healthy life for all, and provide the emergency correction to environmental policy that ought have begun decades ago, particularly when much of the existing economy is wedded to the defense budget and the outcomes of the policy it enables. But there should be little doubt that a left agenda will require dramatic reductions in defense spending and retasking of resources towards non-military tasks. Regardless of whether or not it is possible to pursue massive increases in social and sustained defense spending simultaneously in the 21st century United States, implementing the systemic changes associated with left policy will require curtailing the outsized cost and influence of the US defense sector.

The baseline arguments about intervention never need to ask the question, “could this intervention ultimately produce consequences and obligations that preclude necessary reductions to the defense budget,” because the range of budgetary assumptions, if they figure into these debates at all, have ranged from “mild contraction” to “significant expansion” for most of the past two decades, and in any case, many “serious” national security commentators are so invested in the primacy of foreign policy and the exceptionalism of US hegemony that the notion of curtailing military adventures to budget for domestic priorities sounds outright backward.

A foreign policy that continues leveraging the global reach and military superiority of continuous massive investment in defense policy will never find the opportunity to curtail that investment and break the dependency on war and preparation for war in large sectors of its economy. War is an instrument of policy, and no successful left policy can make the “unthinkable” redistribution of national resources and alignment of national priorities from military to non-military priorities if it cannot end the path-dependent lurch of global intervention. Foreign policy and national security commentators are happy to confront the stereotypical naive, pacifistic leftist with the assertion that their field requires hard choices and ideological compromises. That is true enough, but when a leftist policy demands the hard choice of a global reduction in US military posture, the implicit ideology of national security and foreign policy makers is loath to compromise with overriding domestic priorities.

Of course, portraying the military/non-military tradeoff as a foreign/domestic policy trade off is a false choice. Leftist foreign policy must also seriously reorient the emphasis of foreign policy decisions from military to non-military means, in part because the basic instruments of diplomacy and non-military international aid are already under-resourced relative to current requirements, but also because many leftist policy objectives will have international components. When weighing the costs and benefits of intervention, the resources spent, attention diverted, and geopolitical compromises made must also be weighed not just against what could be accomplished to solve a given crisis, but against what other problems the resources spent on the intervention could accomplish elsewhere. Interventionist thought experiments invoke the trolley problem and point out the costs of inaction, but try recharacterizing inaction as “an investment of non-military resources towards a different international problem,” and you will be unlikely to find “refrain from intervening in a civil war but instead provide save an enormous number of lives through a similarly-sized public health investment” to be an acceptable manner of framing the problem.

In framing decisions about war as a question of whether the US military, as it looks today, could do more harm than good, interventionists not only frequently play up the amount of good US wars are likely to do, they also smuggle in implicit and explicit assumptions that artificially constrain the intervention debate. Indefinite extension of an uncontested US military, the resources required to support it, and the secondary priority or negligibility of the political process that actually justifies and governs war-making will never be reconciled with a sustainable left policy agenda, foreign or domestic. Rather than trying to meet the expectations of a mainstream foreign and national security policy debate that never intended to accommodate left political perspectives, leftists themselves must challenge the foreign and national security policy establishment by formulating policies not on narrow basis of whether or not they address the cloistered foreign policy considerations of a particular crisis, but that stand up to wider public scrutiny and can justify their costs against the pressing needs of the many.


Thucydides Frappe is suffering what they must in the field of security analysis.

One thought on “Against the Interventionist Trolley Problem

  1. Pingback: Irregular Budget Warfare – Fellow Travelers

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