Trade, Diplomacy, Culture: How America Can Lead the World without Its Military

Vice President for Research and Policy, Charles Koch Foundation

America seems to have forgotten a crucial fact about war: the human toll on both sides. William Ruger, Vice President for Research and Policy, Charles Koch Foundation, asserts that it would be naive to think that there is never an appropriate time for war—WWII demanded it, for example—but America's wars in recent decades appear to lack objectives, or at least objectives that are suitable to the amount of lives, funding, and global upheaval that these wars have cost. The U.S. can engage with the world without the military, says Ruger—spreading democracy is not a divine mission. Instead, let's trade, practice diplomacy, exchange the best of our culture, and most of all be humble on the world stage. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the institute is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit

  • Transcript


William Ruger: As a realist, I’m not naïve about the world. It can be a dangerous place and that’s one of the reasons why we have to have a strong national defense. And it sometimes means we have to actually use our military power against other countries and other organizations that might threaten us or that have attacked us—that’s the reality of the world.
But we really do need to think about a foreign policy that is careful to focus on our interests and is cognizant of those human costs. And I think that it isn’t being mushy-headed to say: look, there are people—real people—harmed by our activities.

You can think about those soldiers killed overseas. Now it’s one thing if they’re killed in a war like World War II—a war that was necessary for America to fight for its safety against a really bad regime like Nazi Germany—and another thing to think about a situation where we’re trying to engage in regime change against a country that offers very little threat to the United States, and may be a bad regime, like in the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but a regime that has not directly attacked us and is not necessarily a threat to core American interests. And we need to think hard about what those costs would be in that situation. And the human costs are quite powerful, and we can see that here in America, if you visit a military hospital you can see people who have lost limbs or you could see it in communities where there are people suffering from things like PTSD that are less obvious to the eye.

But you also see it down range and oftentimes we read the newspaper and it says, “three American soldiers killed here or there." But those are people with families that care about them, parents who love them. We need to think about that and to make sure that if you’re going to ask people to make that ultimate sacrifice that they’re not doing so in vain. That there is a real sense of the urgency about why we need to do this: it tiers up to our safety, it’s necessary to do so, the other alternatives in the toolkit of statecraft have been exhausted, and that you have an understanding of how to prosecute that conflict and how to get out so that we’re not just endlessly expending money and people’s lives on something that isn’t working.

So we need leaders to think about those things and to recognize that. And one of the things that I would recommend is to go over to the newer parts of Arlington cemetery, and you can see that cost. And again, if that cost is worth paying because it’s necessary, I understand. My grandfather fought in World War II. He was wounded in action, was captured by the Germans and sent to a POW camp. And he suffered from his experiences there throughout his life. Well that’s a cost that was worth paying, and lots of people—hundreds of thousands of people—suffered far more than my grandfather did. They gave the ultimate sacrifice.

But for a war of choice, a war that tiers up to some idealistic goal that’s unrealizable, we really need to think hard about those costs. Think about Vietnam—and a lot of people are watching the documentary series—and you see some of the really bad ideas and bad incentives involved in the prosecution of that war. And you really feel for the 58,000 American lives that were lost there and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, innocent lives lost, throughout the Vietnamese county whether in the north or the south. And it’s just heart wrenching.

But it’s no different when it’s on a smaller scale, when it’s a place like Iraq or a place like Libya. And fortunately the United States did not lose a lot of people in Libya, but the fact is we’ve created a situation that has a cost there as well. And again, presidents and congress need to think primarily about America’s interests, but when we’re trying to help people abroad you need to think about what the consequences are going to be for those who are ostensibly trying to help. And oftentimes that has led to bad results.

So in general over the last 15 to 25 years our foreign policy simply isn’t working. It is not making us safer. And that’s why we need to reconsider what we’re doing. We need to rethink our grand strategy. We need to rethink how we’re using diplomacy and economic levers of statecraft. We need to rethink our budgets and the types of platforms we’re building and the types of missions we want to send our troops on.

This is vitally important so that we can rightsize the military for the challenges ahead. And I don’t think we’re doing that, which is why we need to bring new voices into the conversation.
The other thing I think that we should ask for is: we would like our executives to practice humility. That means that they need to understand what they don’t know, and to have that be part of the decision-making process. Sure we can talk about, “Well, we’re not sure what would happen, but we have to plan for it.”

Sure, but if you’re really having to plan for so many things based on assumptions upon assumptions upon assumptions you can have a situation in which you can’t actually satisfy the conditions for success except in theory.

An approach that is focused on greater realism and more prudentialism in our foreign policy does not mean that the United States should abandon the world.

The United States needs to be engaged abroad in terms of trading with other countries, providing positive-sum outcomes between peoples, diplomacy, cultural engagement, people to people engagement. We can be engaged in the world and open to the world without thinking that the United States needs to be everywhere and without the United States having to lead and be militarily deployed to every part of the globe. So that’s really important, that we not throw the baby out with the bath water, right. The United States can be engaged internationally; it can avoid xenophobia or isolation without spreading American democracy, say, through the sword, or being forward-deployed in so many parts of the world and trying to be deeply engaged in all kinds of local conflicts in every part of the world.