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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 171

John Mueller — The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency

The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency (book cover)

In this conversation based on his new book, The Stupidity of War, political scientist John Mueller argues that American foreign policy since 1945 has been one long miscue; most international threats — including during the Cold War — have been substantially exaggerated. The result has been agony and bloviation, unnecessary and costly military interventions that have mostly failed. A policy of complacency and appeasement likely would have worked better. There has seldom been significant danger of major war. Nuclear weapons, international institutions, and America’s super power role have been substantially irrelevant; post-Cold War policy has been animated more by vast proclamation and half-vast execution than by the appeals of liberal hegemony; and post-9/11 concerns about international terrorism and nuclear proliferation have been overwrought and often destructive. Meanwhile, threats from Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, or from cyber technology are limited and manageable. With international war in decline, complacency and appeasement become viable diplomatic devices and a large military is scarcely required.

Shermer and Mueller discuss:

  • why war in general is stupid,
  • America’s bad wars: Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan,
  • America’s good wars: The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II,
  • no Hitler, no Holocaust … no World War II,
  • exogenous triggers of the decline of war (you can’t just say war declined because states became less warlike),
  • democracy and trade as factors in the decline of war,
  • rise of war aversion and the decline of international war,
  • Aren’t proxy wars between great powers just international wars by other names?
  • counterfactual: what if the US became isolated after WWII?
  • why the USSR was never as serious a threat as believed,
  • why terrorism is not an existential threat … or much of a threat at all,
  • arms race between US armed forces: Navy, Army, Airforce (nuclear triad: subs, missiles, bombers),
  • deterrence is not needed between France/Germany, etc.,
  • the game-theoretic logic of deterrence, conflict and resolution,
  • how appeasement got a bad name and why we should resurrect it,
  • nuclear weapons and the Cuban Missile Crisis,
  • appeasement as a viable strategy for resolving conflict, but what about Hitler and Munich?
  • the domino theory of containment: Korea, Vietnam, and other proxy wars,
  • current hot spots: China, Russia, North Korea, Syria, the Middle East,
  • why there is no need for vast military spending and such a large military, and
  • why the United States should be patient and wait for the worst regimes to collapse from their own inherent weaknesses rather than getting entangled in costly and deadly conflicts.

Dr. John Mueller is a political scientist at Ohio State University, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also the author of Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War, Policy and Opinion in the Gulf War, The Remnants of War, and Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.

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