Talk is Cheap and You Get What You Pay For.

            The Cold War formed the long, final phase of a struggle against aggressive tyrannies that ran from 1914 to 1990.   In 1990 the United States and the other Western democracies emerged triumphant from the Cold War with the Soviet Union.  The long era of wars and rumors of wars exerted a profound effect on the societies involved.  In the United States it helped create a national-security state that absorbed an uncommon share of national resources.  It also defined American foreign policy as a grand, foggy abstraction: the defense and promotion of Democracy.  In the aftermath of the victory parades, the question arose of what to do with victory? 

            One school of thought urged a redirection of resources to address pressing domestic problems.  It might be thought of as “Nation-Building at Home.”  A rival school of thought urged the promotion of Democracy in the remaining benighted parts of the world.  This might be thought of as “Finish the Job.”  One way of reconciling the rivals lay in shifting resources away from the national-security state toward domestic needs, on the one hand, and emphasizing the rhetorical promotion of democracy, backed by the use of targeted economic sanctions. 

            In 1975, Defense spending equaled about 5.75 percent of GDP during the Carter Administration.  It rose as high as 7 percent of GDP during the Reagan Administration; fell to about 3.5 percent during the Clinton Administration; rose to about 5 percent of GDP in the George W. Bush Administration, and declined to about 3.75 percent of GDP by 2020.[1]  It has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, with upsurges during the final phase of the struggle against the “Evil Empire” and the “War on Terror.”  These were interspersed with periods of claiming a “peace dividend.”  The rhetorical promotion of democracy has been exemplified by the work of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).[2]  Russia, China, India, Venezuela, Iran, Egypt, Thailand, and Malaysia have all objected to or criticized the NED for being, as one critic phrased it, a “CIA soft power front” organization.  More directly, the Obama Administration supported the “Arab Spring” and the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak with a lot of talk, some of it behind the scenes.  The United States has also deployed targeted economic sanctions, to no obvious great effect.[3] 

            There are variations to this basic pattern.  The Bush II Administration’s invasion of Iraq and the Obama Administration’s bombing Libyan dictator Muamar Khadafy out of power constituted attempts to promote democracy by the more traditional avenue of military force.[4]  Neither experience had a happy outcome.  President Biden’s vilification of the villainous Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has not been accompanied by economic sanctions.  That’s because the Saudis are better positioned to impose economic sanctions on the United States than reverse. 

            Has the rhetorical approach worked?  In the eyes of some it has only alienated allies needed by the United States, regardless of their political system.  “What we get from China is an airport.  What we get from the United States is a lecture.”[5] 

            But we’ve always been preachy.  People put up with it because we were also scary. 

[1] See: Budget Basics: National Defense ( 

[2] See: National Endowment for Democracy – Wikipedia 

[3] See: United States sanctions – Wikipedia 

[4] Well, it worked with Germany and Japan. 

[5] Quoted in Walter Russell Mead, “Scolding Isn’t a Foreign Policy,” WSJ, 19 April 2023.