President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address on Tuesday is sure to address the debacle in Afghanistan and the crisis in Ukraine. Expect to see a lot of lipstick being put on the nation’s defense-policy pig.
How much better off we’d be if the president were willing to call out six defense policy mistakes our leaders keep making, using the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero’s "Six Mistakes of Man" as a guide.
First, according to Cicero, is "believing that personal gain is made by crushing others." This sadly applies to how our federal budgets and policies are implemented. In the last 12 months, there have been calls to cut 10% of the defense budget in favor of more domestic spending. This is remarkably reckless, given how our adversaries continue to grow stronger. Russia is rampaging through Europe, and China is aggressively using military force to intimidate democracies in India and Taiwan. Not adequately funding defense could someday result in not being free to do anything domestically—unless Beijing or Moscow allow it.
Cicero’s second repeated mistake of mankind is "worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected." America is certainly the greatest beacon of individual freedom and prosperity the world has ever seen, but sometimes it must deal with a nation or regime unimpressed with American ideals. China has defied decades of hopeful liberalization and instead pocketed every advantage a cooperative world has offered. Welcomed into and wildly profiting from the world market, China has assiduously positioned itself economically and militarily to instead impose a Sinocentric world.
A more pragmatic and realist approach to international relations may be helpful for everyone.
The third mistake, according to Cicero, is "insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it." Hypersonic weapons come to mind. Comforted by an overall technological advantage, U.S. development languished for more than a decade. That is, until China and Russia leapt ahead of the U.S., with both countries recently fielding working hypersonic weapons.
And soon, perhaps, China will perfect and deploy long-range electromagnetic rail gun technology and weaponized quantum computing.
For our purposes here, it’s best to combine Cicero’s fourth and fifth mistakes: "Refusing to set aside trivial preferences" and "Neglecting development and refinement of the mind." These dynamics conspire to shape American policies that project our own values and decision-making processes onto others who don’t share them. It is why we call North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un "crazy" for imprisoning and killing his own people and ostensibly provoking a war that he’s sure to lose.
Perhaps before making any major military decisions, it’s best to ask how and why Kim—or Putin or Xi—are doing what they are doing and address that accordingly. Cicero’s last mistake of mankind is "attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do." This is a timely lesson after the early attempts to shape Afghanistan in America’s image and failing miserably.
Some may point to our actions in post-World War II Germany and Japan, but before Hitler or Tojo came along, both nations had preexisting organic democratic and Western movements. Allied reconstruction in both countries enabled those prewar forces to come to the fore.
With these Roman cautions in mind, let’s see what our president offers on Tuesday. This ancient wisdom and recent history provide plenty of guidance to our commander in chief. The question is, will he heed it?
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner