Security & Defense United States and Canada
Reality Check September 23, 2022

Reality Check #14: An educated American public can mitigate military misuse

By Jasmine Deleon, Andrea Hebel, Shweta Parthasarathy, and Jackalyn Ballard

This paper was written by winners of a student competition run by the New American Engagement Initiative, which was formerly part of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. The views expressed are those of the student competition winners.

Key points

  • The American public does not have a deep understanding of the US military and how it works, which has serious implications for the United States’ foreign policy and economy. 
  • This lack of understanding leads to misperceptions about the role of the US military in foreign policy.
  • A social media campaign dedicated to informing US voters, particularly young people, about the roles and uses of the military—and alternatives to the use of force—would help to mitigate this disconnect. 

What’s the issue?

The US government has often constructed foreign policy around the strength of its democratic and capitalistic ideals, with varying degrees of success. The United States enjoys a comparative advantage vis-à-vis other countries in numerous instruments of national power; however, the US military often plays a leading role in achieving US foreign policy goals, in lieu of other instruments of power. As seen in Iraq and the extended conflict in Afghanistan, many Americans assume that the US military must be the country’s go-to foreign policy instrument. This has potentially dangerous consequences, such as drawn-out military conflicts and harm to civilian populations. This assumption about the efficacy of military power may be driven in part by a lack of understanding among many Americans about US military capabilities, the appropriate role for the US military, and alternative instruments of foreign policy. While an educated US electorate may not necessarily decrease the use of the US military, an informed public will undoubtedly be better equipped to understand and determine the country’s foreign policy needs.

The US military is a key element of the United States’ role and influence in the international system. The United States has the most extensive international military presence of any country, with an estimated 750 bases and nearly 175,000 military personnel on the ground in over eighty countries. As of 2022, the US military has a total of over 2 million service members, of which over 1.3 million serve on active duty.

Maintaining a military of this size and complexity requires a significant amount of funding. The US defense budget is greater than that of the next nine countries in the world combined. For 2023, the Biden administration requested $813 billion for national defense, $30 billion more than was approved in 2022. Defense spending in the United States accounts for roughly 16 percent of all federal spending and nearly half of the federal government’s discretionary spending. 

Considering the significant global implications and resources poured into US military activity and national defense, understanding the US military should be a more prevalent part of American life.

Although 74 percent of Americans have a fair amount of confidence in the military to act in the public’s best interests, few see a need to understand how the military operates. Only 22 percent of Americans claim they are familiar with the military. This lack of awareness is increasing. The percentage of Americans who have served in the US military has dropped significantly during the last fifty years; as a result, fewer people are closely related to a military member. This change will likely lead to a decrease in the number of living veterans within the next twenty-five years.  These trends are exacerbated by the fact that 71 percent of Americans are ineligible to serve in the military, meaning this disconnect cannot simply be bridged by increasing the number of military volunteers. 

Because of this disconnect, civilians and military personnel have different opinions regarding key aspects of military operations. This is true, for example, with respect to civilian control of the military. Over 44 percent of civilians feel that high-ranking military officials should have the final say over the use of force, but just 7.9 percent of surveyed military officers felt this way. 

The American people have an inadequate understanding of the US military and the role it plays—or perhaps the role it should play—in American foreign policy. As a study by the Center for a New American Security noted, “Unprecedented support [for the military] coupled with lack of familiarity creates a situation in which force can be used increasingly liberally without public oversight.” This, combined with less awareness of the other aspects of US foreign policy, creates a situation in which an undereducated American electorate could reflexively guide a representative government toward chiefly militarized—and potentially disastrous—interactions at the international level. 

Why does it matter?

While having confidence in the nation’s military is important, an electorate that is unable to effectively scrutinize the military sets a dangerous precedent. The view held by many citizens that the US military holds the key to furthering US policy goals and influence in world affairs only serves to entrench this reality in US politics, ignoring the importance of balancing military might with economic and diplomatic strategies to create an effective foreign policy. A Brookings Institution analysis found that Americans have an unwavering and generally under-informed faith in the US military, which “may be generating both an abdication of civic involvement on the part of civilians and the establishment of a right to override civilian input on the part of the military.” By law, the military is subject to strict civilian control. Aside from routine maneuvers, military operations cannot occur without officials elected by voters exercising their civic duty. It is, therefore, the responsibility of voters to evaluate the decisions that their elected officials make. An American electorate more informed about the duties, scope, capabilities, and potential actions of US military officials and personnel—and more knowledgeable about America’s foreign policy—can better understand how the US military affects their lives, form more nuanced opinions on the use of military force, and challenge misinformation and assumptions about the role and goals of the military.

An electorate more informed about the military could also better understand nonmilitary strategies to avoid or mediate conflict. The military takes up the most significant percentage of the US discretionary budget, an important reality for Americans to understand. This large budget may contribute to many Americans thinking the military should have an oversized role in US foreign policy. For example, the current Russia-Ukraine conflict offers significant insight into the US public’s view of military action versus other forms of international engagement. Though 65 percent of Americans opposed sending US troops directly to Ukraine, 64 percent somewhat or strongly supported sending large numbers of troops to Ukraine-bordering NATO countries. However, the actual US response to Russia’s attack—relying on economic sanctions, trade restrictions, and diplomatic isolation, combined with sending military assistance to Ukraine and troops to border countries—reveals the complexities behind the decisions of whether to commit forces to active combat situations. 

Before initiating military operations or troop movements, US government officials consider numerous possibilities, with many regarding the use of force as a last resort. For example, following World War II, US President Harry Truman employed economic and diplomatic solutions in tandem with military assistance to aid in the reconstruction and maintenance of Europe, such as the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine. While the Truman Doctrine pledged military assistance to democratic nations threatened by authoritarian forces, it also pledged political and economic aid, employing tools beyond the military. During the Cold War, US President Dwight Eisenhower explored a deterrence strategy against the Soviet Union and attempted to use atomic energy peacefully. Modern diplomatic actions often employ a combination of sanctions, trade pressures, and direct negotiations, thereby utilizing mutual fear of destruction to avoid significant and direct conflict with the United States’ fiercest international competitors, such as China, Russia, and North Korea. Nonetheless, too many Americans may presume that military force is a preferred tool of national power.

Better understanding the military’s role would allow citizens to become more informed about the responsibilities of their elected representatives on defense issues. This, in turn, would enable Americans to better advocate for or against policies that have a direct impact on their lives. A public more informed on defense and military issues has the power to change the way Washington conducts international relations. 

Sustained pressure from constituents to fund other departments besides defense is necessary to hold politicians and officials accountable. For example, according to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), the figures that the US Department of Defense (DoD) and defense contractors have reported to the press regarding the cost of the F-35 weapons systems are misleading, or what POGO’s Dan Grazier calls “selective acquisition arithmetic.” Although the Pentagon and weapons manufacturers reported the F-35 costs $77.9 million for each aircraft, adding the cost of all parts of the program increases the total to over $110 million per aircraft. Lack of scrutiny of the DoD’s and industry’s claims by officials and the public contributes to the misinformation circulating throughout the US public about the amount paid for military hardware. Even if Americans were motivated to better understand the military and its spending, they would likely receive inaccurate information about the true costs of US military operations, from equipment purchases to when and where forces are deployed in combat. Accountability for the DoD’s actions requires better education of the American people and better oversight from Congress, researchers, and journalists. Excess money spent on weapons systems could be allocated to other departments to advance American foreign policy and enable the United States to more effectively utilize all tools of power.

What is the solution?

1. Understand the importance of having an informed electorate. Educating voters, especially young people, about the military’s role in American foreign policy is a prerequisite to challenging current US defense priorities. Because the United States is a representative democracy, the decisions made by government officials are influenced by public opinion, especially by the preferences of elected officials’ constituents. Young people with a more comprehensive understanding of the military will have a louder voice to advocate for change, make well-informed voting decisions, and more effectively shape future foreign policy. As digital natives, young people understand more easily how to navigate and use digital media as a tool to advocate for change. To achieve meaningful progress, productive, open dialogue needs to occur—not just among politicians and policy elites, but also among diverse groups of young people, service members, academics, voters, and policymakers.

2. Recognize the power of social media as an engagement tool. Educators frequently use social media as a tool for sharing useful information and engaging with students outside classrooms. In fact, social media has become one of the primary ways people connect, learn, and share information. According to a Pew Research Center study, “95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone” across the United States, and most of this group uses Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. Furthermore, 71 percent of American adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine use their digital devices as their primary, if not exclusive, source of news. According to Deloitte, 51 percent of US Gen Z teens say they get their news every day from social media feeds or messaging services. According to a 2021 UNICEF–Gallup study, young people worldwide trust social media less than other sources such as doctors, scientists, and family and friends, as well as institutions like international/national news media, national governments, and religious organizations. Yet young people use social media more than other outlets to find information. It is imperative to target a younger population through social media, but promote content from credible institutions and empower this population by providing reliable and accurate information conveniently.

Social media is not only where young people get their news, but also the means by which they take action. Social media campaigns are effective forms of advocacy because they enable young people to become their own advocates, influence their communities, and connect with others. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Youth Strike for Climate, for example, were all largely organized using social media. These movements increased awareness and generated conversations that broke barriers and created progress beyond the government’s capabilities. Because many young people have access to social media and a strong history of engagement with movements on these platforms, social media provides an effective tool for educating youth on the role of the military in foreign policy.

3. Employ a social media campaign to educate young Americans about the military. This Reality Check announces a social media campaign that will launch in the coming weeks.

A social media campaign that uses Instagram, as well as Facebook and Twitter, to primarily reach US residents eighteen to thirty years of age, such as the one outlined here, is an example of how to effectively re-tool social media as a means of education.

The five-week campaign will focus on dispelling myths and misconceptions about the military, including those related to expenditures, involvement, and alternatives. The last week will feature military voices. This content will be a mix of informative and interactive videos, graphics, polls, and stories. The use of relevant hashtags will increase engagement and awareness, as they can be publicized by advocates, politicians, veterans, think tanks, and other interested parties. To ensure clarity and accuracy in the content of the campaign, veterans and service members from different military branches, ranks, and specialties will be involved as consultants.

Using social media to provide more information about the US military and foreign policy alternatives will create a more informed electorate, specifically the youth voting bloc, to help Congress better conform to public opinion and reflect the wishes of constituents. This, in turn, could lead to increased oversight of DoD’s practices, a thoroughgoing review of the defense budget, and a re-allocation of resources between the military and nonmilitary instruments of US power.

Young people with a more comprehensive understanding of the military will be more informed voters and will more effectively shape future foreign policy decisions that leverage all the tools of American influence.

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Image: U.S. Army soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), 101st Airborne Division on a mission to bolster the security of Manda Bay Airfield, Kenya after an attack by Somalia's al Shabaab militants that killed three Americans, board a transport plane in Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti January 5, 2020. Picture taken January 5, 2020. U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez/Handout via REUTERS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.