The stories we tell ourselves affect our attitudes and behavior, as anyone who watched a horror film in their youth and then had trouble sleeping knows. Neurological research has proven that we “pre-load” behaviors into our brains, setting ourselves up to act on our expectations. Pre-loading of harmful behaviors is a component of addiction so that, for example, someone with a gambling addiction tells herself a story about how thrilling it is to bet money or how much money she could win with a spin of the roulette wheel.
Since the end of the Cold War, it seems the U.S./we have grown increasingly addicted to militarism. Better writers than I have offered historical explanations, especially Andrew Bacevich and Rachel Maddow, but I think one reason we are so preoccupied with war is that we tell ourselves we live in a dangerous world, surrounded by enemies—and that our only security lies in military strength. We repeat this story every time we read or watch or listen to the news, and we are thereby limiting our field of vision and our understanding of our lovely world.
I first heard the aphorism “When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” from an Army Ranger officer. Unfortunately, for decades now our elected leaders and a large number of our fellow citizens seem to regard every problem as a military one. In consequence, we don’t simply outspend every individual nation on our military, we spend more than the combined expenditures of the next fourteen big spenders, including China, our main NATO allies, Russia and Saudi Arabia. We spend a higher percentage of our GDP than any nations except Chad, Eritrea, Israel and Saudi Arabia. We also see military service as the most acceptable route out of poverty. What’s wrong with the story we are telling ourselves as a nation?
One story we should be telling ourselves is that diplomacy can and does work. As a diplomat, I experienced, and sometimes contributed to, non-military solutions to problems the U.S. encountered with other nations. We need to spend some money on diplomacy that is not simply a cover for the exercise of our military might, but before we do so we have to believe that talking and compromise is a cheaper, more effective and more just method of dealing with most international problems. Or as Winston Churchill, no pacifist, once said, “To jaw-jaw is better than to war, war!” It’s not just money, of course. We also have to demonstrate some understanding, if not concern, for other nations’ interests. That, too, requires a change in a story we tell ourselves, the one about how special a nation we are.