President Joe Biden has proposed his first budget and the Pentagon won’t go without. Biden followed his Republican predecessor in pushing higher military spending. Although the proposed increase, from $740 billion to $753 billion, isn’t a lot, he invited Congress to spend more by playing the Washington game of underestimating expenditures for politically popular programs.
The president evidently has few progressive impulses when it comes to military outlays. He appears to be a disciple of famed Sen. Scoop Jackson (D-Wash.), a fervent backer of the expansive and expensive welfare-warfare state.
The Left is furious. For instance, Lindsay Koshgarian of the National Priorities Project charged: "As the Afghanistan War finally winds down, this should be a huge opportunity to dial back 20 years of military spending growth and make important investments in jobs, families, and public health. Instead, the president’s budget request takes what should be a ‘peace dividend’ from the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and squanders it on costly weapons and military bloat."
She is of course correct. However, what is the appropriate level of "defense" outlays? (Many if not most military expenditures go for offense, usually for purposes having little to do with protecting America.) Trade-offs with other spending will always be needed. However, the specific balance should differ depending upon circumstance.
Essential is considering the foreign policy objectives which the Pentagon budget is designed to achieve. Compare 1924, a time of peace with America facing no recognizable foreign threats; 1944, in the midst of World War II; 1974, out of Vietnam but with the Cold War still raging; 1994, Cold War over; and today. The threat environment has changed dramatically over time. So should the military’s force structure and outlays.
Nevertheless, the bipartisan consensus promoted by what Ben Rhodes called the Blob changes only at the margins. Ultimately, Washington’s governing consensus is that the U.S. should run the world, or at least its most important aspects. In effect, current policymakers have turned the Monroe Doctrine inside-out. Everywhere on earth is an American sphere of influence, in which only Washington is authorized to intervene.
Hence the US can expand NATO to Russia’s borders. America can protect Taiwan 100 miles from China. Washington can spend decades at war in Central Asia. America can wander the Middle East speaking of democracy while subsidizing tyranny, war, occupation, conflict, and repression. The US can fill Africa with special operations forces. Washington can starve populations of hostile states in Latin America. And do whatever else the Blob, safely ensconced in America’s imperial capital, deems appropriate.
This kind of foreign policy requires a large force structure. Hence a stratospheric "defense" budget for a country enjoying geographic isolation that people around the world literally die for. Most of what the Pentagon does is project power to other continents. Fight wars thousands of miles from home. And plan for ever bigger, bloodier, and costlier but no less distant conflicts in the future.
Thus, when Koshgarian inconveniently points to the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, PR agents for Neocon foundations, lobbyists for arms merchants, and former officeholders fronting for establishment think tanks join to become a cacophonous Greek chorus on behalf of more military outlays. They insist that the world has never been more dangerous, never needed American leadership more, never been more threatened by rising powers, never been more disunited, and never more required a strong US military presence everywhere abroad. Then an obedient Congress predictably does the bidding of the military-industrial complex, as Dwight Eisenhower feared six decades ago.
Thus, it is critical to first consider America’s foreign policy. Washington has an obligation to serve its citizens first, promoting their security – defense of population, territory, liberties, and prosperity. This actually isn’t terribly hard. The US enjoys pacific neighbors north and south and large oceans east and west. There is no immunity from missiles, alas, but otherwise Americans are largely secure. Even terrorists find the US to be a tough target, at least when it is prepared. Compare America to Russia or China, and this nation’s security advantages are obvious and enormous.
While addressing these obligations, it is also possible to fulfill the biblical admonition to "do good to all people." Such as helping those displaced by the scourge of war or left vulnerable to starvation and sickness by state oppression. Notably, that shouldn’t include plundering taxpayers to make the world safe for American corporations. Or throwing money at Third World autocrats, or even democrats, in hopes of convincing them to stop sabotaging economic growth and impoverishing their own people.
The most important duty is protecting America. The top priority should be air and naval forces to keep hostile militaries at a distance and missiles to deter attack. Only modest ground forces, mostly in the Reserves, are required. A revived Red Army is unlikely to make a sudden thrust across the Bering Strait; China’s People’s Liberation Army is unlikely to make a sneak amphibious landing in San Diego or San Francisco.
Moving outward, the US also should support freedom of navigation, hence, again a capable navy is important. However, defense of American interests does not require dominion everywhere all the time. European and Asian states invested in the international trading system should do much more in a changing world.
Washington also should focus on deterring hegemons capable of dominating Eurasia. That means dropping the Middle East as a region of constant concern. No more allowing Saudi Arabia and Israel to dictate US policy. No more treating Syria and Libya as countries of vital interest. No more embracing thugocracies in Egypt and Turkey as if they were essential. And no more fearing Iran as if it were a putative superpower, threatening to conquer the world. The Mideast desperately needs local peacemaking and a regional balancing, neither of which the US has proved capable of providing.
Similar for Central Asia, a region about as far from America as any on earth. Washington’s involvement in Afghanistan grew out of the Cold War three-plus decades distant. Attempting to create liberal democracy where it has never existed is folly best left to others; maintaining a military occupation is more likely to foster than deter terrorism. Surrounded by great and regional powers – Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran – Afghanistan and its neighbors should be left to others.
Africa and Latin America raise far more humanitarian and development issues than security threats. The US can assist worthy governments but should act in a support role and beware the ill consequences of militarizing vulnerable societies. The human cost of American intervention in Latin America during the Cold War was high. The Pentagon should play a much smaller secondary role at most.
Very different is Europe, which obviously matters far more economically and historically to the US However, Russia is only the remains of the potential hegemon of old, a shadow of the Soviet Union. Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall and neither Vladimir Putin nor all his minions can put it back together. Moscow is still a potent regional power but only with great effort could Russia overrun Ukraine. And the prey would be indigestible. Moscow is even less capable of dominating Europe and especially Asia.
Washington’s allies also are more capable, or at least would be if not hopelessly dependent on US defense welfare. Despite possessing 11 times the economic strength and three times the population of Russia, Europe cowers before Vladimir Putin. What the Europeans gain in economic benefits from depending on America they sacrifice in self-respect. It is well past time for them to take over their own defense. That means European leadership of a revamped NATO (perhaps rechristened by the European Union) and European substitution for America’s troop commitments. The US cannot extract itself instantly – the continent would need time to adapt – but Washington should begin the transition and set a firm deadline, to deter backsliding.
The greater challenge facing America is the People’s Republic of China. However, the specter of a rampaging Great Panda falls short. The PRC lacks the geographic security enjoyed by America. Indeed, China borders 14 countries, with several past (Russia, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, India) and other possible future enemies. The PRC also shares maritime boundaries with a half dozen countries (seven counting Taiwan).
Just as Beijing seeks to limit American operations through Anti Access/Area Denial (A2AD), China’s neighbors can do the same to it. Increasing Chinese aggressiveness has concentrated thinking in nearby capitals, encouraging the PRC’s neighbors to arm and cooperate. Moreover, Beijing is still poor, has a rapidly aging and soon to be declining population, suffers from severe structural economic problems, has offended and frightened almost all of its neighbors and many more distant governments, and may be less stable politically than commonly thought.
Most important, China’s challenge to America is primarily economic, which provides another reason for Washington to lighten its military burden. No one imagines a Chinese naval squadron descending on Hawaii. The threat, if it should be called that, is to American influence in and domination of East Asia. That is, the US which spent the last 77 years acting as if it has the mandate of heaven to control everything up to China’s border, fears sharing nearby waters with the PRC.
No doubt, treating the Asia-Pacific as an American lake is convenient. However, that status always was going to be temporary. Just as the US would never accept Chinese domination off its coasts and of the Caribbean, Beijing will not forever supinely accept US superiority in its neighborhood. Washington has a legitimate interest in freedom of navigation, which China has not challenged, and the independence of allied and friendly states, which the PRC also has not threatened, other than Taiwan.
The status of contested islands should be decided peacefully, but their status is not a casus belli for America, while Beijing has shown no interest in conquering its neighbors. China’s interest is in historic Chinese territories, hence the problem of Taiwan. The Taiwanese deserve to choose their own political future, but the island state is not important for American security. And only 100 miles from China while 7600 miles from the US, it cannot be defended at reasonable expense with a reasonable degree of success. This is when first principles matter: the US government owes its highest obligation to Americans and should not confront a nuclear power over interests the latter views as vital absent compelling justification, which is absent here.
The objective of changing policy is to reduce commitments and retrench military forces rather than just redeploy some personnel and weapons. Not only should US troops come home, but units should be demobilized. Missions drive deployments. Deployments drive force structure. As the former falls, so should the latter. Which is where significant potential budget savings come in.
Uncle Sam is writing ever larger overdrafts that someone someday will have to cover. Policymakers must start making tough choices. A good place to start would be with the military budget.
Washington should stop attempting to micromanage the world, subsidizing prosperous, populous allies, remaking failed states, providing bodyguards for dissolute autocrats, treating conquest as an answer to terrorism, and sustaining hegemonic pretensions irrespective of cost. America was not founded to follow in the Europeans’ imperial footsteps. The US should become a normal country again. And then reduce its military budget to reflect its new, more pacific role.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.