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Cutting Defense Spending, cont.

By Taylor Marvin

The mildly libertarian Cato Institute just released another policy paper that advocates drastic cuts in US defense spending. Nothing in the paper is really new- their argument that global stability warrants a more affordable US defense posture isn’t revolutionary- but the paper does a good idea of synthesizing a complex policy position and presents some fascinating graphics.

The importance of high defense spending if often treated like a given in American public discourse; it’s rare to hear a leader in either party call for drastic, all-around cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. This is unfortunate. Our leaders should question the importance of a high military budget and how relevant is high defense spending to the foreign policy aims of the United States. The Cato Institute’s analysis is correct- none of America’s specific foreign policy goals are dependent on continued high defense budget.

1. Maintaining a stable world order to safeguard international trade and security.

A strong military presence is certainly necessary to preserving general global security. But a overpowering global US military hegemony isn’t necessary to preserve international trade. Only a small percentage of the world’s major trade routes pass through insecure areas, so it’s hard to argue that the vast networks of international trade would suddenly collapse if the US cut military spending. This isn’t idle speculation- in an increasingly mercantile and interconnected world no naval power with the ability to obstruct major trade routes has any incentive to do so. Reductions in world trade hurt almost everybody, including our potential adversaries.

Likewise, American defense spending levels have little bearing on overall world stability. The long period of global peace over the last two decades is primarily due to the increasing global economic interconnectedness which has removed the incentives for most major conflict, rather than American military hegemony.

2. Preventing terrorist attacks against America or US allies.

Combating terrorism is a cornerstone of US foreign policy. However, this goal is completely unrelated from defense spending. Effectively preventing terrorist attacks is dependent factors: effective foreign intelligence gathering and domestic policing and removing the social factors that drive terrorist group’s recruitment. Military spending is completely divorced from these aims — it’s accurately been pointed out that cutting the defense budget by one percent would double funding for the FBI, a re-allotment that would certainly make Americans safer. The battle against terrorism is one most effectively and efficiently fought by police and intelligence agencies, not the military. The idea that the only way to ensure American’s safety is to invade and occupy unstable countries is blatantly false — this argument wasn’t convincing when it was first offered in response to 9/11, and after a decade of unsuccessful wars it’s completely fanciful. Doubling the American military budget would make us no safer, and reducing it doesn’t put us in any additional danger. Arguably, cutting the defense budget would reduce the threat of terrorism to the US by by increasing the cost of American foreign interventions, creating a political barrier to the military actions abroad that contribute to international anger against the US and the terrorism it fuels.

3. Constraining regional rivals like Iran or North Korea.

America’s ability to constrain regional rivals is not dependent on our defense budget. It’s important to remember just how large our defense budget really is: the military budgets of regional rivals like Venezuela, Iran, or North Korea are a fraction of America’s. Even drastic cuts in the US’s defense spending would not cause America’s military to lose its overwhelming advantage against all adversaries; if America took the extreme option of halving its defense budget its spending would still be a quarter of the world total and far beyond that of any individual nation, adversary or not.

4. Deterrence against possible major adversaries like Russia and China.

Deterring potential near-peer rivals like Russia and China is a vital goal of American foreign policy; it’s essential that the US retain the ability to deter Chinese possible aggression towards allies like Taiwan or Japan or Russian attempts to reassert its diplomatic dominance over Eastern Europe. But this goal, like others, isn’t dependent on America’s current high level of military spending. It’s been said before but bears repeating: America’s military might so dwarfs all other forces on the planet that the US has no real rivals. When Russian engineers claim their latest fighter aircraft will compete with the US Air Force they’re simply wrong — while Russia can build aircraft that rival America’s on a one-on-one basis Russia has none of the military infrastructure and deep power-projection ability of the US. This, not individual soldiers or equipment, is what wins wars. America could impose steep cuts on its defense spending and still hold a wold-wide monopoly on the ability to project overwhelming conventional force across the globe. The Cato paper has a good example of this global spending disparity. Here’s a breakdown of international military spending:

Here’s the same graph from the Cato study, but with spenders flagged according to their diplomatic status towards the US:

Blue signifies the US and firm allies like NATO, Australia, Japan and South Korea while red potential major rivals. Of the remaining nations on the chart most are US strategic allies. This type of breakdown makes it clear: the military spending of the US and our allies dominates any potential enemies. America could drastically cut its defense budget and still preserve its global military dominance and ensure a sufficient military capability to deter any potential adversary.

5. Ensuring American diplomatic leadership and continued US global hegemony.

While largely unstated, this is clearly the overarching goal of America’s foreign policy. However, maintaining America’s global leadership positions doesn’t require preserving our high levels of defense spending. Global leadership is just as dependent on population, economic vigor and participation in international organizations as military power — given its enormous size, global economic dominance and network of key alliances the US will be the major player on the world stage for the foreseeable future. Even with drastic military cuts America will retain its status as the world’s foremost military power — no state, ally or potential rival, could possibly match America’s global power-projection capability for the foreseeable future.

The Cato study makes an important point that’s ignored in America politics — the phrase defense spending is a misnomer. America faces no current threats to its national existence or even real international military rivals, and hasn’t since the fall of the USSR. Even regional enemy states like Iran or North Korea can’t be called national threats, at best they represent a narrow threat to our interests easily countered by our overwhelming military advantage. Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda fall into this group as well: these type of threats are best combated by intelligence and police spending, and don’t justify preserving the defense budget. The current world order is characterized by global peace, stability, and universal economic ties that remove the incentives for rational war, at least between major powers. The United States should take advantage of this peace to refocus or national spending towards projects that offer a much greater return on our investment. The modern United States is a nation with failing infrastructure, a broken healthcare system, and disgraceful public education. If America wants to remain a global leader into the next century these are the issues that need an unlimited budget, not the military. The United States cannot afford both the opportunity costs and, given the size of our debt, actual costs of our astoundingly high military spending. Rational, measured cuts to America’s defenses budget would allow the US to retain its positions of international military leader and monopoly of global power-projection while allowing us to invest in the areas most important to our future international standing. In the modern world order education levels and economic competitiveness are what make world powers. By neglecting to aggressively improve the sorry state of our schools, universities and public infrastructure in favor of military spending American policymakers are risking our future. Enough is enough.

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