Actually We Aren’t Running the World

Bloggers have already noted the most glaring problems with Arthur Brooks, Edwin Feulner and Bill Kristol’s Monday Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Peace Doesn’t Keep Itself,” which worries that conservatives are figuring out that trying to run the world is not conservative.

The op-ed pretends that the fact that defense spending isn’t the largest cause of the deficit means it isn’t a cause of the deficit. It obscures the fact that we spend more on defense than we did in the Cold War by counting the defense budget as a portion of the economy without noting the latter has grown faster than the former.

So I can limit myself to less obvious angles. The first is that neoconservatives like Kristol are for increasing the defense budget no matter what. For them the military is basically an expression of national awesomeness (to use an academic term). Enemies and other details, like what we spend already, come up mainly in the justification phase.

In 2000, when U.S. defense spending was nearly $180 billion lower than today—excluding the wars and adjusting for inflation—Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan wanted to increase defense spending by $60 to $100 billion a year. After September 11, they called for a “large” and “substantial” increase. Having got that and then some, Kristol, at least, wants even more. The neoconservative appetite for military spending is insatiable because their militarism is.

Second, I want to pick on one point the op-ed makes because it is both wrong and widely believed: “Global prosperity requires commerce and trade, and this requires peace. But the peace does not keep itself.”

There are really two theories there. First, commerce requires general peace in supplier nations and military protection of supply lines. Second, only the United States can provide both. There is some evidence for these claims in a long-running correlation. Since World War II, U.S. military hegemony has coincided with explosive growth in global trade. So it’s easy to see how people assume causation. But as Chris Preble and I argue in the Policy Analysis that we just released, “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint,” the causal logic here is weak. It overstates the U.S. military’s contribution to global stability and trade and the trouble that instability causes us.

The first theory is right in the sense that nations devastated by war ultimately lose purchasing power, which is bad for their trade partners. But in the meantime, warring countries typically need a lot of imports. They also generate capital for armies by selling goods abroad. For that reason, the Iranians and Iraqis kept pumping oil during their war. Wars do not simply shut down trade.

The argument for policing peacetime shipments is even worse, as I explain in a guest post I did yesterday for the Stimson Center’s revamped defense budget blog. As I note there, we do not really protect shipments now. A tiny minority get naval protection. Thus primacists tend to argue that what matters is not defending trade but the ability to do so, which deters malfeasants from harassing it or building capability to do so. But that argument gives the game away. You don’t need to do it in good times to do it in bad times.

What happens the day after we tell our Navy to stop sailing around in the name of protecting commerce? Who interrupts shipments? Would Iran start charging tolls at the Strait of Hormuz or China in the South China Sea? I say no because they know that we can force access and because there are plenty of ways to retaliate, including blockading those countries.

A more plausible claim is that some states would increase naval spending to police their own shipping. That seems like a good thing. Sometimes people say that such burden-sharing could set off a naval arms race that causes a war, say between India and China. I suppose that is possible, but naval arms races have caused few, if any, wars.

Let’s say our ability to buy some good from some area is cut off, either by instability at the source or en route. The likely outcome is supply adjustment, not supply failure. Generally another supplier takes the orders and prices adjust. That is particularly true as globalization links markets and increases supply options. It is when you have only one potential supplier that you really need to police delivery.

If you believe that military hegemony protects peacetime shipments, you could argue that it distorts price signals by shifting a portion of the good’s cost to federal taxes. Because I don’t believe that we are propping up prices in most cases, I say that what primacists are really selling is an attempted but failed subsidy to consumption of goods, including oil.

Oil is a special case because price shocks caused by supply disruption have in the past caused recessions. However, economists argue that the conditions that allowed for this problem have changed. One change is the reduced burden energy costs now impose on U.S. household income. Others disagree, but if they are right, that is why we have public and private reserves.

You can read more of what we think of about the idea that only we can keep the peace among states in the Policy Analysis or in the stuff Cato scholars have been pumping out for years. I will just say here that primacists ignore all the history contradicting the idea that only hegemons create a stable balance of power and the many rivals that formed stable balances of power without an hegemon taking a side.

International stability and world trade would be OK without our nation trying to use our military to provide them. If you don’t believe me, you might read one of these three papers by Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press. I took a lot of this from them.