Being a Global Power on $469 bn a Year

A passage from an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal caught my attention, but it took me a day to sort out the details. Mark Thompson at Time’s Battleland blog helped close the loop.

The op-ed (republished at the Foreign Policy Initiative) praised Rep. Paul Ryan for reversing the automatic cuts in the Pentagon’s budget, as mandated in the Budget Control Act. The article explains:

These cuts will eviscerate the United States military if Congress does not quickly pass a law to undo them this year. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made plain the consequences of sequestration: “We would no longer be a global power. (emphasis mine)

I was skeptical, knowing a bit about sequestration, and also a bit about Gen. Dempsey. Did he really say that? Did he mean it?

After all, the suggestion is absurd on its face. Under sequestration, the Pentagon’s base budget will average $469 billion a year in constant, 2012 dollars between 2013 to 2022.  We spent $464 billion in 2006, plus $130.5 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (also in constant 2012 dollars). Were we not a “global power” in 2006? We spent, on average, $452.9 billion a year in the entire post-Cold war period (1990 to 2012). Have we not been a “global power” since the collapse of the Soviet empire?

For that matter, Ronald Reagan’s last budget, for FY 1989,  spent $524 billion on the Pentagon. At the time, we accounted for about a third of global military spending. Today we account for almost half. Would we truly cease to be a global power if we contributed 43 or 44 percent of global military spending, while the next largest spender – China – accounted for 10 or 11 percent? (See the charts that I posted late last week).

I understand that money spent – either in real terms, or relative to what others spend – is not the sole criteria to consider when calculating a country’s power. But I have a hard time believing that China’s spending is four times more effective than our own. And if it is, we have a very different sort of problem on our hands.

Thankfully, Gen. Dempsey has clarified his remarks, revealing that he understands the facts far better than the op-ed writers. “The idea that I really wanted to get across,” he told reporters on Wednesday, “was that we wouldn’t be the global power that we know ourselves to be today.”

He went on:

Will we remain a global power? Ya, of course. We have demonstrated that we can provide the nation options. … But we’re going to be providing a lot fewer options and a lot less capacity.

I wouldn’t quarrel with that. If we were to return to pre-9/11 spending levels, the United States would still be a global power. We could not afford, however, to be the world’s policeman without placing undue burdens on our men and women in uniform. As U.S. military spending declines, therefore, we should expect, and hopefully demand, that other countries take primary responsibility for defending themselves and their interests. They must fill the capacity gap that has been covered for too long by U.S. troops, and paid for disproportionately by U.S. taxpayers.