Do More, Spend More

Defense News today features a story that unintentionally provides an window into what is wrong with the Washington Foreign Policy Establishment (WFPE)— a group of supposedly smart people that has repeatedly failed to come up with a credible plan that may enable the United States to shed some of the burdens of global governance. Indeed, the key take away from a report to be released tomorrow (“The QDR in Perspective: Meeting America’s National Security Needs in the 21st Century”), is that we shouldn’t try to shed such burdens. This message is particularly curious given that even some long-time proponents of America-As-World-Government are beginning to rethink their positions.

I wasn’t expecting much, but when I perused a draft that was flying around the wires/fibers yesterday (the official release is not until tomorrow), it was even worse than I could have imagined.

“We are concerned,” the authors explain, “by what we see as a growing gap between our interests and our military capability to protect those interests.” Fair enough. But they fail to offer a reasonable alternative that would address this imbalance by boosting the military capability of other countries, and thereby relieve the burdens that have fallen disproportionately on the backs of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Instead, they call for more ships, more planes, and a larger force across the board, with the costs borne exclusively by U.S. taxpayers.

When the Obama administration released its National Security Strategy, I knocked the president and his senior advisors for failing to come up with a reasonable plan for forcing other countries to take responsibility for their own defense, and redistribute the burdens of policing the global commons among the many beneficiaries of a stable and peaceful international system. I had a similar view of the QDR, which spoke vaguely of sharing burdens and building partner capacity. The Obama team at least deserved credit, however, for recognizing that the United States should not indefinitely underwrite global security; we need other countries to do more.

The alternate QDR doesn’t even get that right. It instead makes a full-throated case for the United States remaining as the world’s policeman/armed social worker, and blithely expects the American people to keep spending more and more on our military.

I could comfort myself that this report will be the last of its type. Going back to the now-infamous Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, which set the course for the post-Cold War military, there has been a general consensus in Washington that the United States is now, and forever shall be, the sole guarantor of world order, the indispensable nation. And, for the most part, the American people have gone along.

Over time, however, the costs and risks of this approach have grown, exacerbated by the weakness of our allies, and by the inability of the Pentagon to control costs. And the benefits are meager. Today, many Americans have begun to ask why, for example, we each (every man, woman and child) spend about $2,700 on our military, when people in other countries spend less than a third as much on theirs. It is not that this level of spending will bankrupt us, per se; the key constraint on U.S. strategy is the willingness of the American people to pay for the defense of others.

Such support was always tenuous. In The Case for Goliath, Michael Mandelbaum famously argued that the United States could sustain its global posture so long as the American people didn’t scrutinize the true object (to be the world’s government) too closely. The title and description of Mandelbaum’s forthcoming book suggests that even he believes that time is running out. Other one-time enthusiasts of American unipolarity are beginning to come around to this point of view. (e.g. here and here)

To stare at the obvious imbalance between our strategic ends and our fiscal means, and to conclude that the only alternative is to dramatically increase the size of the military, the costs of which have already nearly doubled in the past 15 years, belies a fundamental inability to think strategically. The evidence suggests that our hyperactive foreign policy of the post-Cold War years has undermined American security, and ultimately been a big waste of money. There are sound strategic reasons for choosing to do less. Our fiscal problem adds to the urgency of a change in course, and especially for cuts in military spending.

Beyond that, however, our strategy must align to our political culture. To ignore the growing evidence that Americans are demanding that we do less around the world, and conclude instead that Washington must do more, demonstrates a deep disdain for the public that actually pays the bills – and offers up its sons and daughters to build other people’s countries, and fight other people’s wars.