U.S. Military Power: Preeminence for What Purpose?

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question focuses on the recently released Hadley-Perry “alternative QDR.”

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. of NationalJournal.com asks:

The U.S. military is already unaffordable – and yet it needs to be larger to sustain America’s global leadership, especially in the face of a rising China. That’s the bottom line from a congressionally chartered bipartisan panel, co-chaired by Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security adviser, and William Perry, Bill Clinton’s Defense secretary. The report, released July 29, is the independent panel’s assessment of and commentary on the Pentagon’s own Quadrennial Defense Review, released earlier this year.

Frequent expert blog contributor Gordon Adams, among others, has already blasted the Hadley-Perry report for making the underlying assumption that the U.S. can and should continue to invest heavily in being a “global policeman.” Is Adams right that the Hadley-Perry report calls for an unaffordable answer to the wrong question? Or are the report’s authors correct when they argue that the U.S. must be the leading guarantor of global security? And if the U.S. must lead, has the Hadley-Perry panel laid out the right path to doing so?

My response:

Dan Goure says that U.S. military preeminence is not unaffordable. That is probably correct. Even though we spend in excess of $800 billion annually on national security (including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs) we could choose to spend as much, or more, for a while longer. We could choose to shift money out of other government programs; we could raise taxes; or we could continue to finance the whole thing on debt, and stick our children and grandchildren with the bill.

But what is the point? Why do Americans spend so much more on our military than does any other country, or any other combination of countries?

Goure and the Hadley-Perry commissioners who produced the alternate QDR argue that the purpose of American military power is to provide global public goods, to defend other countries so that they don’t have to defend themselves, and otherwise shape the international order to suit our ends. In other words, the same justifications offered for American military dominance since the end of the Cold War.

Most in Washington still embraces the notion that America is, and forever will be, the world’s indispensable nation. Some scholars, however, questioned the logic of hegemonic stability theory from the very beginning. A number continue to do so today. They advance arguments diametrically at odds with the primacist consensus. Trade routes need not be policed by a single dominant power; the international economy is complex and resilient. Supply disruptions are likely to be temporary, and the costs of mitigating their effects should be borne by those who stand to lose – or gain – the most. Islamic extremists are scary, but hardly comparable to the threat posed by a globe-straddling Soviet Union armed with thousands of nuclear weapons. It is frankly absurd that we spend more today to fight Osama bin Laden and his tiny band of murderous thugs than we spent to face down Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao. Many factors have contributed to the dramatic decline in the number of wars between nation-states; it is unrealistic to expect that a new spasm of global conflict would erupt if the United States were to modestly refocus its efforts, draw down its military power, and call on other countries to play a larger role in their own defense, and in the security of their respective regions.

But while there are credible alternatives to the United States serving in its current dual role as world policeman / armed social worker, the foreign policy establishment in Washington has no interest in exploring them. The people here have grown accustomed to living at the center of the earth, and indeed, of the universe. The tangible benefits of all this military spending flow disproportionately to this tiny corner of the United States while the schlubs in fly-over country pick up the tab.

In short, we shouldn’t have expected that a group of Washington insiders would seek to overturn the judgments of another group of Washington insiders. A genuinely independent assessment of U.S. military spending, and of the strategy the military is designed to implement, must come from other quarters.