Those who call for the United States to pursue an ambitious grand strategy of global dominance (aka primacy) also believe the American people will willingly tolerate much higher Pentagon spending. Some even spell out where the additional money will be found. The members of the National Defense Strategy Commission, for example, declare that policymakers must arrest the rise of non-defense spending, and increase tax revenues, in order to “fully fund America’s defense strategy.”
Such claims do not square with political reality. As Gallup’s Frank Newport points out “Americans clearly respect and appreciate the military, but generally perceive that the nation’s national defense is strong enough (or even too strong), and that current defense spending is about right (or even too much).” Newport’s colleague Lydia Saad breaks down public attitudes here, finding that just 1 in 4 Americans think we spend too little on the military. There is meager support for higher Pentagon spending even among Republicans: 48 percent believe that military spending is “about right” while just 37 percent want more. Three years ago, these numbers were essentially flipped: 62 percent of Republican respondents thought the United States was spending too little on the miltary, while just 22 percent were in the “about right” camp.
Looking back on Gallup polling data over the last several decades, Newport explains “as defense spending goes up, the percentage of Americans saying the nation spends too little goes down.” And, overall, “attitudes about defense spending…[remain] fairly stable, with Americans almost always saying that spending is either about right or too much.”
For those who argue that the U.S. needs a much bigger defense budget in the years ahead, Americans’ upbeat feelings about the military and about the strength of national defense could actually be an obstacle – leading to the complacent conclusion that the military budget doesn’t need to be increased. If things are going well (and if the budget has already been increased), why the need to spend more?
To be clear, if Washington continues to hold out U.S. military power as indispensable to all that is good in the world, and if our political leaders mostly listen to those who contend that “America needs a substantially larger military than the one it now has” – then U.S. taxpayers will have to pay more. Much more. And they’ll also have to tolerate much less spending on nearly everything else.
But it is not too late to revisit our foreign policy goals. As I explain in my forthcoming book, there are many problems with primacy, but its greatest shortcoming may be that it does not align with the wishes of the American people. An alternative approach, one that is better suited to our current political moment, would restrain Washington’s impulses to solve problems through the use of force, or the threat of force, and reaffirm the importance of the many other instruments of American global influence, including diplomacy and responsible statecraft, mutually beneficial trade, and peaceful cultural exchange.