The Case for a Much Smaller Military

This article originally appeared in Fortune.

How big a military does the U.S. need? The Pentagon, which recently completed its once‐​every‐​four‐​years review, thinks we need pretty much everything we’ve got. It proposes that we preserve the current force structure, pare manpower levels slightly, and allow inflation to slowly erode overall expenditures – all as if the Cold War had never ended. In reality, the nation’s defense needs have changed very dramatically in recent years. The President and Congress should ignore the Pentagon’s wish list and cut military spending much more deeply – by more than a third.

Military spending is the price of our foreign policy, and after World War II that policy was dictated by the threat of an aggressive Soviet Union and its satellites. All told, America spent more than $13 trillion (in today’s dollars) to win the Cold War. But starting in 1989, all the old assumptions collapsed. The Central and Eastern European states overthrew communism, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Warsaw Pact dissolved. The Soviet Union itself disappeared. A foreign policy and force structure designed to deter Soviet aggression suddenly became obsolete.

But U.S. military spending did not change accordingly. Outlays have fallen, but only from the 1985 peak caused by the Reagan defense buildup. Adjusted for inflation, expenditures today remain above those of 1980. President Clinton is spending more now than Richard Nixon did in 1975 and almost as much as Lyndon Johnson did in 1965. The U.S. spends more than three times as much as Moscow, and nearly twice as much as Britain, France, Germany, and Japan combined.

Although the world remains a dangerous place, it is not particularly dangerous for the U.S. Observed Colin Powell when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “I’m running out of demons … I’m down to Castro and Kim It Sung.”

The bulk of the Pentagon budget continues to fund Washington’s Cold War alliances. For example, through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), 100,000 U.S. soldiers stand guard lest phantom Soviet divisions invade Europe. It’s not as if the Western Europeans, with a combined population of 414 million and GDP of $7.4 trillion, couldn’t defend themselves against Russia, with 149 million people and a $1.1 trillion GDP. Britain, France, and Germany together spend 25% more on the military than Russia, which just announced a further cut in defense outlays. It is time for the Europeans to take over NATO. There is certainly no need to expand NATO into Central and Eastern Europe. The old Eastern Bloc needs access to Western markets, not Western soldiers. And America has no vital interest that warrants guaranteeing the borders of Poland, say, or Hungary.

The case for maintaining 100,000 soldiers in East Asia is equally dubious. South Korea has 20 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea. U.S. citizens spend more than the South Koreans to defend South Korea.

No new threats loom on the horizon. Germany and Japan remain feared by some alleged friends, but neither is likely to declare war on one of its powerful neighbors – many of whom now possess nuclear weapons. China is growing but seems assertive rather than aggressive. Its military expansion has been measured. Brazil, India, and other nations may eventually evolve into regional military powers, but the U.S. has no quarrels with them and can adjust its policies over time if necessary. Outlaw states like Iraq and North Korea pose diminishing conventional threats that should be contained by their neighbors, not by America.

The final refuge of those who support big military budgets is “leadership.” As Newt Gingrich puts it, “You do not need today’s defense budget to defend the United States. You need today’s defense budget to lead the world.”

But do you, really? The U.S., after all, has the largest and most productive economy. It is the leading trading nation. Its constitutional system has proved to be one of the world’s most durable. Its culture permeates the globe. Perhaps an outsized military isn’t required for “leadership.” Indeed, even significant budget cuts would still leave Washington with the world’s biggest and best military

No one wants America to be weak, which is why spending on training and technology should remain priorities. But we’re ready for a radical restructuring – from, for instance, 1.5 million to 900,000 servicemen, 12 to six aircraft‐​carrier battle groups, and 20 to ten tactical Air Force wings. The military budget could be cut to some $170 billion from today’s nearly $270 billion.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.