Commentary

Even Superpowers Must Set Priorities in a Dangerous World

We live in a dangerous world, government officials and political candidates routinely intone to justify budget-busting military expenditures. But the question should be: dangerous to whom? Even a superpower like the U.S. must set priorities and focus on those tasks, which are essential.

In its early years, the American republic possessed only a small standing military and played a very small international role. That changed dramatically in the 20th century. After World War II, the U.S. defended its many friends in Asia and Europe.

However, the Europeans now enjoy a greater collective gross domestic product (GDP) and population than America. South Korea vastly outmatches the North. Japan long possessed the second largest economy on earth. In the Middle East, U.S. friends, most notably Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, easily outrange America’s few potential adversaries, such as Iran.

Yet Washington still mans the big alliances, guards against pirates, fills peacekeeping missions, confronts emerging powers, garrisons defeated states, rebuilds failed societies, hunts down insurgents, promotes development and spreads democracy. It’s a daunting list. And an expensive one.

The U.S. is one of the world’s most secure nations geographically, yet it leads the world in military expenditures, accounting for about 40 percent of the total. America spends more per person and as a percentage of its GDP than do the vast majority of its allies, and does so mostly on their behalf.

Yet Washington’s emphasis on the geopolitically trivial — looking for warlords in Somalia and Uganda, attempting to Westernize Afghanistan, redrawing the map of the Balkans, seeking to fix multiple Middle Eastern countries — risks impairing America’s ability to handle the truly consequential. The more U.S. resources poured into secondary tasks which other nations could manage, the less able Washington will be to confront t threats which might transcend the abilities of America’s allies to respond.

The problem comes into stark relief when comparing the Cold War with the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). In the first, the U.S. faced the possibility of nuclear destruction. In Europe, the fear was essentially a renewed Eastern Front of World War II moved west.

In Korea, Washington fought a traditional conventional war involving the emerging People’s Republic of China (PRC). In succeeding years, America worried about a renewal of that conflict and threats to Japan involving both the Soviet Union and PRC.

The costs of these potential wars, especially if they escalated to nuclear weapons, could scarcely be calculated. Yet to not defend these nations would have left America’s geopolitical position isolated and threatened, if not directly endangered. And in the early decades, only the U.S. could secure Western Europe, South Korea and Japan.

The GWOT bears no comparison, despite the tendency of some military hawks to designate it as “World War III.” There’s no existential threat to America or its allies. While the casualties from individual attacks, especially 9/11, are horrendous in human terms, they wouldn’t even be noticed during the daily carnage of World War II.

Moreover, America’s participation in much of the fighting is unnecessary and counterproductive. The conflicts and controversies themselves were trivial compared to past global conflagrations. America’s interests usually were modest at best and other nations were capable of acting.

Worse, intervention in foreign conflicts has many unintended consequences, including increased attacks against America, which entangle Washington in more lengthy military campaigns.

Decades of involvement in such sideshows has diverted resources from preparing for the sort of conflicts which could threaten America’s existence and only be confronted by the U.S. Russia is a declining power unlikely to reemerge as a global presence, but China could become a genuine peer competitor to Washington. India is further behind but also has extraordinary potential.

It is hard to imagine either of the latter directly threatening America, but both conceivably could attain dominating positions in Asia that Washington’s friends might find hard to contain. If hostilities arose, the U.S. would need to be prepared to battle a great power with advanced weaponry, not defeat an insurgency in a traditional society. The trillions of dollars wasted in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria would be sorely missed.

Even the U.S. cannot do everything. It must make choices. Washington should focus on preparing for big threats, which could not be otherwise contained. And the U.S. needs to start doing that now, well before such a conflict occurs.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.