The recent debt deal will slash the defense budget over the next decade. And if Congress can’t agree on an additional $1.5 trillion in cuts, the law’s “trigger mechanism” will lead to deeper reductions in military spending. The initial cuts will not imperil America’s national security, but the deeper cuts could.
The administration of George W. Bush nearly doubled the defense budget following 9/11. With the winding down of Mr. Bush’s two wars, we could cut our ground forces to 1990s levels, reduce the planned purchases of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, make greater use of cheaper drones and other technologies, and deal with the escalating costs of the defense health care system — without serious damage to national security. Indeed, President Obama’s budget had already planned for $400 billion in defense savings by 2023.
But it is not enough to tinker with the defense budget. We also need to rethink how we use our military power. Unlike the state of affairs during the cold war, the United States and its allies today account for over 70 percent of world military expenditure. The No. 1 power no longer has to patrol every boundary and seek to police every country. Opponents of defense cuts are raising the specter of isolationism and the weakening of American power. But there is a middle way.
At the height of the cold war, President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided against direct military intervention on the side of the French in Vietnam in 1954 because he was convinced that it was more important to preserve the strength of the American economy. Today, such a strategy would avoid involvement of ground forces in major wars in Asia or in other poor countries. While it will take time to extricate ourselves from Mr. Bush’s post-9/11 strategy, we must start, as the National Security Strategy of 2010 states, “by recognizing that our strength and influence abroad begins with the steps we take at home.” Eisenhower could have said that — and no one could accuse Ike of being an isolationist.
Counterinsurgency is attractive as a military tactic but it should not lead us into a strategy of nation-building in places where we do not have the capacity to engineer change. The maxim of avoiding major land wars in poor countries does not mean withdrawing our military presence from places like Japan and South Korea, or ending military assistance to countries like Pakistan and Egypt. Some analysts call this “off-shore balancing,” but that term must mean more than just naval and air force activity. For example, in Japan and South Korea, our allies pay a significant portion of the cost for basing American troops there because they want an insurance policy in a region faced with a rising China and a volatile North Korea.
Over the course of this century, Asia will return to its historic status, with more than half of the world’s population and half of the world’s economic output. America must be present there. Markets and economic power rest on political frameworks, and American military power provides that framework. Military security is to order as oxygen is to breathing: underappreciated until it becomes scarce. That is why the new bipartisan Congressional commission must provide the revenues that allow America to continue to play this vital role while avoiding the trap of overly ambitious nation-building.
Such a strategy is also sustainable at home. The British historian Niall Ferguson, an enthusiast for empire, lamented at the time of the Iraq war that the United States lacked the capacity for empire because of three domestic deficits: personnel (not enough boots on the ground); attention (not enough public support for long-term occupation); and financial (not enough savings and not enough taxation relative to public expenditure). He was correct.
Lacking a stomach for empire or colonial occupation is one of the important ways in which American political culture differs from that of imperial Britain. Americans like to promote universal values. But rather than succumbing to the temptation to intervene on the side of “the good,” we can do it best by being what Ronald Reagan called “a shining city on a hill.”
The alternatives we face today are not an untouchable defense budget or isolationism. A smart strategy for preserving America’s power and global role will depend on wisely tailoring our foreign policy to fit the cloth we have. Eisenhower knew this well.