Military Spending

June 01, 2011

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is barnstorming the country to make the case for high defense spending. He recently said, “As we make the tough choices needed to put this country’s finances in order . . . there will undoubtedly be calls . . . for us to sharply reduce our international commitments and the size and capabilities of our military,” which Gates thinks would be a very bad idea. He suggests that any cuts to the military budget should be based on a strategic review, in which we decide what it is we want to do and thus how large and how expensive a military we need.

Yes—let’s have a strategic review, an honest one, conducted in public and not given to obfuscation, a public debate in which we as a nation decide, clearly and unambiguously, what we want our international role to be and the trade-offs we are willing to accept for that role.

In his May 23 speech, Gates said that the goals of the U.S. military are “to sustain alliances, to protect trade routes and energy supplies, and to deter would-be adversaries”—in other words, to police the world. This is a different mission from defense or national security. U.S. citizens have never explicitly endorsed the role of global hegemon, and as part of a strategic review, they might like to reflect on how much it costs.

Every U.S. citizen pays about $3,000 per year for military spending, approximately four and a half times more than the citizens of any other country in the world. Other NATO countries spend an average of just over $500 per capita, with Russia slightly over $500 and China around $50. The amount of our taxes that goes to military spending has almost doubled in constant dollars over the last decade.

In total spending, although the U.S. FY2012 U.S. military budget is now being debated in Congress, it is expected to rise over one percent to some $820 billion (now to include the two current wars previously funded by supplementals). China ranks second, with an estimated total of $120 billion.

Actually, the figure above underestimates U.S. military spending, since so much of that is spread throughout the government and is not found in the Pentagon budget. Many analysts believe that the true amount of U.S. military spending even now exceeds $1 trillion annually.

To what extent can our economy sustain this unprecedented level of military spending, and do Americans really want to assume the expense of policing the world?

Former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military man himself, clearly understood the trade-offs. In his first State of the Union Address, Eisenhower said, "Our problem is to achieve adequate military strength within the limits of endurable strain upon our economy. To amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another."

Eisenhower knew that national strength and military power are not the same things at all, and that in fact, excessive military spending can quickly destroy a nation. “There is no way in which a country can satisfy the craving for absolute security,” Eisenhower said, “but it can bankrupt itself morally and economically in attempting to reach that illusory goal through arms alone.”

On May 25, Gates warned that with a smaller budget, the military “will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things.” Yes, and that is just the point. If the military had had less money at its disposal, perhaps we could have avoided the disastrous war in Iraq, the decade-long war in Afghanistan, and now, a new and undeclared war in Libya. And if we had back the money already spent on those wars plus the out-year costs, estimated at $4 to $6 trillion by Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz, we would not today be worrying about the national debt.

Rather than trying to police the world in a time of great economic insecurity, if given a choice, Americans might well opt for a policy of military restraint as our international role, in which we substitute extensive economic and cultural engagement for force as the default mode.

Many people believe that such a policy would make us safer, not more vulnerable. Military analyst Benjamin H. Friedman, for example, writes that, “A force reduction strategy . . . would reduce the possibility of fighting unnecessary wars, limit the number of countries that build up their military to balance U.S. forces, remove an impetus for nuclear weapons proliferation and prevent foreign peoples from resenting us for occupying their countries.”
If we determined that the mission of the military is to defend the security of our own country rather than engage in what many have called empire building, we could dramatically cut Pentagon spending and deploy our scarce economic resources in constructive ways, such as protecting the environment, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, and supporting education.

Strategic restraint is an approach to the rest of the world that we can afford. Unlike the role of global hegemon, it is also one that corresponds to our values as a nation.

Jean Athey is the coordinator of Peace Action Montgomery County, Maryland, and the secretary of the Peace Action National Board of Directors