Daniel W. Drezner

Cold War 1, current threat environment 0

Cold War 1, current threat environment 0

Yesterday, Arthur Brooks (head of AEI), Edwin Feulner (head of Heritage) and William Kristol (official badass of the neoconservative movement) launched their "Defending Defense" initiative with a Wall Street Journal op-ed

As FP‘s Josh Rogin has observed, this effort is aimed at the libertartian wing of the conservative movement just as much as the Obama administration. It also comes on the heels of Danielle Pletka and Tom Donnelly’s Washington Post op-ed that explicitly took on the small-government right.

The core of Brooks, Feulner and Kristol’s justification for more robust defense spending:

It is unrealistic to imagine a return to long-term prosperity if we face instability around the globe because of a hollowed-out U.S. military lacking the size and strength to defend American interests around the world.

Global prosperity requires commerce and trade, and this requires peace. But the peace does not keep itself. The Global Trends 2025 report, which reflects the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community, anticipates the rise of new powers — some hostile — and projects a demand for continued American military power. Meanwhile we face many nonstate threats such as terrorism, and piracy in sea lanes around the world. Strength, not weakness, brings the true peace dividend in a global economy.

We have not done enough to help our military preserve the peace and deter (and if necessary, defeat) our enemies. Americans have fought superbly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have prevented any further terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11. But faced with a nuclear Iran, or a Chinese People’s Liberation Army that can deny access to U.S. ships or aircraft in the Asian-Pacific region, there are many missions ahead.

Yet we face those challenges with a baseline defense budget—defense spending minus the cost of the wars—that is 3.6% of GDP, significantly less than the Reagan-era peak of 6.2%. Our active-duty military is two-thirds its size in the 1980s.

Really? That’s the best this trio could come up with in the way of security threats? Meh. 

Terrorism and piracy are certainly security concerns — but they don’t compare to the Cold War. A nuclear Iran is a major regional headache, but it’s not the Cold War. A generation from now, maybe China poses as serious a threat as the Cold War Soviet Union. Maybe. That’s a generation away, however. 

There’s a reason for that Reagan-era peak in defense spending that Brooks, Fuelner and Kristol elided: the Cold War tensions of the early 1980’s. 

I’m about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don’t equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And until I see another hostile country in the world that poses a military threat in Europe, the Middle East and Asia at the same time, I’m thinking that current defense spending should be lower than Cold War levels by a fair amount. 

UPDATE:  More critiques of the Defending Defense position from Andrew Sullivan, Will Wilkinson and Greg Scoblete