Daniel W. Drezner

Hoisted from the archives: it’s not the Cold War

Hoisted from the archives:  it’s not the Cold War

OK, apparently the Wall Street Journal now has a policy to publish an op-ed every quarter asserting that:

1)  U.S. defense spending is woefully inadequate compared to the Cold War era;

2)  Those advocating further defense cuts are advocating taking the United States back to the 1930’s; and

3)  Today’s threat environment is really, really bad. 

Last quarter it was the Arthur Brooks/Edwin Feulner/William Kristol op-ed.  Today it’s Mark Helprin.  The gist of his argument:

Based upon nothing and ignoring the cautionary example of World War II, we are told that we will never face two major enemies at once. Despite the orders of battle of our potential adversaries and the fact that our response to insurgency has been primarily conventional, we are told that the era of conventional warfare is over. And we are told that we can rest easy because military spending is an accurate index of military power, and we spend as much as the next however many nations combined.

But this takes no account of the nature of our commitments, the fading contributions of our allies, geography, this nation’s size and that of its economy, conscription or its absence, purchasing power parity, exchange rate distortions, the military trajectories of our rivals individually or in combination, and the masking effects of off-budget outlays and unreported expenditures. Though military spending comparisons are of lesser utility than assessing actual capabilities, they are useful nonetheless for determining a country’s progress relative to itself.

Doing so reveals that from 1940 to 2000, average annual American defense expenditure was 8.5% of GDP; in war and mobilization years 13.3%; under Democratic administration 9.4%; under Republican 7.3%; and, most significantly, in the years of peace 5.7%. Today we spend just 4.6% of GDP—minus purely operational war costs, 3.8%. That is, 66% of the traditional peacetime outlays. We have been, and we are, steadily disarming even as we are at war.

Hmm… I’ll concede Helprin’s point about fading contributions from allies from Western Europe — but not elsewhere.  Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that if a sober analyst took into account geography, purchasing power parity, off-budget outlays, conscription, and actual military readiness, the argument in favor of moderated defense spending becomes stronger and not weaker.  When the closest great power rival to the United States has difficulties supplying an anti-piracy flotilla, I think it’s safe to say that the gap in capabilities is not going to shrink all that dramatically anytime soon. 

More, importantly, it’s not the same threat environment as the Cold War.  If the Wall Street Journal is going to recycle the same tired argument about going back to Cold War era defense spending, then I’ll just cut and paste what I said the first time this argument was made:

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…. 

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. 

The "we’re-not-spending-enough-on-defense" argument reminds me that I’d like to see the foreign policy community make some New Year’s resolutions.  To be specific, there are arguments and memes that commentators have made over the past year that I’d like to see less of in 2011.  More about this later. 

Am I missing anything?