Can the defense budget be cut?

The always-interesting Matt Yglesias has a nice post on the political feasibility of defense spending cuts, which pivots off an Economist/YouGov poll and some data presentation and commentary by Annie Lowrey at the Washington Indepedendent and Ezra Klein at WaPo. I have no disagreement with what any of them said, but I did want to ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The always-interesting Matt Yglesias has a nice post on the political feasibility of defense spending cuts, which pivots off an Economist/YouGov poll and some data presentation and commentary by Annie Lowrey at the Washington Indepedendent and Ezra Klein at WaPo. I have no disagreement with what any of them said, but I did want to register one comment.

There are really only two sensible ways to think about reducing defense spending. One is to hold one’s military obligations (aka “roles and missions”) constant and to devise cheaper ways of meeting these commitments. In this approach, you have to identify genuine waste, fraud and abuse in the Pentagon, and devise a convincing way to defend various interests while spending less money. People who believe that the United States could have a robust nuclear deterrent with a much smaller nuclear arsenal are making this sort of argument, and so did the so-called "military reform" movement back in the 1980s.

The second way to cut defense spending is to reduce one’s military commitments; i.e., to decide that there are some missions or obligations that the United States does not need to perform, either because they are not essential, because they are counterproductive, or because other states can and will do them better than we will. Some of us might put the Afghan War under this heading.

The always-interesting Matt Yglesias has a nice post on the political feasibility of defense spending cuts, which pivots off an Economist/YouGov poll and some data presentation and commentary by Annie Lowrey at the Washington Indepedendent and Ezra Klein at WaPo. I have no disagreement with what any of them said, but I did want to register one comment.

There are really only two sensible ways to think about reducing defense spending. One is to hold one’s military obligations (aka “roles and missions”) constant and to devise cheaper ways of meeting these commitments. In this approach, you have to identify genuine waste, fraud and abuse in the Pentagon, and devise a convincing way to defend various interests while spending less money. People who believe that the United States could have a robust nuclear deterrent with a much smaller nuclear arsenal are making this sort of argument, and so did the so-called "military reform" movement back in the 1980s.

The second way to cut defense spending is to reduce one’s military commitments; i.e., to decide that there are some missions or obligations that the United States does not need to perform, either because they are not essential, because they are counterproductive, or because other states can and will do them better than we will. Some of us might put the Afghan War under this heading.

The point, however, is that it doesn’t get us very far to talk about reducing U.S. defense spending unless you’re prepared to identify how to do the same missions at less cost, or unless you think there are some things we don’t need to do at all.

P.S. Isn’t the point of having lots of allies around the world to get them to do lots of things that will make us safer (and save us money), instead of simply multiplying the number of countries we think we are obligated to protect?

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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