Stephen M. Walt

Why defense spending won’t go down much

Q. How can you tell when William Kristol is giving bad policy advice? A. His lips are moving. Or he’s typing. Or he’s writing an open letter for a bunch of hawks to sign. Or launching some new letterhead organization. I refer, of course, to Kristol’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (co-authored with ...

Michael Nagle/Getty Images
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

Q. How can you tell when William Kristol is giving bad policy advice?

A. His lips are moving. Or he’s typing. Or he’s writing an open letter for a bunch of hawks to sign. Or launching some new letterhead organization.

I refer, of course, to Kristol’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (co-authored with the presidents of the  the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute). The basic theme is that the world is very, very dangerous, and so the United States should not cut a nickel from its defense budget, even though we already spend more than the rest of the world combined, have most of the world’s major powers on our side, and possess a robust nuclear deterrent. So even though the country is also facing massive budget deficits, at least partly due to policies that Kristol has previously promoted, we need to build a wall around the defense budget and make sure it doesn’t get shrunk. At all.

Seriously, given Kristol’s track record over the past decade, you’d think that people who were hoping to be taken seriously in Washington would shy away from any association with his policy ideas. But to think that, you’d also have to believe that there was some degree of accountability in American political discourse, which is of course not the case. So despite the various disasters that Kristol and his associates have helped cause over the years, they are back with another well-orchestrated campaign to convince the country to do something foolish.

This latest proposal (part of a new "Defending Defense" initiative) has already attracted ample fire from a diverse array of experts and pundits, including FP’s Dan Drezner here. I see no need to pile on these various critiques, each of which makes good points. Instead, I want to focus on something that the critics have largely ignored; namely, how difficult it is going to be to make substantial cuts in defense spending, even in period of budgetary stringency, without simultaneously rethinking America’s overall grand strategy.

To start with, any serious attempt to cut defense spending would face opposition from Congressional representatives who want to keep defense contractors busy and military bases open in their states or districts. Thus, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ proposed that DoD save some bucks by closing the Joint Forces Command, the suggestion drew howls of protest from Virginia’s entire Congressional delegation. Was this because a separate Joint Forces Command was so essential to our national security? Of course not. It was because its headquarters was located in Virginia. When you consider how carefully the Pentagon scatters bases or sprinkles defense dollars in every Congressional district, you can see how hard it is going to be to make a significant dent in our current defense expenditures. And you certainly better not try to do so by trimming veterans’ benefits.

Second, as I’ve noted before, defense spending (and an activist foreign policy) are proudly defended by most prominent DC think tanks, many of whom depend on military contractors for a substantial part of their funding. This has been true of AEI and Heritage for a long time, but take a look at the funding sources for supposedly more "progressive" think tanks like the Center for New American Security. Inside the Beltway, defenders of a large defense budget are bound to be more numerous and better-funded than critics, thereby ensuring a chorus of "expert" opinion defending the budgetary status quo (or at the most, disagreeing at the margins).

Third, national security wannabes (i.e., civilians who aspire to careers in the national security establishment) have learned that critics of excessive defense spending aren’t taken as seriously in Washington and have a tougher time landing big foreign policy jobs. To be blunt, there isn’t that much daylight between hardcore neocons and energetic liberal interventionists, especially when it comes to preserving U.S. military preponderance or using that power against anyone we’ve taken a dislike to. So even though a lot of national security jobs are likely to open up in the next year or so (as Obama’s initial appointees cycle out) you shouldn’t expect to see advocates of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy replacing the current group. Sadly, most of the bloggers who’ve been eviscerating the Kristol et al position are not in line for big jobs in DC.

Fourth, cutting defense spending is going to be hard as long as we are still fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, maintaining a globe-encircling array of military commitments, and letting most of our allies free-ride on our protection. As Drezner notes, Kristol and Co. vastly overstate the actual level of threat we face. But although U.S. forces are smaller than they were during the Cold War, we are still trying to patrol the same amount of real estate and the social engineering we’ve been trying to do in places like Afghanistan is very expensive, especially when compared to the strategic benefits it brings. Plus, we’ve burned up a lot of equipment over the past decade, and some serious money will have to be spent to re-equip U.S. forces once those wars are (finally) over.   

Which brings me to my main point. Although it is mind-boggling to realize that five percent of the world’s population (the United States) now spends more on defense than the other 95 percent put together, this situation is hard to avoid when you see threats emerging virtually everywhere and when you think all of them are best met by an ambitious and highly interventionst foreign policy. If Americans want to be able to go anywhere and do anything, then they are going to have keep spending lots of money, even if all that activity merely reinforces anti-American extremism and makes more people want to come after us. (And for more on that latter point, read this book).

If you want to cut defense spending significantly, in short, you have to make some non-trivial adjustments in U.S. grand strategy. As some of you know, I think the United States would be both more prosperous and safer if we had a more restrained grand strategy and a more intelligent foreign policy. Until that happens, however, reducing defense spending itself is going to be an uphill fight, and our defense expenditures will be closer to the views of Kristol et al than to mine. Unfortunately.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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