Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

A heretic responds

Since I have often argued in these electronic pages for reducing defense spending, I feel the need to respond to Tom Mahnken’s post, and hopefully draw out the arguments for and against maintaining or increasing our current DOD accounts. I agree with Tom that our current level of defense spending is not an undue burden ...

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Since I have often argued in these electronic pages for reducing defense spending, I feel the need to respond to Tom Mahnken's post, and hopefully draw out the arguments for and against maintaining or increasing our current DOD accounts.

I agree with Tom that our current level of defense spending is not an undue burden on the American economy. Since the end of World War II, spending levels have been far in excess of our current roughly 4 percent of GDP without demonstrable negative economic effects.

But three other factors persuade me that reductions to defense spending should be undertaken. First, we have a national security vulnerability of epic proportions in our federal debt. Defense is not the primary cause of that debt; obviously, our medical and retirement programs need to be reduced and brought into sustainable proportions. But defense is a significant contributor to the debt. Military strength is not the sole basis of American power -- our economy, our values, our vibrancy demand we put ourselves on sound financial footing, which requires us to address the problem of American debt addiction. I have a difficult time seeing how either the math or the politics work to bring federal spending into line with receipts if conservatives rule defense out of bounds.

Since I have often argued in these electronic pages for reducing defense spending, I feel the need to respond to Tom Mahnken’s post, and hopefully draw out the arguments for and against maintaining or increasing our current DOD accounts.

I agree with Tom that our current level of defense spending is not an undue burden on the American economy. Since the end of World War II, spending levels have been far in excess of our current roughly 4 percent of GDP without demonstrable negative economic effects.

But three other factors persuade me that reductions to defense spending should be undertaken. First, we have a national security vulnerability of epic proportions in our federal debt. Defense is not the primary cause of that debt; obviously, our medical and retirement programs need to be reduced and brought into sustainable proportions. But defense is a significant contributor to the debt. Military strength is not the sole basis of American power — our economy, our values, our vibrancy demand we put ourselves on sound financial footing, which requires us to address the problem of American debt addiction. I have a difficult time seeing how either the math or the politics work to bring federal spending into line with receipts if conservatives rule defense out of bounds.

Second, our near-term margin of error is actually enormously wide in defense compared to any prospective challenger. The world is much more conducive to American interests than it was when Defense spending as a proportion of GDP was much higher: we are militarily dominant, the threats to us are fewer and less apocalyptic, our allies are more capable to handle their own problems, our enemies less so, and our values on the ascendancy. Coming off two intellectually and operationally demanding wars, the American military is weary but amazingly proficient and adaptive. 

Moreover, our military services are better than at any time in history. They have conducted a rolling modernization, replacing equipment with much better equipment as it was exhausted in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have battle tested forces that can successfully span the spectrum from high-intensity warfare to counterinsurgency, excelling at individuals taking initiative. While others may learn from studying our operations, there’s no substitute for the doing we have been doing.

Third, the American military is brilliant at effectiveness; efficiency, not so much. As Admiral Mullen confessed during the last budget cycle, money has been plentiful in DOD for so long we’ve forgotten how to budget and economize. We tend to overwhelm problems with resources. That’s not a bad strategy, but it’s a profligate strategy, and we ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Our strongest suit is not spending but innovation, and because of the demands of the wars, we have a military primed for tackling the problems with more innovative approaches.

Spending does not guarantee capability; in many cases, it impedes finding better solutions and creates complacency. We have more than doubled the baseline budget in the past ten years, even before adding in the operational costs of the wars. Is the world twice as dangerous as it was in 2001? I doubt it. Besides, inputs are not the right measure of outputs. I believe it’s genuinely wrong to equate spending with commitment to defense. Our safety lies in our ability to find better solutions, not our ability to spend more than our adversaries.

I’d be very interested in Tom and other Shadow colleagues’ thinking on the three issues of whether they consider debt a greater threat, our margin of error militarily wide, and whether they see the need for greater efficiency in our approach to defense challenges.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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