Shadow Government

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

Heresy over defense

In recent months, a new orthodoxy has crept into discussions of defense spending. This narrative holds that the United States spends too much on defense, is suffering economically because of it, and therefore the United States can and should make major cuts in the size of the defense budget. The orthodox view increasingly substitutes arbitrary ...

Richard Ellis/Getty Images
Richard Ellis/Getty Images

In recent months, a new orthodoxy has crept into discussions of defense spending. This narrative holds that the United States spends too much on defense, is suffering economically because of it, and therefore the United States can and should make major cuts in the size of the defense budget. The orthodox view increasingly substitutes arbitrary budget targets for an appreciation of America's enduring interests. The alternative, heretical, view starts with an understanding of America's unique global role and then seeks to identify the strategy and resources needed to fulfill it. Mitt Romney began to challenge this orthodoxy in his speech on foreign policy last Friday at The Citadel. One hopes that this is but the first round of a much-needed debate on defense spending.

The Orthodox View: The current level of defense spending is unsustainable. The U.S. government will need to make major cuts in defense spending in upcoming years.

The Heresy: The Defense Department has already undertaken several rounds of cuts since the Obama administration took office, and the Obama administration plans to cut an additional $400 billion in defense expenditures. If the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction does not reach its targeted level of cuts, the Defense Department will face unprecedented automatic cuts. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cautioned shortly before leaving office, additional cuts in defense will call into question the role that the United States has played in the world for more than half a century. As he put it, "The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people -- accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades -- want their country to play in the world."

In recent months, a new orthodoxy has crept into discussions of defense spending. This narrative holds that the United States spends too much on defense, is suffering economically because of it, and therefore the United States can and should make major cuts in the size of the defense budget. The orthodox view increasingly substitutes arbitrary budget targets for an appreciation of America’s enduring interests. The alternative, heretical, view starts with an understanding of America’s unique global role and then seeks to identify the strategy and resources needed to fulfill it. Mitt Romney began to challenge this orthodoxy in his speech on foreign policy last Friday at The Citadel. One hopes that this is but the first round of a much-needed debate on defense spending.

The Orthodox View: The current level of defense spending is unsustainable. The U.S. government will need to make major cuts in defense spending in upcoming years.

The Heresy: The Defense Department has already undertaken several rounds of cuts since the Obama administration took office, and the Obama administration plans to cut an additional $400 billion in defense expenditures. If the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction does not reach its targeted level of cuts, the Defense Department will face unprecedented automatic cuts. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cautioned shortly before leaving office, additional cuts in defense will call into question the role that the United States has played in the world for more than half a century. As he put it, "The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people — accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades — want their country to play in the world."

The United States may actually have to spend more on defense to defend U.S. territory, protect our allies, and safeguard our interests. In the words of the Congressionally-mandated 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, "The [U.S.] force structure needs to be increased in a number of areas, including the need to counter anti-access challenges; strengthen homeland defense, including cyber threats; and conduct post-conflict stabilization missions. It must also be modernized." These are not the words of some paleo- or neo-conservative, but rather the findings of a group of 20 senior officials who have served Democratic and Republican presidents over decades. The Independent Panel called for an increase in the size of the U.S. Navy, the acquisition of a next-generation bomber, and new long-range strike systems. The panel acknowledged that although the Defense Department must do everything it can to achieve cost savings on acquisition and overhead, "substantial additional resources will be required to modernize the force."

The Orthodox View: Defense spending is a drain on the U.S. economy.

The Heresy: Defense spending provides tangible benefits to the American people both internationally and domestically.

Internationally, American military dominance has benefited the United States and the world as a whole. The fact that the U.S. Navy has commanded the maritime commons has allowed trade to flow freely and reliably, spurring globalization and lifting millions out of poverty. It is unclear whether the stability that American military dominance has yielded would continue in its absence. As Bill Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., famously noted, security is like oxygen: you don’t notice it until it begins to run out.

Domestically, defense does more to stimulate the U.S. economy than most things the U.S. government spends money on. The defense budget creates job and spurs the development of new technology. It is hard to think of other categories of government expenditure that are as stimulative of economic growth, yet the Defense Department was largely exempt from the Obama administration’s stimulus plans.

The stakes are too high to accept the new orthodoxy on defense on face value. The American people deserve a full-scale debate over the direction of American national security. As last year’s Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel put it, "Although there is a cost to recapitalizing the military, there is also a price to be paid for not re-capitalizing, one that in the long run would be much greater."

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