Shadow Government
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This is no time to cut defense

I wish I could agree with Kori that we can afford to cut the defense budget in years ahead. However, she premises her argument on this: 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 ...

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

I wish I could agree with Kori that we can afford to cut the defense budget in years ahead. However, she premises her argument on this:

I wish I could agree with Kori that we can afford to cut the defense budget in years ahead. However, she premises her argument on this:

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.

If that were true, then I would agree with Kori’s case to cut defense spending. However, with respect, I don’t think it is true at all.

The threats to us are more numerous, not less. There are two major families of threats to U.S. national security today. First, at one end of the state spectrum, are the nuclear-armed authoritarian powers: Russia, China, soon Iran, North Korea as a junior partner, and Pakistan if it falls to jihadists. The latter three are (or will be) new to the nuclear club since the Cold War, and China is vastly more powerful today than it was in 1989. Second, at the other end, is the aggregate global consequences of state failure and anarchy across much of the world — such as the rise of terrorist groups, organized crime, drug cartels, human traffickers, nuclear smugglers, pandemic disease, and piracy — that will collectively erode global stability and raise the cost of U.S. leadership. State failure, with its effects magnified by globalization, is also a vastly greater threat that during the Cold War. These two families are the threats we face in the 21st Century. By contrast, we faced fewer threats and a simpler world at almost every point in our history before 1989.

The threats are equally apocalyptic. Nuclear war with the Soviet Union was the gravest danger we ever faced, and we came perilously close to it in 1962. Nuclear war with Iran or North Korea would be almost equally dangerous, especially after they have acquired longer-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting U.S. allies and even the U.S. homeland. (Yes, the Soviet Union had thousands of warheads, but you only need a few nukes to cause more damage to us than all the wars we have fought in history, combined, and only a few dozen to effectively wipe out the United States. And if I were a new nuclear power, I wouldn’t announce my capability until I already had a few dozen to make sure I could withstand an attack on my arsenal. Which means that North Korea and Iran (when it announces) will almost certainly be existential threats). The difference is that war with them or their proxies may be more likely to actually happen. The latter two countries may be less deterrable, less predictable, and more prone to transfer nuclear technology to proxies and non-state groups, given their history of erratic behavior, sponsoring terrorism, and proliferation. All told, the chances of a nuclear detonation in New York City are higher, not lower, today than twenty years ago. Unfortunately, we do not have a team of patriotic mutant superheroes to avert disaster this time.

Our allies are less capable, not more. Militarily, the Allies have underinvested in defense for decades-nothing new there. But the situation is actually getting worse, not better. The European allies spent 1.7 percent of GDP on defense in 2010 compared to 3.7 percent in 1985, according to NATO figures, a huge decline. As a result, the allies’ performance in Libya and Afghanistan has not covered them with glory. And the alliance — including us — is still using mostly the same weapons systems and platforms that were developed in the late Cold War, just with a layer of IT, often glitchy and unreliable, grafted on in recent years (I agree with Tom’s new post in this respect). Politically, the alliance has suffered tremendous strain from the double hammer-blows of disagreement over Iraq followed by unequal burden-sharing and nearly losing the war in Afghanistan. I am less confident in the alliance now than during the Cold War.

Our enemies and competitors are more capable, not less. Again, several states have acquired nuclear weapons since 1989. China has engaged in a massive conventional military buildup. Russia, after initially suffering a crippling loss of manpower, resources, and morale, has undertaken a long process of professionalizing and modernizing its military. Non-state actors have harnessed the tools of globalization and exploited the weakness of failed states to give them a global operating scope and comfortable safe haven.

Our values are not ascendant. The global financial crisis has (unfairly, I think) cast disrepute on the west in the eyes of many developing nations. China’s rise has made state-managed and autocratic development attractive to many an aspiring power. Illiberal political Islam, with its hostility to women’s rights and religious freedom, is at least competing aggressively with democracy and human rights across the Islamic world. Hindutva, largely content to compete peacefully through the Indian democratic system so far, may not always be so. Marxism of a sort is still alive, fashionable, and even resurgent in a few quarters like Venezuela and Bolivia. Democracy has indeed spread farther since 1989 than ever before in human history, but that is different from "ascendancy." Democratic gains since 1989, for example in Africa and Latin America, are new and might easily be reversed, especially given the competition.

What worries me is that I am increasingly convinced that we do not have the capabilities to meet the various threats we face today. We don’t need to be omnipotent, but we do need to be able to protect ourselves. Can we stave off state failure in Pakistan? Can we prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, or contain it afterwards? Could we prevent Russia from doing to Ukraine what it did to Georgia in 2008? Can we defeat the drug cartels wreaking havoc in Mexico and Columbia? Is al-Qaida really nearing "strategic defeat," as Panetta claims? Are we prepared to handle a collapse in North Korea — possibly having to fight a sudden war with a desperate regime, contribute to a multilateral occupation and reconstruction afterwards, and handle the delicate diplomacy with the Chinese?

Until we can, this is no time to cut defense.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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