Although the campaign-like phrase “this next decade will shape the future of America,” is said too often to retain its impact, I think with regards to the U.S. defense and diplomacy initiatives of the twenty-first century, it is an inherent truth for the world in which we live today. The President, in a speech earlier this week, called for a sweeping review of the defense budget as one of four pillars to reduce the deficit. This review will most likely be the first task of the new SECDEF. And it will be critical.
Anyone who takes the budget reform process seriously knows that savings will have to be found in one of the largest consumers of government revenue, Department of Defense authorization funds. Next to only Medicare and Social Security, the money allocated to U.S. defense is the largest government initiative. The U.S. spends, per capita, more on defense than all other countries combined. Since 2000, the DOD operating budget has doubled, from about $400 billion to almost $800 billion, and that is without accounting for the wartime supplemental bills passed throughout the Bush presidency, which would ultimately put us in the trillions.
But, keep in mind, the scope of the missions we carry out and the national security threats we face far out weigh those of any other country. We are embroiled in three ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, we support South Korean and Japanese military efforts, we are essentially the force behind NATO, and we support U.N. peacekeeping missions worldwide. The United States operates 11 aircraft carriers (the U.K. operates one) and of our million person active military, approximately 300,000 troops are stationed across 150 countries. The depth and reach of US power is unmatchable. But it is also unsustainable.
So, how will the United States balance reforming the defense budget and maintaining its globe spanning dominance critical to fighting terrorism and protecting the liberalized world of the Washington consensus?
Well, earlier this week anonymous senior members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff released a white paper through the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars simply entitled, “A National Strategic Narrative.” In the paper, the authors argue that the Untied States greatly misallocates its funding by underinvesting in future priorities and overinvesting in the reaction to Islamic extremism. Secretary Gates has already taken the initiative to cut the Pentagon’s core budget and reinvest the savings in higher priority applications.
The President’s plan is not drastic or urgent. Essentially, to meet the 2022 goal of $400 billion in cuts, the Pentagon has to minimize by around $40 billion a year, which is not an impossible goal. Gordon Adams, a former senior White House official for national security budgets during the Clinton-era says the Defense Department “can meet that goal without jeopardizing the U.S. military’s global dominance.” The Pentagon will have to review the roles and missions and see what they can forgo, or pare down, in this age of fiscal constraint.
It is important, also, to keep in mind the lessons of the 1990s. In the wake of a Cold War victory, former President Clinton minimized Defense spending throughout the decade. I think a good argument can be made that inaccurate funds were allocated to the pervasive threat of international terrorism that we faced as soon as 1993. But even if the CIA knew, America did not know the scope of the problem and thus it was not a priority.
The saddest part of all is that our current Congress (especially with the makeup of the House) finds it hard to cut defense while finding it just as easy to slash diplomacy. Joe Nye Jr., the preeminent scholar on American soft power, writes this week on how we continue to move in the wrong direction. Just as Secretary Clinton was making her case in the QDDR for “smart power” – combining diplomatic, economic, and limited military power as the key to engaging the world – the Department of State’s budget of $36 billion (compared to the Defense budget its a drop in the bucket) was cut by $8 billion.
I think the best part of last week was that the President emphasized that the budget is not just a set of numbers, or a math exercise, but an extension of our values as Americans and a vision of the future. And that future will be shaped over the next year.