My blogging colleague FMFP’s recent writings on the ongoing struggle for the US government to agree on a budget for this coming year highlighted the discrepancy between mandatory (entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) and discretionary funding, basically everything else the government pays for, including defense spending. FMFP cited a poll that showed that far too many Americans are unaware of the fact that entitlement spending is what is really driving our country toward insolvency and another poll by WSJ/NBC also portrays an American populace unwilling to give up any ‘significant’ portion of these program’s benefits to fix the budget. FMFP, after using Tarrance Group poll results showing that a majority of Americans think the government spends more on defense than on entitlements, accurately pointed out defense/security procurements take up roughly 20% of the budget while Social Security and Medicare take up almost twice as much and are expected to explode in coming decades.
It is this context, that I recently read Robert Kagan’s article ‘The Price of Power‘. Here’s his intro:
The looming battle over the defense budget could produce a useful national discussion about American foreign and defense policy. But we would need to begin by dispensing with the most commonly repeated fallacy: that cutting defense is essential to restoring the nation’s fiscal health. People can be forgiven for believing this myth, given how often they hear it. Typical is a recent Foreign Affairs article claiming that the United States faces “a watershed moment” and “must decide whether to increase its already massive debt in order to continue being the world’s sheriff or restrain its military missions and focus on economic recovery.”
This is nonsense. No serious budget analyst or economist believes that cutting the defense budget will aid economic recovery in the near term—federal spending on defense is just as much a job-producing stimulus as federal spending on infrastructure. Nor, more importantly, do they believe that cutting defense spending will have more than the most marginal effect on reducing the runaway deficits projected for the coming years. The simple fact is, as my Brookings colleague and former budget czar Alice Rivlin recently observed, the scary projections of future deficits are not “caused by rising defense spending,” and even if one assumes that defense spending continues to increase with the rate of inflation, this is “not what’s driving the future spending.” The engine of our growing debt is entitlements.
Kagan is a strong believer in the US global military presence being a source of public good not only for the United States, but also for the world in general. His position on defense cuts is unsurprising, but nonetheless, persuasive. He later in the lengthy article details the main reasons to keep a strong, active US military, with global terrorism and rising great power instability as the key two reasons. Kagan also warns against the assumption that substantial cuts to the defense arena will be without much cost…
In fact, the only way to get significant savings from the defense budget—and by “significant,” we are still talking about a tiny fraction of the cuts needed to bring down future deficits—is to cut force structure: fewer troops on the ground; fewer airplanes in the skies; fewer ships in the water; fewer soldiers, pilots, and sailors to feed and clothe and provide benefits for. To cut the size of the force, however, requires reducing or eliminating the missions those forces have been performing.
In other words, if the US really wants to cut down on our defense spending we are going to have to change or adjust our strategic posture. To some, specifically Jeffersonians and domestic liberals, a smaller US military would be overall beneficial: more money for social programs/less military adventures abroad. For others, a lessening of our international presence will lead us and the world down a potentially dangerous path (great power war, global instability) that will cost us much more than 20% of our budget to get out from under.
I have to admit, though I’m clearly in the ‘US military and global presence is a source for good’ camp, I have to admit that our modern defense industry is bloated and could use some trimming. Greg Scoblete of Real Clear World rightly points out that overall the US currently finds itself in more sure security surroundings compared to the Cold War, WW II, etc. I believe the US needs a strong presence in East Asia to combat a growing China and keep allies such as Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea secure. The scourge of Islamic terrorism is as real as ever and demands a secure homeland and strong military, diplomatic, and intelligence network in numerous hot spots around the globe to deter and defeat. Global trade, which still depends largely on maritime travel, demands safe passage through the earth’s oceans and seas and there is no better guarantor of that than the US Navy. The Middle East, which includes a menacing regime in Tehran, a Turkey posturing away from the West, a vulnerable ally in Israel, oil supplies and pathways up the wazoo, is cauldron of instability and no one knows where these popular uprisings may lead. I could go on…
So in short, yes, I do think the United States could sustain some cuts in our defense spending, but we have to admit that this will come with some costs. which we must choose wisely. and we must not let these cuts distract us from our real budget calamity, ever expanding entitlement programs. This country and the world need a strong American presence and for this to be maintained now and in the future we need not only a capable military, but a fiscal future that doesn’t look so much like present day Greece.