On the eve of a major speech on foreign policy, which is due tomorrow, US President Trump is calling for US defence spending to be increased by $54 billion, a huge 10% increase in the Pentagon’s budget and the biggest increase since 2008.
The President is calling for this increase to be funded by cutting spending on other programmes. This is likely to be unpopular in Congress and it is far from certain that the spending increase will be approved in full. However the likelihood is that defence spending will increase significantly and that – given US political realities – the increase in defence spending will not be matched by corresponding cuts in spending for other programmes. The result is that despite probably higher economic growth in the short term, over the medium to long term both the US budget deficit and the US’s overall level of debt will rise.
Donald Trump has repeatedly spoken of his wish for a stronger US military and has constantly criticised what he complains was the unacceptable downsizing of the US military during the Obama era. With the US military – including US service personnel and their families – amongst his strongest supporters, his demands for a big increase in defence spending is understandable.
However on any objective assessment this is overkill. The US already spends more on defence than the seven next strongest military powers put together, and it is difficult to see what further capability this huge increase in spending can achieve.
The US military’s problem is not that it spends too little. On the contrary for what ought to be its central task – the defence of the US and its allies – it already spends far too much. Rather the US’s problem is that with the US assuming for itself a worldwide hegemonic role in which it claims the right to intervene everywhere and all the time no amount of defence spending can ever be enough.
Moreover the enormous amount the US spends on achieving this unachievable objective is distorting the balance of the US economy and is corrupting its political system, riddling the defence budget with corruption and inefficiency of which the F-35 debacle is merely the most spectacular example.
The vast increase in defence spending the President wants – for no very precise objective given that the US is currently not involved in any major war – is also inevitably going to make more difficult what he says he wants to achieve in foreign policy.
Two of the US’s most renowned if controversial defence analysts, Chuck Spinney and Pierre Sprey, have recently written an alarmist piece predicting that the President’s wish for a big increase in defence spending risks fuelling an arms race with Russia.
As it happens I think this view is wrong. The Russians have made it repeatedly clear that they have no intention of bankrupting themselves by trying to keep up with the US military in the way the USSR once did. Moreover they are confident that they can achieve enough military capability to defend Russia and its allies from any possible attack from the US with only a fraction of what the US spends. I have no doubt they are right, and that the surge in US defence spending far from increasing US capability to any real degree will instead quickly come up against the law of diminishing returns.
Nonetheless the Russians – and the Chinese – are hardly likely to welcome a further increase in defence spending or to look upon it as a friendly act. Given that the President has repeatedly said that he wants better relations with Russia, and that he is starting to say the same thing about China, this huge increase in defence spending hardly seems a good way to achieve what he says he wants.
As it happens there is an overwhelming case that what the US needs to do is to cut defence spending radically rather than increase it. Back in October 2016 the US economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote an insightful piece about the ultimate un-sustainability and futility of the US quest for US global military dominance and of the way it is undermining the US economy
The single most important issue in allocating national resources is war versus peace, or as macroeconomists put it, “guns versus butter.” The United States is getting this choice profoundly wrong, squandering vast sums and undermining national security. In economic and geopolitical terms, America suffers from what Yale historian Paul Kennedy calls “imperial overreach.” If our next president remains trapped in expensive Middle East wars, the budgetary costs alone could derail any hopes for solving our vast domestic problems…..
The scale of US military operations is remarkable. The US Department of Defense has (as of a 2010 inventory) 4,999 military facilities, of which 4,249 are in the United States; 88 are in overseas US territories; and 662 are in 36 foreign countries and foreign territories, in all regions of the world. Not counted in this list are the secret facilities of the US intelligence agencies. The cost of running these military operations and the wars they support is extraordinary, around $900 billion per year, or 5 percent of US national income, when one adds the budgets of the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, homeland security, nuclear weapons programs in the Department of Energy, and veterans benefits. The $900 billion in annual spending is roughly one-quarter of all federal government outlays……
The quarter century since [the end of the Cold War in] 1991 has….been marked by a perpetual US war in the Middle East, one that has destabilized the region, massively diverted resources away from civilian needs toward the military, and helped to create mass budget deficits and the buildup of public debt. The imperial thinking has led to wars of regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria, across four presidencies: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. The same thinking has induced the United States to expand NATO to Russia’s borders, despite the fact that NATO’s supposed purpose was to defend against an adversary — the Soviet Union — that no longer exists. Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev has emphasized that eastward NATO expansion “was certainly a violation of the spirit of those declarations and assurances that we were given in 1990,” regarding the future of East-West security.
There is a major economic difference, however, between now and 1991, much less 1950. At the start of the Cold War, in 1950, the United States produced around 27 percent of world output. As of 1991, when the Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz dreams of US dominance were taking shape, the United States accounted for around 22 percent of world production. By now, according to IMF estimates, the US share is 16 percent, while China has surpassed the United States, at around 18 percent. By 2021, according to projections by the International Monetary Fund, the United States will produce roughly 15 percent of global output compared with China’s 20 percent. The United States is incurring massive public debt and cutting back on urgent public investments at home in order to sustain a dysfunctional, militarized, and costly foreign policy.
Thus comes a fundamental choice. The United States can vainly continue the neoconservative project of unipolar dominance, even as the recent failures in the Middle East and America’s declining economic preeminence guarantee the ultimate failure of this imperial vision. If, as some neoconservatives support, the United States now engages in an arms race with China, we are bound to come up short in a decade or two, if not sooner. The costly wars in the Middle East — even if continued much less enlarged in a Hillary Clinton presidency — could easily end any realistic hopes for a new era of scaled-up federal investments in education, workforce training, infrastructure, science and technology, and the environment.
The far smarter approach will be to maintain America’s defensive capabilities but end its imperial pretensions. This, in practice, means cutting back on the far-flung network of military bases, ending wars of regime change, avoiding a new arms race (especially in next-generation nuclear weapons), and engaging China, India, Russia, and other regional powers in stepped-up diplomacy through the United Nations, especially through shared actions on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including climate change, disease control, and global education.
Many American conservatives will sneer at the very thought that the United States’ room for maneuver should be limited in the slightest by the UN. But think how much better off the United States would be today had it heeded the UN Security Council’s wise opposition to the wars of regime change in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Many conservatives will point to Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea as proof that diplomacy with Russia is useless, without recognizing that it was NATO’s expansion to the Baltics and its 2008 invitation to Ukraine to join NATO, that was a primary trigger of Putin’s response.
In the end, the Soviet Union bankrupted itself through costly foreign adventures such as the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and its vast over-investment in the military. Today the United States has similarly over-invested in the military, and could follow a similar path to decline if it continues the wars in the Middle East and invites an arms race with China. It’s time to abandon the reveries, burdens, and self-deceptions of empire and to invest in sustainable development at home and in partnership with the rest of the world.
With the US’s debt to GDP ratio now probably over 100% (achieved moreover in so-called ‘peacetime’) on any objective assessment the US simply cannot afford the limitless military spending it is undertaking and which the President wants to add to. Unfortunately it seems that on this issue as on so many others the President remains a prisoner of conventional thinking and of the wishes of his domestic electorate.