The United States is at war. The Obama administration has, for better or worse, met its drawdown target in Iraq, but it has also made a far larger commitment to Afghanistan than it forecast in the 2008 campaign. In total, the demands made upon the U.S. military have not diminished. The costs of the wars we’re in are essentially as great as they were when George W. Bush was commander in chief.
These wars have also imposed large strategic opportunity costs. In the Asia-Pacific region—the most economically and geopolitically dynamic part of the planet—the ebbing of American power is increasingly apparent. Even Australia, as steadfast an ally as we have, framed its recent defense white paper around the need to “hedge” against a declining U.S. presence in the Pacific. A second set of opportunity costs comes within the greater Middle East. Most important, the inability to soothe fears of a nuclear Iran, or outline what might be a credible deterrent to a nuclear Iran, has the region on edge. The wars we’d like to deter are, if anything, more frightening than the wars we are in.
It’s ironic but nonetheless true that as the world moves toward multipolarity, the demand for American security guarantees will rise. This is the explicit conclusion of Global Trends 2025, a report that summarizes the corporate wisdom of the U.S. intelligence community. Our military, however, is imperfectly prepared to play this role. Institutionally and bureaucratically, Iraq and Afghanistan may have improved the force’s operational prowess. But the force is too small, and it doesn’t have the weapons it needs for changing forms of conventional warfare.
The good news is that these problems can be solved by throwing money at them. Indeed, the defense budget is not only the most effective form of government spending, producing truly global public goods. It’s also the most efficient form of government spending—we get all those goods for about 5 percent of U.S. GDP. As a value proposition, that’s hard to beat.
Of course, at the moment, our collective minds are in a very different place. Pundits talk of American decline as a scientific inevitability. The Obama administration wants to spend money to reconstruct our domestic life while “resetting” and limiting “adventures” abroad. Conservatives, shocked by massive public debt and huge deficits, will do almost anything to constrain the size of government.
And yet we will have to get our minds around the facts of American global responsibility and America’s under-resourced defense, and soon. These topics may have been ignored in our current campaign season. But they will be part of the legislative agenda for a new Congress. And they will be an important benchmark in judging who should be our next president.
Making government budgets—allocating scarce resources—is the essence of strategy and statesmanship. The inability to constrain social entitlements not only will reorder American domestic life, it will lead to a reordering of international politics. In this sense, then, Obama’s policies are indeed pointing toward a new world order. The problem is that this new world order is likely to be more violent, less prosperous, and less free.