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The Big Squeeze

The Obama administration’s defense budget portends strategic decline.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By GARY SCHMITT and THOMAS DONNELLY
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The security of the commons—an awkward but nonetheless useful term—has long been regarded as an essential element in American strategy. But the protection of the realms outside the sovereign territory and waters of states is not just a strategic end in itself. It is the linchpin in America’s capacity to keep the great-power peace and, in times of conflict, to dominate particular parts of the ocean, the sky, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum. 

This is not a task that can be passed off to others or assured by treaties. To draw an analogy from city life, families and businesses need to know that police are present in order to feel confident that the streets are safe for routine activity; but they also need the police to be able to physically control the streets in emergencies or during spasms of illegal behavior. Compare life in most American cities with that in many northern Mexican towns, and the high cost of losing control of the urban commons becomes obvious. So, too, the international commons—be it the sea lanes to and from the Middle East or the atmosphere and cyberspace on which we depend for secure and instantaneous communication with our forces anywhere in the world. We would be foolish to take the peace of the commons for granted, along with the benefits we and others derive from it. Once we lose it, it will be extremely costly to regain.

The balance of geopolitical power among the states across the Eurasian landmass has always been a strategic interest of the United States. This was true even before the 20th century and the rise of America as a great power; Benjamin Franklin’s ability to play the French off against the British tipped the scales in the American Revolution. And in the last century, Americans paid an enormous price in blood and treasure to turn back German and Soviet bids for dominance in Europe and Imperial Japan’s attempt to build an exclusive East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. 

The current peace in Europe, fortunately, looks relatively durable. Russia’s attempt to exert influence in the Caucasus and the “near abroad” is a security problem but one that should be manageable with a modicum of defense effort on our part and assistance to allies sitting on Russia’s borders. That said, it does require some level of hard power both to deter Putin and his mafia from assuming they have free rein to intimidate surrounding countries and to reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe that we have their backs. 

But while Europe now is largely “whole and free” and far less of a security problem than it was in the 20th century, the “greater Middle East” has become a fundamental strategic concern of the United States. Initial attempts to address this concern by developing strategic partnerships with the shah of Iran or the ruling princes of Saudi Arabia produced no stable result. And so we have moved from an over-the-horizon posture to one of more direct involvement. The fact is, America’s problems with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq began well before 2003, and our interest in Mesopotamia will endure long after any “combat” troops leave. The prospect of an Iranian nuclear capability, frightening enough in itself, is perhaps more profoundly dangerous as a challenge to the stability of an inherently volatile region. Even if Iran is containable—even in the unlikely event that possession of nuclear weapons makes Tehran less prone than it is now to interfere in other nations—the response to an Iranian nuclear threat will most likely be to multiply the number of nukes across the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s promise to extend American deterrence to the Gulf Arab states and others may be strategically sound if we fail to stop Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear arsenal, but it is a commitment that will require even more involvement in the region—involvement backed by significant military power.

And now our strategic horizon has expanded to include South Asia. The war in Afghanistan has morphed into a broader concern about “AfPak,” reflecting the fact that the problems of Pakistan are potentially of greater consequence than who rules in Kabul. 

But the largest strategic conundrum of the post-Cold War era is the rise of China. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty, and that is a human triumph and a success of the American-led international system. But while Beijing has an interest in sustaining this system, its zero-sum view of geopolitics and the pattern of its military modernization call into question its own longer-term goals, with consequences for America’s leadership position in a part of the world that directly affects this country’s future prosperity. No one desires to turn China into an enemy. But if history is any guide, failing to make clear to Beijing and the other Asian capitals that the United States has every intention of maintaining its military preeminence in the region will invite the kind of arms race and power politics among states that can only increase instability in the region, to the benefit of none. 

Seen from this perspective, it should come as no surprise that the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2025 report, reflecting the broad consensus across the U.S. intelligence community, concluded that the demand for American security guarantees would only rise in the future. What the Obama administration is creating is a gap between resources and strategy so significant that it will be impossible for the United States to meet those demands.

The just-released Obama National Security Strategy reflects a drift toward a quite different approach, however. While it asserts that “there should be no doubt: the United States of America will continue to underwrite global security,” it proceeds immediately to sigh, “We must recognize that no one nation—however powerful—can meet global challenges alone.” 

To be sure, the strategy states that there remains a need for U.S. leadership. But the tools it emphasizes—engagement, collective action, and partnerships—are emphasized as befitting a world in which mutual interests among states define the international scene. Given less attention is the traditional understanding that competition between democratic states and autocracies is the reality underlying our security requirements.

Similarly, the document notes the need to maintain America’s “military superiority,” yet it avoids linking that primacy to maintaining, or where possible expanding, “a balance of power that favors freedom”—a Bush administration phrase, but one fully consonant with America’s grand strategy since the end of World War II. Frankly, ensuring America’s role as the globe’s leading military power is not an especially difficult goal to reach, given the declining defense budgets of most allies and the significant lead the United States has had over countries like Russia and China. However, being Number One in military capabilities is not the same thing as being preeminent globally and capable of deterring competitors, policing the international commons, and decisively defeating those who would go to war against us.

Although there are any number of sentences to be found in the National Security Strategy that point toward policy continuities with past administrations, the document’s emphasis on the utility of soft power, on domestic renewal, and on issues unrelated to traditional national security concerns suggests a turning away from what have been the essential elements of America’s longstanding approach to security matters. No one in the administration will admit as much, but the body language of how the administration is treating the likes of Iran, its lack of attention to our allies, and its unwillingness to even mention the word “China” as being of possible security concern all point toward a policy of strategic retrenchment. The administration’s plans for defense spending give credence to this shift.

But rather than have an honest debate over grand strategy, the administration is pursuing its vision by consigning the discussion of the defense budget to the narrow band of our country’s financial health, as though our economic problems could be solved by reining in our supposed “imperial overstretch.” But that is false. Defense spending is not the reason America’s fiscal house is in disorder, and cutting defense could only be at best a marginal palliative. 

Undermining America’s ability to be the primary guarantor of global security, moreover, will create the conditions for greater competition among states and a more chaotic international environment. And it will inevitably lead the United States, for want of military capacity, to put off addressing security challenges until they became more difficult and costly to deal with. 

Gates’s speech at the Eisenhower Library was off the mark in many respects. The United States never became the “garrison state” many feared at the start of the Cold War, and even in the wake of the attacks of 9/11, the re-balancing of civil liberties and security has been minimal. Nor is the “military-industrial complex” a real problem. Defense companies now amount to less than 2 percent of Standard & Poor’s total market capitalization for the country’s 500 largest companies—hardly the dark and dangerous behemoth many on the left imagine. 

But Gates was right in one respect: The nation is at a critical juncture when it comes to defense resources. The problem is the administration’s response. If Obama and his team prevail, they will have created a spending dynamic that puts the United States on the same road as the countries of Europe, where domestic welfare crowds out all but minimal spending for defense. America’s role in the world will decline, not because we have tried to do too much abroad, but because we have chosen to do too much at home. For less than a nickel on the dollar of U.S. GDP, we can maintain our preeminence in the world and, with prudent taxing and spending at home, revive America’s economy as well. This shouldn’t be an either/or choice. It hasn’t been in the past, and America and the world have been the better for it. 

Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Gary Schmitt is director of AEI’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies.

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