Commentary Magazine

America on Defense

In his fifth Philippic—an invective aimed at rival Marc Antony in January 43 b.c.e.—the Roman statesman Cicero famously lamented the growing size of the subversive Antony’s war chest. He then reminded his audience of senators that nervi belli pecunia infinita: “the sinews of war are endless money.” Cicero knew what he was talking about. Much of America’s success in its wars of the 20th century—and its concurrent ability to deter conflicts—has rested on the nearly “endless” supply of cash created by the vast U.S. economy.

No more. Since 2008 the United States has been running serial annual budget deficits of over $1 trillion. In the last four years alone, the Obama administration has added almost $5 trillion to the national debt, which now is on its way to an aggregate of $17 trillion. As the limits of borrowing become clear even to devoted Keynesians, massive budget cuts across the board loom for the foreseeable future. Whereas Ronald Reagan was caricatured for “starving the beast”—attempting to cut taxes to reduce federal expenditure for unnecessary programs—Barack Obama seems intent on “gorging the beast”: ensuring that the rate of increase in domestic spending is so huge that either tax hikes or defense cuts, or both, become inevitable.

As part of the 2011 agreement to raise the debt ceiling, the Obama administration has proposed a 10-year agenda of slashing $487 billion from the military. But of more immediate concern is the congressional Budget Control Act that kicks in on January 2, 2013. That federal statute established huge fallback cuts—$1.2 trillion over 10 years, to be split evenly between defense and domestic programs—should the Obama administration and the Congress fail to agree on priorities for reducing the deficit. This so-called sequestration will result in additional automatic reductions in defense of about $500 billion. In total, then, about $1 trillion in current defense outlays will vanish over the next decade, roughly at the rate of $100 billion a year. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, that will force the Marine Corps to reduce troop levels quickly by 10 percent. Given recent structural cuts in the U.S. Army, we would find ourselves with the smallest number of ground forces since the end of World War II. The fleet would shrink to 230 ships, the lowest number since World War I.

The Defense Department would lose thousands of employees, as the civilian work force devolved into the smallest in the department’s history. Perhaps 1 million jobs in defense-related industries would vanish. Yet even before those automatic cuts take place, this year’s projected defense budget of $645 billion was already lower than it had been only two years ago, by about $45 billion. If one were to measure what was actually spent rather than what had been congressionally approved, the real defense budget might be considered to have dipped to 3.6 percent of GDP, nearing the 50-year low last seen a year before 9/11—a time when more than 80,000 U.S. troops were not at war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

No one argues that the budget of the U.S. military will not become smaller. The crux of the controversy is just how much smaller—and at what risk? Over the past century, U.S. military allotments have swung dramatically, from a low of 1 percent of GDP in 1929 to a high of 45 percent at the height of World War II in 1944, just 15 years later. Citing a history of such gyrations, critics of current spending levels assert that the United States can easily ramp up military expenditure in war; proponents lament that past wars were the result of not maintaining adequate levels of preparedness in peacetime. The reductionists also decry diversions from essential social spending and point out that the defense budget has doubled over the last decade—instead of decreasing as it did after the first Gulf War and the wars in Vietnam and Korea.

Contemporary critics of defense spending also cite facts that suggest the United States could downsize even more drastically: America still spends more on its defense than do the next 20 nations combined, accounting for roughly 40 percent of annual world defense expenditure. For example, the vastly reduced U.S. Navy remains larger than the next largest 13 foreign fleets combined (11 of which are U.S. allies). The supposedly ascendant Chinese military spends only about one-sixth of what the United States spends on defense, even though its economy is already roughly a third the size of America’s.

Furthermore, reductionists both here and in Europe make the case that without large militaries, supposedly unwise or purely discretionary Western interventions such as those in Afghanistan, the Falklands, Grenada, Iraq, Panama, or Serbia would be operationally impossible, and thus the world would be far safer—on the premise that an oversized, “use-it-or-lose-it” military must slay as many imaginary as real dragons. Even some conservatives fear that bloated defense budgets ensure imperial entanglements abroad that are antithetical to the notion of a small-government republic.

Yet all this back-and-forth misses the critical point about defense spending, which hinges on two historical constants: Is the percentage of GDP devoted to a society’s defense sustainable without social disruption, and is such expenditure commensurate with a state’s strategic responsibilities and security agenda? For the past 30 years the American people have generally felt that 4–5 percent of GDP investment in defense is warranted, especially given the propensity of America to find itself in unexpected conflicts—World War II, Korea, Afghanistan, the war on terror—after substantially reducing its military budgets. After all, there is a reason that the U.S. military budget consumes twice the GDP percentages of both its likely enemies and allies. America crafted and guaranteed the maintenance of a stable global order after World War II. Like Rome of old that dealt with a series of regional insurrectionists who threatened the interconnected Latinate Mediterranean system, so too has the United States taken it upon itself to deal with an Osama bin Laden, Slobodan Milosevic, or Manuel Noriega and to deter would-be challenges to globalized order in Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela.

The essentially tragic view of human nature that underlies our defense posture—that there are always enemies, and the danger they pose hinges largely on our own degree of deterrence—at times gives way to euphoric hopes of a new eternal peace. After the Cold War, for example, few could have imagined that an Osama bin Laden would take up from a Leonid Brezhnev. And although al-Qaeda hardly matched the danger from the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union, Communist Russia never leveled 16 acres in lower Manhattan or successfully attacked the Pentagon. Yet, for some, a de-escalation once again seems prudent. Recently the retiring Rep. Barney Frank offered his thoughts on the matter. “I think what’s happened, finally, what the American people understand, is that there is no power in the world that comes remotely close to threatening our existence,” he said. “Given the nature of the world, we can afford to” cut defense sharply.

Can we? The U.S. defense budget, at its present level, gives the United States a high degree of flexibility and the key role in maintaining an orderly international system, such as it is. America more or less ensures the safety of the seas and global commerce. Its presence discourages regional aggression in hot spots such as the Aegean, Cyprus, the Middle East, the Korean peninsula, and Taiwan. Our overwhelming military superiority silently warns the world’s bad actors, whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chávez, to limit their aggression to rhetorical bombast rather than expansion outside their borders. On occasion, the United States has the resources to expel a Muammar Qaddafi, Slobodan Milosevic, Manuel Noriega, or Saddam Hussein. Potential rivals such as China and Russia will be discouraged from absorbing neighbors—whether the former Soviet Republics or Taiwan—they deem properly their own territory. America provides vital military supplies and intelligence to allies in war, such as the British during the Falklands invasion, the French going into Chad or Libya, or the Israelis during the 2006 Lebanese war. Likewise, the United States trains thousands of officers worldwide and supplies our allies with much of their organizational know-how.

Every dollar cut from the budget limits the nation’s flexibility in these cases, and the deeper the cuts, the less flexible, the less agile, the less able to respond to crises within and threats to the system the United States will be.


The world is as dangerous as it was during the Cold War, and surely more complex. Then, the Soviet Union and the United States could usually assure each other that their respective clients and dependents would abide by any general summit agreements. After 1989, that predictable bipolar world evaporated. The United States became largely responsible for ensuring free global commerce, preventing regional nuclear wars, and repressing terrorism. State rivalries were no longer merely ideological and two-sided, but reverted to far older and more venomous ethnic and religious animosities. In the new framework, enduring hatreds have given rise to Saddam Hussein’s attacks on four of his neighbors, mass killing in Africa and genocide in the Balkans, the rise of al-Qaeda terrorism leading to 9/11, North Korean nuclear threats, piracy in the Red Sea, a looming nuclear Iran, an unstable nuclear Pakistan, and the unrest following the Arab Spring. In the old days of nuclear poker, deterrence was predicated on the assumptions of rationality and clear-cut culpability for any foolish acts. Now radical Islamist madness, whether feigned or authentic, prompts a theocratic state to boast that it might welcome the religious catharsis of Armageddon, while a terrorist clique claims that it is forever stateless—as its complicit patrons rely on just such deniability of guilt, leaving us to ponder: “Strike back at whom and how and why?”

In the current debate over defense, we cannot forget history and its age-old fault lines. While all reasonable people agree about the existential threats posed by today’s clear-cut enemies, such as nuclear North Korea or a soon-to-be nuclear Iran, few seem to fathom that the veneer of peace and stability elsewhere is thin—and contingent only on visible U.S. power. Wars do not always break out among traditional enemies of long duration, but just as often among neutrals or even friends who have suddenly turned bellicose. We easily forget the destabilizing effect of coups, revolutions, economic depressions, mass plebiscites, tabloid journalism, and fickle public opinion.

Allies Athens and Sparta became enemies almost the moment the common Persian threat of 479 b.c.e. disappeared. The Byzantine emperor Justinian concluded an “Endless Peace” with Sassanid Persia that lasted eight years. In modern times, Germany was as friendly to America in 1932 as it was hostile in 1941. Japan was both a World War I ally and a World War II enemy—as was Italy. Russia used some of the military assistance that we supplied as an ally in 1945 to help kill Americans in Korea five years later. The Soviet Union went from Cold War enemy in 1989 to a supposedly benign Russian republic under Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin’s anti-American regional hegemon—all in fewer than 25 years. China was a longtime friend and wartime partner of America—and within two years of World War II’s end, our bitterest enemy.

Most Americans now scarcely remember the supposedly key role of the Shah’s Iran as the West’s Middle East regional proxy, or the ascendant Ayatollah Khomeini’s initial and disingenuous protestations that he was not interested in assuming secular power. No one knows whether the Arab Spring will usher in a democratic pro-Western renaissance or additional popular Islamist fronts far more fickle and bellicose than the dictators that they replaced. Egypt may well transform from being America’s staunchest Arab ally to its most dangerous Islamist enemy. Amid the old worries about Communist Cuba and Venezuela, we may fail to appreciate new anti-American and anti-constitutional Latin American trends ushered in by democratically elected authoritarians in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Peru. In sum, friends and enemies are fickle, and only U.S. preparedness is constant.

No nation reaches the end of history and finally becomes exempt from historical forces. As our military downsizes in Europe, is drawn into NATO operations in Libya, and promises to “pivot” to Asia, the eurozone unravels. Southern Europe resents an ascendant Germany, which de facto can decide the collective fate of the entire European Union. Yet since the unification of Germany in 1867, Europe has never been able to ensure that innate German economic dynamism would not translate—as it did in 1870, 1914, and 1939—into a sense of pique and political chauvinism. A divided Germany, the Cold War, the NATO alliance, hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, and the European Union were all different ways of keeping “America in” or “Germany down” following World War II. Has human nature changed so radically in the 21st century that we think America can disengage from Europe, as the defense cuts practically will require, even as the Continent once again begins to fragment? Are Germans so different from others that at some point they will not tire of endlessly providing cash for southern Mediterranean bailouts, while endlessly being hectored that such largess is never enough? Europe’s own radical defense cuts—Britain is reducing its army by 20 percent and will soon not have a single operational aircraft carrier—ensures that the burden of pan-Western defense will fall even heavier on the United States.

The Obama administration seems less than eager to answer the call. It has hinged much of its Middle East strategy on outsourcing responsibilities to supposedly moderate allies such as Turkey. It believed that the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan had squared the circle of a democratically elected yet fundamentalist Islamic government, and thus could be a model for potential consensual societies emerging from the traditionally anti-democratic Arab world. But the former colonialist Turkey nurses a variety of historical wounds, which also characterized late 19th-century Ottomanism and its stance in both World War I and II. Apart from its current anti-democratic crackdown on journalists and military officers, Turkey is still stung by its recent rejection from the European Union. Its air force frequently flies into Iraq to attack Kurdish nationalist strongholds and is on the verge of a shooting war with Syria. Its relations with Israel are the worst since the foundation of the Jewish state. Turkish jets often overfly Greek airspace in the Aegean, acerbating territorial disputes with Greece and Cyprus—both nearly insolvent and isolated—over newly discovered offshore gas and oil fields. Nicosia, Cyprus’s capital, is far more city than Jerusalem. Only a strong U.S. military serves as recognized regional guarantor of the existing status quo in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cut substantially the Sixth Fleet, remove an air wing or two from the Mediterranean, and we should expect others, with different ideas about present borders, to reassert regional autonomy, as they have from antiquity to the end of World War II.

Elsewhere the world remains even more dangerous. Moving a few thousand troops and assets of a shrinking military to the Pacific will not necessarily reassure Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, or Taiwan that they need not fear Chinese encroachment. Both Britain and the United States belatedly tried showing the flag in the later 1930s with redeployment of some naval assets, at a similar time of economic stagnation, defense cuts, and budget insolvency. A peeved and ascendant Japan was not overly impressed, much less deterred. China, like imperial Japan of the prewar era, has Westernized and from its newfound wealth believes that it has combined the best of both worlds in marrying free-market capitalism and Western technology with more regimented rule and less indulgent Asian values.

In that context, the present administration, with its frequent talk of defense reductions and unilateral massive cuts to our strategic nuclear arsenal, may well confirm Chinese suspicions that the United States is either in decline or feels that it should be. If it is true that President Obama has considered “dramatic reductions” to the U.S. strategic arsenal—reportedly perhaps down to 300–500 readily deployable nuclear weapons—then he does not seem to appreciate the reasons why there is not a nuclear Seoul, Taipei, or Tokyo. They eschew nuclear weapons not due to an absence of capital or nuclear expertise, or because they fear the Chinese, but because of the clear assurances that the United States’ nuclear deterrent warns potential enemies that it considers its allies’ ground as sacrosanct and defensible as its own. So to allay regional fears about both a rearmed Japan and a colossus such as China, the United States must spend considerably more than the aggregate of its enemies and allies. This serves to remind the Chinese why our friends can afford to remain non-nuclear. But if a nearly insolvent America tires of that burden, then it will by default force our allies to achieve their own deterrence in the manner of the Chinese client North Korea—becoming nuclear themselves, or making necessary political concessions. The eventual dangers and costs from a vast American nuclear-arms reduction probably outweigh any current savings from dismantling the present strategic arsenal.


We should again look to the lessons of Imperial Japan’s rise in the 1930s for clues to dealing with China today. That Japanese surge occurred at a time when the United States was nearly insolvent, considered by its rivals as soft and indulgent, loud in its moral sermonizing—and unprepared to trump Japanese naval expansion. Japan’s adventurism, which came to fruition at Pearl Harbor, was not predicated on any assurance that it had greater long-term resources than the United States. Instead, Japanese adventurists gambled that they could defeat the modest American naval presence in the Pacific and that their blows would so demoralize a nation in the depths of economic depression and military retrenchment that its confused public would grant concessions without rearming. While we in the affluent West may now believe such calculations are Neanderthal, that is not the way other nations are likely to see them. They will quite logically assume that cutbacks in existing military preparedness are not just the results of financial straits, but reflect the priorities of a society that cannot or will not meet aggression with superior forces. Cutting the military budget, then, in times of global turmoil and war reflects national confusion and invites opportunism.
Usually, declining powers, in the manner of the Byzantine empire, can temporarily bluff their way back into an imitation of past superiority. Unfortunately, contemporary American budget cuts occur alongside other signs of weakness. The president sends mixed signals on embracing a new foreign policy of relative noninvolvement, while pursuing the war on terror and the conflict in Afghanistan in the manner of the previous administration. In that ambiguous landscape, even trivial gestures are seen as symptoms of American weariness with military preparedness. An otherwise meaningless bow here, an irrelevant apology there, or an unwise “lead from behind” background quote are seen as touchstones to why 60,000 Marines vanish or an F-22 program is calcified.

In contrast, if the United States were to control its entitlements, or tap vast new finds of recoverable gas and oil, then allies might surmise that our growing financial clout and energy independence might mitigate somewhat the effect of reductions in hard-power ships and Army divisions. But when America’s deficits grow, its public standing is established as one of weariness and neo-isolationism. And when it wishes others to exploit the carbon energies that it so willingly consumes but will not develop, defense cuts are not seen as either an aberration or temporary, but as force multipliers of a new American impotence—and a new opportunity for exploitation by others.

Foreign nations monitor our news as much as we do. A vast new health-care entitlement will entail borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars more, some from the surplus accounts of China. In June 2012, more Americans filed for disability insurance than found a job. All this suggests to outsiders that the new American thirst for entitlements and redistribution will result in crippling budget deficits and even more defense cuts. It’s not because the Unites States is projecting a strong military and exuding energy and financial independence that Vladimir Putin has recently sent two jet bombers to fly near Alaskan airspace, ordered a submarine into the Gulf of Mexico, and casually spoken of a new Russian base in Cuba.

To cut the present budget is by no means to ensure that America will become defenseless. It will never be that. Rather, American leaders and the American people will find that this nation will not be able to meet its responsibilities as it has in the past. The world will change as a result, and it will not change in a way that will make us, or the myriad nations that rely on us, safer. Ultimately, when considering how much this nation spends on defense, we are making a judgment call on how well we can manage in a dangerous world. The cuts America is considering require the nation to accept implicitly that it will often have to sit by and watch from the sidelines as the world grows more and more dangerous.

About the Author

Victor Davis Hanson, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of many books, including, most recently, his first novel, The End of Sparta.

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