Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I feel the need... the need for... ACTION ON GLOBAL MILITARY SPENDING

I don't know what's gotten into me, but I woke up this morning feeling compelled to take some action. So I spent a couple of hours sitting around thinking about action, trying to get a clear idea of just exactly what sort of action to take. Then, like a bolt from the blue, I had an idea: it's time to Take Some Action on Global Military Spending. Which is really a remarkable and fortuitous coincidence, because I've just learned that today is the "Global Day of Action on Military Spending." Just exactly what sort of action I'd like to take, though, that's sort of still up in the air. The Day of Action's organizers' website -- http://www.demilitarize.org/ -- gives a helpful suggestion in the web banner's subtitle: CUT GLOBAL MILITARY SPENDING NOW! But that seems hard, and I'm not entirely sure what steps I'd need to take to get that done, and it certainly strikes me as the work of more than one day. So the action I've settled on is to think and write, and that's just going to have to do.

Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway reproduced this chart (from ThinkProgress) yesterday showing relative percentages of global military spending:

Doug then makes three reasonably simple and superficially sensible statements about what this data means: that no nation poses an existential threat to the U.S.; that the U.S. contributes too much to the defense of states that are capable of defending themselves; and that U.S. defense spending could decrease without a significantly negative impact on our national security.

These are straightforward and seemingly uncontroversial assertions. If you've read the blog for a while, you'd probably figure I agree with them. If you've read the blog for longer than a while, you'll probably find it unsurprising that I'm going to quibble with them.

First off, Doug asserts that "there is no nation on the planet that poses a real threat to the United States in the way that the USSR during the Cold War." To draw this conclusion on the basis of defense spending is, I think, profoundly misleading. Perceptions of the Soviet threat were based not merely on the relative strength of the superpowers' economies and militaries, but on the presumed implacability of the ideological conflict between the world's most powerful democracy and the flag-bearer for global communist revolution. To put it more simply, the "real threat" posed by the Soviet Union was as much a matter of intent as of potential. And if we want to look at it like that, then no, there probably isn't a nation on the planet that currently poses a similar threat.

But what if we're looking at it as a matter of simple military capability, as I think we must when we're referencing relative military spending? For me, this is pretty simple: any nuclear state with the necessary delivery mechanisms and sufficient number of warheads poses an existential threat to the U.S. I don't know enough about the details of strategic arms and nonproliferation to say who's on that list, but I feel confident that Russia and China both qualify.

And what about burden-sharing with our various allies and partners? One can reasonably assert, as Mataconis does, that "our allies... can afford to pay more toward their own defense than they [do] now," but I'm not sure that examining relative shares of global military spending should lead us to this conclusion. For one thing, a particular country's share of that particular pie says exactly nothing about what it can afford. I don't see Greece or Iceland or Portugal on the chart, but we can safely assume that each country represents an almost infintesimal share of global military spending. By Mataconis' logic, those countries "can afford to pay more." You sure about that?

And again, context is important. We'd do well to put ourselves in our allies' shoes and ask, as they surely must, "why should we spend more?" Presumably the U.S. foreign policy establishment perceives some enduring interest in the extension of a defensive umbrella over certain states (NATO allies, Japan, Korea, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few); this common understanding has obtained across administrations of all ideological stripes, even in the absence of the monolithic Cold War threat. Here we face the same troubles as with Pakistan: if we've identified a certain endstate as important to our interests, and if we've made it plain to all concerned parties that these important interests provide sufficient justification for our defense or foreign-aid dollar, then what leverage do we have when asking our partners to pony up? The fact of the matter is that Germany could probably zero out defense spending and suffer few consequences from the U.S., at least until such time as we're able to have a mature national conversation about whether American national security interests really require the territorial defense of continental Europe.

All of which brings me back to a point I've been making for a long time about defense budgets: it's not enough to talk about spending levels in either absolute or relative terms -- we have to try to understand the capabilities that are being bought, not to mention the strategic vision that provides a framework for the employment of those capabilities. It's not enough to look at that pie chart and say "well hell, no one even comes close! Surely we're safe!" But what if our definition of safety requires us to assert territorial control over a mountainous landlocked country in central Asia (and for the record, mine doesn't)? What if it requires us to defend Taiwan -- something that would clearly be FAR more expensive and dangerous for us than its annexation would be for China? It's perfectly fair to criticize these objectives or mission sets, and in fact I make a habit of doing exactly that. (One of my great frustrations with our national strategy documents is the casual assumption that global military dominance is an absolute requirement of U.S. national security.) But you can't do it by looking at a pie chart, because that pie chart doesn't take into account the kind of security that each of those countries is trying to buy.

All of which by way of saying that Mataconis' first two conclusions can't be logically derived from the data displayed on the chart, and the third conclusion can't be drawn directly from the first two.

There are plenty of good arguments in favor of military spending cuts. Let's start making them rather than relying on facile analysis and bad logic. We can do math and strategy. Why don't we try?


  1. "The fact of the matter is that Germany could probably zero out defense spending and suffer few consequences from the U.S., at least until such time as we're able to have a mature national conversation about whether American national security interests really require the territorial defense of continental Europe."

    (Unless you are talking nukes) I hope you are kidding. Territorial defense of Europe? Against whom ??
    Russia was barely able to win against Gerorgia. With European airforces dominating the skies, Russias army would get cut to pieces if it ever tried to attack Germany by crossing Poland (we sold / donated to Poland a big bunch of our Leo's for that very purpose).

    It's simple maths. European Union: 400 mio people, most of them pretty rich.
    Russia: 100-150 mio, pretty poor.
    Result: see pie chart above
    (things were different during the cold war, when Poland, Eastern Germany, Hungary etc were still adding troops on the Russian side of the equation. but thats 13 countries that switched sides, and Ukraine would be neutral)

    The only threat (besides playing with gas deliveries) Russia currently poses to Europe is it's nuclear potential - and the 200-300 nukes of France and GB counter that to a big degree. So thanks, US, for protecting us with your nukes, but besides that we don't really need your troops here - it's rather the US who like safe Euroepan bases close to the middle east etc).

    Should that ever change, rest assured that Europe will increase its defense spending again.

    (Another question is wether Europe needs to spend more to be able to participate more in places like Afghanistan, Lybia etc. But us needing US tanks for territorial defense? Not really ...)

  2. Positroll -- I think you need to re-read the post if that's what you took away from it.

    1. Yes, obviously the U.S. feels as though it gains some benefit from the forward posturing of troops. I already made this point. If you're going to argue that we should save this cash because Germany can do it on their own, then you need to either explain how we'll achieve similar benefits without presence or explain why such benefits are unnecessary or nonexistent.

    2. If Europeans are so indifferent to the American contribution to continental defense, how do you explain missile defense?

    3. I am very confident that the Poles feel differently than you about the threat to their physical territory. (Your ancestors and countrymen may have something to do with this, but it's perhaps impolitic of me to say so.)

    4. I have precisely zero reasons to "rest assured that Europe will increase its defense spending again" under any circumstances, though I can surely assume that they'll act in accordance with the dictates of logic and the instinct for self-preservation.

    5. "Whether Europe needs to spend more to be able to participate more in places like Afghanistan, Libya, etc." is only a relevant question to the U.S.-Germany/Germany-NATO relationship(s) insofar as those contributions impact the relationship. So, uh, what is it that you think Germany is getting out of the U.S./NATO? Just nuke coverage?

    6. None of this really has much of anything to do with the general point of the post, though I appreciate the predictably defensive Eurogasm.

  3. it's the "Others" that worry me.

  4. Vitesse et PuissanceApril 22, 2011 at 4:14 PM

    There are a number of dimensions upon which to discuss the subject, but the silliest is to target the US Defense Budget for unilateral reductions in defense spending. From a strictly Keynesian, pump-priming, spend-yourself-rich perspective, defense cuts are a zero zum game. While admittedly some part of the US defense budget is expended overseas, the much greater part is consumed at home. So - the promise that there is a nice green job waiting for all the people ejected from the system in a major defense cutback, is, well - rather naive. The costs of structural unemployment must be factored into any major adjustment to the baseline defense budget (or any other part of the budget), something this administration does not seem to grasp very well. Laying in demographics, e.g. considering the age of the workers being let go, you could be baking in structural unemployment for years to come. The European social democracies know all about this, because they have lived in it for years. Even working only 35 hours a week and retiring early doesn't solve the issue. The dynamics of the Russian and Chinese economies, of course, are an entirely different matter. China's unemployment rate is in the 4% range. Russia stands at 7% now - its unemployment tends to be more volatile, bouncing between 5 and 9 % In either case, defense cuts would seem counterproductive. Could the Europeans increase their defenses and reduce their unemployment at the same time ? Perhaps indeed, but that could only happen at the cost of reducing their social safety net (or alternatively, making their private sector a little less "private"). Given the environmentalist restrictions prevalent in Europe, there does not seem to be as much room for a Reaganesque growth-oriented strategy, as much as Cameron, Sarkozy and Merkel might be inclined to such measures. And do we really think it is such a great idea to disarm America and rearm Europe ? The gods punish men by fulfilling their wishes too completely.