Monday, September 26, 2011

Semantically Ignorant Comic Irony of the Day, "bang for the buck" edition

Les Gelb published an article in the November/December 2010 Foreign Affairs entitled "GDP Now Matters More than Force: A U.S. Foreign Policy for the Age of Economic Power" ($). The thesis is simple: American foreign policy must be reoriented if we are to remain successful and secure in a world where states and their citizens care more about economic matters than about military might. Gelb ties up his introduction with what must've seemed to him quite a charming turn of phrase:
Having overlooked profound changes in the world, U.S. leaders have done little to modernize their national security strategy. Present U.S. strategy offers too little bang for its buck because there is not enough buck in the strategy.
(I've added the emphasis above.)

What's he trying to say here, do you think? One could easily suffer some confusion at Gelb's glibness, especially if the excerpt is taken out of context: couldn't that sentence have indicated that U.S. strategy is failing because we're not spending enough money? But considering the rest of the article, I reckon Gelb means that American "strategy" is getting an insufficient return (as measured in "security," presumably) on "investment" because our foreign policy fails to sufficiently account for the importance of economics and economic power in international relations. We're focusing too much cash and attention on our military machine and neglected economic strength, he seems to suggest.

Which, ok, maybe right, maybe not, but to use the expression "bang for the buck" to illustrate it? Downright hilarious.

That phrase was first used in an idiomatic sense by Charles Erwin Wilson, Secretary of Defense to President Eisenhower and post-Korea Pentagon budget-cutter. He was explaining the rationale for the policy of "massive retaliation," in which even limited provocations by the Soviets might be met with an overwhelming American nuclear response. The doctrine was codified in 1953's NSC 162/2 (pdf), which asserted that "the security of the United States requires development and maintenance of a strong military posture, with emphasis on the capability of inflicting massive retaliatory damage by offensive striking power." Proponents of the "New Look" defense policy thought the destructive power of nuclear weapons -- and a stated willingness to use them -- could counterbalance the Soviets' overwhelming conventional military superiority and save the U.S. the outrageous sums it might otherwise pour into the maintenance of innumerable maneuver formations.

"More bang for the buck" was one of those rare idioms that means exactly what it says: by building our security policy around nukes, we figured to get more destruction for less money.

Gelb seems to want us to believe that international relations have evolved to the point that we simply don't need as much bang these days, so we ought to be spending less bucks. Whether or not you agree with him, you've got to admit his formulation was a miserable (if funny) failure.


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