Thursday, January 26, 2012

Defense budget preview: Schoenbaum and Mearsheimer, 1982

This morning, I happened across quite a prescient exchange of letters (pdf, $) from an old issue of International Security. In it, David Schoenbaum and John Mearsheimer discuss and debate various conclusions of the latter man's 1981 review of Brian Bond's British Military Policy Between the Two World Wars, a book that was thought to have been particularly relevant to the force structure and defense budgeting debate of the early 1980s. I hope to spend a great deal more time on this subject in the future (oh boy!), but for now I just want to reproduce a few excerpts that I think might interest you on the day the Secretary of Defense previews the new defense budget.

First, Schoenbaum prompts a wry smile:
If America now [in 1982], like Britain then, has a stake in Middle Eastern stability, it also enoys some non-military options unknown to British governments in the 1930s—a political solution of the Palestinian problem, for instance, or a genuinely conservative national energy policy. (225)
Plus ça change, etc. Divestment from Arab oil through national conservation or alternative fuels suggested 30 years ago!

Next, on the pitfalls of prognostication—good strategists aren't necessarily good grand strategists:
The problem of the British Army in the 1930s was not so much that British governments failed to build forces appropriate to their view of the world, but that their view was wildly askew. (226)
Influenced by Basil Liddell Hart and other proponents of the maritime strategy, British governments spent most of the interwar period building forces appropriate to naval supremacy and homeland defense, wishfully thinking that France could stand up to Germany and prevent continental hegemony.

Schoenbaum faulted his contemporaries for quite a different failing: they debated the best means to produce military power without considering the uses of that power.
Attrition vs. maneuver, the draft vs. the volunteer force or tanks vs. precision-guided missiles can also be debated on their abstract merits. In fact, they generally are. But these are not really abstract issues. On the contrary, they presuppose and only make sense with respect to real adversaries in real places and circumstances. What is regrettably missing in far too much of the current debate is the fundamental question of force, and forces, as means, rather than as ends in themselves. (226)

Mearsheimer's historical analysis doesn't differ dramatically from Schoenbaum's.
The first lesson is than an insular power with worldwide defense commitments must involve itself in European politics to insure [sic] that no state becomes master of that continent. (227)
Of course, there are different ways to involve oneself in European politics: alliances and forward posturing of forces are not the only solution. And Mearsheimer would no doubt admit as much – he has argued that NATO is obsolete in the modern day – while confidently asserting that those were the appropriate answers in the 1980s.

Britain had failed to draw the proper conclusions about its necessary involvement on the continent until quite late in the 1930s, but the government did eventually revise its view and change course. Even then, military preparations were limited by other factors; as Mearsheimer notes, "military strength is largely dependent on economic strength."
Now that the British archives for that period have been opened, a clear-cut consensus is emerging that the ultimate failure of British policy in the 1930s had much less to do with political will and more to do with the large gap between her resources and her commitments. (228)
That sounds familiar, eh?
The implication [by those bemoaning insufficient political will] is that the solution to America's problems is largely of a political nature. In other words, there is a desperate need for vigorous and forceful leaders who will not be afraid to deal with threats to U.S. interests. Although it is hard to disagree with the need for determined leadership, this line of argument misses the more important point, which is that America's future as a great power will be determined largely by economic and not political factors. The ability of the United States to meet its worldwide commitments in the 1980s will be more a function of the economy's capability to generate the necessary military power than of any infusion of political will at the upper levels of government. (228, emphasis mine)
Let me go even a step further and say that the misguided "infusion of political will" in the form of expensive, strategically nonsensical military actions and ill-advised, cripplingly high defense spending is in fact a brake on our capacity to meet real our very real commitments.
Despite this military rationale for a powerful economy, large-scale increases in military spending are often detrimental to a healthy economy. (229)
And to close with yet another moment of déjà vu:
Recently [remember, this is 1982], Wassiliy Leontief, the Nobel Laureate in economics, warned that using scarce capital to support massive increases in defense spending "will starve the rest of the economy of the investment it desperately requires to remain competitive in the tightening worldwide market." (229)
Kill 'em all, and let the Keynsians sort 'em out.


  1. Good ideas don't lose their value over time. And the problems always seem to stay with us. Challenge is finding leadership interested in advancing those ideas.

  2. How would your argument change if you (re)read Ernest May's Strange Victory? In foresight, it wasn't obviously stupid to think that the French Army could whip the Germans if they had enough air support and command of the sea. It's interesting that Paul Reynaud apparently asked one of our ministers why if we wanted to limit our commitment we didn't concentrate on building armoured divisions (which BLH didn't like on the grounds they contained too many things that weren't tanks - his ideas on force structure were quite odd).

    Erik Lund seems to think the key at Sedan was that the German tactical air took out the French wire-line artillery command network, so perhaps moar Hurricanes would have been a cracking idea. Or more RAF mobile radar, or more French light AAA. Also says some interesting stuff about British interwar cavalry doctrine...

  3. except the most dynamic sectors of the US economy have sprung up under the MIC e.g. internet, comms, sat, high tech, nano-tech + majority of the mil budget is essentially a nat economic stimulus. The subtext of the post here is that US is in decline. It's not.

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