The Pentagon’s fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget request is $639.1 billion—$574.5 billion in base funding plus another $64.6 billion for overseas contingency operations, i.e., the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. That represents a $52.4 billion (9 percent) increase over FY 2017. Yet some lawmakers—such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX)—think we should spend even more. The problem is that their position depends on accepting our current strategy, which is a relic of the Cold War, not a forward-looking strategic vision for 21st century challenges.
It’s time for a robust debate about whether we need to spend hundreds of billions more U.S. taxpayer dollars to dominate an increasingly complex globe—or whether we should instead pursue a more realistic (and affordable) foreign policy that prioritizes U.S. security and increases burden sharing with our wealthy allies to protect our shared interests.
To provide some perspective, in constant FY 2018 dollars, current defense spending exceeds peak spending during the Reagan era, which was $609.6 billion—and has not been re-booted to the realities of the post-Cold War world.
The real reason the U.S. is spending more than $600 billion on defense is not to defend the American homeland against direct attack—which should be the primary mission of the U.S. military—but to defend other countries around the world, as we did during the Cold War. But that was then and this is now. Today, many of those countries are now economic powers, like Japan and Germany, and are more than capable of doing more to provide their own defense and police their own backyards.
Today, the United States doesn’t face an expansive superpower peer competitor, like the former Soviet Union—which was an existential threat to the United States with its nuclear weapons and was a threat to invade and overrun Europe. As its successor, Russia is a shadow of the Soviet Union and pales in comparison to the United States. The U.S. economy is $18.6 trillion, which is more than ten times larger than Russia’s (GDP $1.3 trillion), and the U.S. spends more than four times what Russia does on defense ($69 billion).
Russia still has intercontinental range nuclear weapons that are targeted against the United States, but its arsenal has been dramatically reduced from tens of thousands of warheads to about 1,500 strategic nuclear warheads—comparable to the size of the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal—as a result of the New START Treaty.
And just as direct deterrence worked during the Cold War, it continues to work today. Any country—whether it is China as a rising power with a few hundred warheads or North Korea with tens of warheads and nascent intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability—understands the U.S. can respond to any nuclear attack with utterly devastating effect. In other words, the likes of Kim Jong-un and the mullahs in Tehran—should Iran eventually become a nuclear power—would have to be suicidal to launch a nuke at the United States.
The United States is also in a remarkably secure geostrategic position, with two vast oceans on its flanks and friendly neighbors to its north and south. More important, no country in the world currently possesses the kind of long-range conventional military power projection capability to invade America.
Unlike the post-WWII Soviet Union, Russia is not threatening to pour armored divisions and troops through the Fulda Gap to invade Europe. Moreover, our European allies are more than capable of defending Europe. The combined gross domestic product (GDP) of the European Union countries was $16.4 trillion in 2016—more than 10 times larger than Russia’s. So if Russia poses a threat in that region, our wealthy European allies have the economic wherewithal to confront Moscow. That NATO’s European members outspend Russia on defense by more than 3-to—$242 million vs. $69 billion—begs the question of how Russia is even a serious threat.
Kim Jong-un is willing to let his citizenry starve to spend an estimated $10 billion on the military, but both Japan and South Korea each outspend North Korea—$40 billion and $20 billion, respectively. Moreover, our allies in east Asia are rich enough to defend themselves. Japan is the third largest economy in the world with a GDP of $4.9 trillion. South Korea is the fourth largest economy in Asia and 11th largest in the world with a GDP of $1.4 trillion. By comparison, North Korea is a poor country with a GDP of $28.5 billion. Put another way, Japan and South Korea eclipse North Korea economically by more than 200-to-1, so they can easily check North Korea and seriously help the U.S. balance China, a rising regional power that bears watching.
The good news is that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to be moving in the direction of taking more responsibility for his country’s security, rather than relying on U.S. taxpayers to keep his country safe.
It’s important to remember that the U.S. and China are each other’s top trading partners. China’s economy is also very dependent on the European Union and other democracies, such as Japan and South Korea. In other words, China is not a military competitor and hegemon the way the Soviet Union was.
Moreover, current yearly U.S. defense spending is more than four times China’s—$138.4 billion—which is expected to increase at a lower rate due to China’s slowing economy. If China has aspirations of being a direct military challenge to the U.S., it has decades of catching up to do. Not to mention the countries in the region—such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and others—have the economic wherewithal to act as regional balancers if needed.
The world has changed, and U.S. strategy must change with it if we want to maintain our position. We must ask difficult questions about the utility of permanent alliances that force U.S. armed forces and taxpayers to provide security for wealthy allies, rather than building partners that are capable of helping us achieve our shared interests.
In a changing world, we no longer need to be the world’s policeman (nor can we afford this wasteful, expansive enterprise). Where challenges arise, we should leverage our wealthy allies to take up the burdens we once had to shoulder during the Cold War—taking primary responsibility for policing their own regions in the world.
That does not mean we would abandon our allies. But instead of being a first responder, we should be a balancer-of-last-resort and respond only when our allies are unable to contain crises that spill over and becomes a direct threat to U.S. national security—defined as defending the American homeland, its citizens, our prosperity, and our way of life.
If we set defense priorities based on those criteria, we can align defense spending commensurate to the actual task of securing the United States, not the globe. Certainly, that would not cost more than what it took to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than twenty-five years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.