Cutting the national debt of the United States pervades almost every facet of today’s political discourse. Former U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Rodger C. Altman has called the post-2020 fiscal outlook “downright apocalyptic.” The aging population of our nation, coupled with exponential federal interest expense, is sending our country into a dangerous cavern of economic uncertainty. Interest expenses could entirely crowd out all discretionary spending – meaning all spending on education, agriculture, energy, and infrastructure. According to Altman, if the U.S. fails to profoundly change the way it spends, by 2020 “the U.S Treasury would need to borrow a staggering $5 trillion every single year, both to finance deficits and to refinance maturing debt.”
Avoiding the cataclysmic failure of the U.S. economy will require Washington to make bold, unprecedented moves to cut spending. The recent $38 billion cut in federal expenditures is a positive gesture, but horribly insufficient.
The glaring chunk of the federal budget that even the most brazen fiscal hawks were unwilling to touch is defense. None of the $38 billion will be taken from the Pentagon. In fact, the 2011 defense budget calls for an increase of $5 billion over 2010 levels, bringing the budget total to $513 billion (not including the cost of the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan). By conservative estimates, military spending in 2011 will cost the United States $700 billion, adding $300 billion to the ballooning national debt. Total U.S. military expenditures in 2011 will account for 43% of the total military spending on the planet. This is absurd.
Richard N. Haas, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes, “The United States continues to develop and procure expensive advanced conventional combat arms beyond what is justified by its commitments, likely scenarios, and the gap in defense capabilities between it and potential adversaries. The United States spends more on defense than China, Russia, Japan, India, and the rest of NATO combined.” We are stuck in a Cold-War era spending paradigm, but we’re no longer involved in a Cold War.
Only military expenditures that significantly enhance the security of the United States should be maintained. There are two commonly discussed threats facing the United States in the near future – one real, and one imagined. The real threat is terrorism, and the imagined threat is the rise of China.
Terrorism poses a real threat to U.S. security. The United States should absolutely pursue those who seek the to harm innocent civilians. However, a more modest anti-terrorism approach, involving intelligence gathering, drones, cruise missiles, and Special Forces is sufficient to maintain U.S. security. Osama Bin Laden’s assassination highlights the effectiveness of good intelligence coupled with small, specialized fighting forces.
Spending $343 billion on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will not help us fight terrorists. The $1.8 trillion the U.S has promised to spend on new Virginia Class nuclear submarines will not deter terrorists. Nor will ten new Gerald Ford class supercarriers, which cost $10 billion apiece. Terrorists are not deterred by America’s massive nuclear arsenal. The U.S. should significantly reduce the amount it spends on the maintenance of ICBMs and nuclear warheads.
The United States could significantly slash military spending and still pursue terrorists with vigor and determination. The Pentagon’s budget is about 300 times the size of the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit. Cutting $100 billion from the Pentagon’s budget could generate the political capital necessary to double, triple, or even quadruple the FBI’s budget. Indeed, cutting military spending in exchange for modest increases in the FBI or State Department’s budget (which is 1/14th of the Pentagon’s budget) might even enhance our ability to fight terrorists. The intelligence gathered by the FBI, and the partnerships with foreign governments forged by the State Department, are far more important to U.S. security than new and unnecessary war machines.
Military hawks prophesying about the dangers of a rising China exaggerate the threat of a “New Cold War.” China is not the Former Soviet Union (FSU). The FSU sought to export its communist ideology to the rest of the world. It was a highly revisionist state, willing to take massive risks to radically overturn the status quo. China’s goals, by contrast, are regional and economic. It seeks to export goods, not a political ideology.
China’s military capabilities are growing, but Washington should not conflate China’s security interests with global dominance. While regional territorial disputes between China and its neighbors may portray China as belligerent, this assertive behavior does not threaten U.S. security interests. It is not in China’s interest to engage its largest trading partner in a military confrontation. Moreover, it is not in the U.S.’ interest to escalate tensions with a regionally assertive China.
The economic predicament of the United States is not only unsustainable; it could ultimately be the most harmful threat to the foreign interests of the United States. Today, GDP is more important than firepower. The ability to dominate markets is more important than the ability to dominate disputed territories. Confidence in U.S. consumer markets generates more friends than F-35s or giant aircraft carriers do. Economic integration has made conventional war between superpowers riskier. New norms governing international relations make territorial acquisition and imperialistic endeavors morally untenable. If runaway military spending hurts the prospects of economic expansion and does not enhance national security, it must be curbed. Budget battles should not be waged over trivial cuts to the EPA, education, or clean energy subsidies. The fight shouldn’t consist of fiscal conservatives pitted against environmentalists and teacher unions. A true fiscal conservative would recognize that such petty arguments are a waste of time. Cutting 20% of our military budget (about $100 billion) would still leave the U.S with a bigger military budget than the next seven biggest spenders combined. Cutting our military budget in half means we would still spend almost twice as much as China. We can no longer afford to insulate the most expensive federal project in the United States from discussions over the deficit. If we want to get serious about fixing the national debt, we must make massive cuts to the military budget.