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Starving the Beast – Pentagon Edition

January 20, 2011

Can massive cuts to the defense budget force a strategic re-evaluation? One of the pitfalls of deficit-reduction oriented cuts to defense spending is the idea that reformulating a new grand strategy is somebody else’s business. This is all well and good, but is a major cut in the defense budget actually going to trigger a transformation in US foreign policy?

The arguments recall part of why the US is in this fiscal hole in the first place. One of the classic fallacies of US fiscal policy is the notion that by reducing tax revenue, the government will rein in its expenditures in kind. The past 10 years should have proved this doctrine to be completely false. Politics trumps accounting, and new crises will overrule past budgetary decisions. Yet many people continue to believe that reducing government’s monetary means will chasten its political ends.

Rather than asking if tax cuts will yield defense cuts (obviously they do not), one thing I wonder is if defense cuts will yield strategic re-assessment. This is a tricky and vague question because much more than defense spending goes into grand strategy. Non-military factors and rival capabilities, not just material capability, determine what foreign policy can achieve. Historically, at least, reductions in the defense budget and force posture do not always mean a lower strategic profile. For example, while US defense budgets and military forces were reduced significantly after WWII and the Cold War, it would be a mistake to say in either case that the US accordingly constrained its view of American geostrategic interests. Even if it tasks fewer forces upfront for deterring or responding to such threats, the US is probably no less likely to intervene in a European or Asian great power war than it would have been during the Cold War. Since WWII the US goals of pacifying or at least stabilizing Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East have not shrank radically.

Honestly, I do not expect US defense cuts to yield a significantly different US grand strategic approach. Civilian leaders drive (or opt not to drive) grand strategy in the US, and they do so largely on the base of political concerns. This is how it is supposed to work, really. However, this means that settling for budget cuts without a strategic reassessment is likely neither better strategy nor long-term reductions in defense spending. Cutting the size of US ground forces after the first Gulf War did not make policymakers less likely to pursue an invasion of Iraq they had already justified in moral and geopolitical terms. I would similarly not expect US leaders to take a more hands-off approach in a Eurasian great power war just because Congress had caved on the F-22 or new warships or missile stocks.

Of course, most knowledgeable participants in the defense budget debate know all this. I’m less confident legislators and voters will internalize it, even if they understand it. Part of the comparative dearth of down-to-details, comprehensive re-workings of US strategy compared to defense budget assessments is probably because the coalition of advocates for defense cuts are very ideologically diffuse. However difficult getting everyone to agree on budget cuts is, getting that same tent to come up with a revised US strategic posture is even less likely. That’s fine. But as with most government programs, whatever cost savings we project in the future by assuming our future selves will act against what is in our political interests today are probably going to evaporate with the next relevant crisis.

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