When the Founding Fathers commissioned the federal government “to provide for the common defense,” I’m not sure they envisioned “common” in terms of the entire planet. But that’s clearly how things have evolved.
Today, the United States spends as much or more on “defense” as the rest of the world combined, and a lot of that money — maybe even a majority of it — is spent defending areas that are well outside our national borders. (At last count, we maintain more than 800 military bases in other countries.)
We have become the world’s policeman, and it is increasingly a solo act. Our military allies in Europe, for example, are collectively just as rich as we are, but they spend relatively little of their wealth defending themselves because we have been so eager to handle the job for them. The notable exception to that rule has been Great Britain, which still fields a credible military and is the only ally to commit troops in any real number in support of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But that’s ending now too. Earlier this month, the British government announced a major retrenchment that includes defense. Britain’s new coalition government is cutting defense spending by 8 percent over the next four years, reducing military personnel by 17,000 and civilian defense personnel by 25,000. It has postponed its nuclear submarine program, and while it does plan to finish and field one aircraft carrier, the ship won’t actually be outfitted with planes until at least 2020. Britain’s heavy artillery will be cut by a third, and its tank forces will be slashed in half. For the first time since WWII, no British forces will be stationed on continental Europe.
Of course, the same budgetary pressures hitting Britain are being felt on this side of the Atlantic as well. Even conservatives are acknowledging that the Pentagon can’t be immune to future spending cuts, although it’s hard to tell what such talk really means.
While celebrating Britain’s overall budget cuts, for example, American conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation have been harshly critical of its cutbacks in defense spending. To many Republicans, and probably some Democrats too, “cutting back on defense” means holding budget growth to 3 or 4 percent a year instead of 6 or 7 percent. And many on the right aren’t ready to accept even that, arguing instead that U.S. defense spending must be increased significantly to meet our commitments.
The truth is, we cannot wring significant savings out of the Pentagon unless we accompany those cuts with a fundamental rethinking of our role in the world. If we intend to remain the world’s policeman, we have no choice but to continue to spend enormous amounts of money doing so. Trying to play that role without the resources needed to pull it off would end in disaster.
But as our British friends understand quite well, the bottom-line, long-term question is whether we can afford it. History suggests that it is impossible to sustain global military dominance without a comparable economic advantage to back it up, and the days when we were the world’s unchallenged economic superpower seem to be behind us. It’s not a good sign when we’re funding our military in part with money borrowed from China, at this point our biggest competitor.