If there is one piece of legislation Congress prioritizes every year, it’s the annual government spending bill. After the usual last-minute hiccups over amendments, the Senate finally settled on an agreement to pass the $1.7 trillion bill and the House followed suit.
Unsurprisingly, much of the debate over the spending package focused on the top-line numbers, particularly in the realm of defense. At $858 billion, the U.S. defense budget got a boost of $76 billion, or about 10%, from the previous year. The money will be used to finance everything from major weapons systems to the development of next-generation military technology. Some lawmakers still view the figures as much too low; Sen. Roger Wicker, the incoming ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is arguing for a more sustained, long-term increase of at least 5% of gross domestic product.
Very little attention, however, is devoted to why the U.S. defense budget is so high, a somewhat mysterious development considering that the era of so-called endless wars is supposedly coming to a close. The answer is obvious, even if it’s glossed over by debates about weapons buys and wokeness: Washington’s insistence on maintaining global primacy is extraordinarily expensive and strains limited U.S. military resources.
In short: If you want more responsible, less bloated defense budgets, this strategy needs to change. Otherwise, defense spending is liable to increase without a serious debate about what is actually necessary to defend core U.S. security interests.
Currently, there isn’t much of a strategy debate at all within the halls of power. Two assumptions tend to dominate the discourse: More defense spending equates to more security for the American people, and preserving unquestioned U.S. military, economic and diplomatic power in all domains over allies, adversaries and competitors alike is essential to writing the rules of the road and keeping the U.S. secure.
In terms of U.S. foreign policy, the Biden administration is just the latest in a long line of administrations in the post-Cold War era that have bought into both of these notions. Nobody can read the White House’s National Security Strategy (NSS) or the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) and not come away with the obvious conclusion: The U.S. is expected to do big things and accomplish multiple objectives simultaneously.
Both documents have a long list of goals: promoting and defending democracy around the world; addressing a “rapidly changing global balance of military capabilities”; enhancing U.S. alliances; enforcing the rules-based order; maintaining a Europe that is whole, free and at peace; ensuring the war in Ukraine is a strategic failure for Russia; competing with China economically, diplomatically, militarily and technologically; and tackling transnational issues such as climate change, global health and food insecurity.
Each strategy review paints a picture of a world in crisis mode, with terrorists seeking to kill Americans, rogue states such as Iran destabilizing the Middle East and great powers such as China and Russia striking a strategic alliance to undermine democratic governance.
The NSS and NDS are highly ambitious documents. But they are also undisciplined and unwieldy. Indeed, the term “strategy” in both is misleading. The very essence of strategy is thinking critically about which goals are most important to a country’s security and prosperity, prioritizing among them and devoting the necessary resources to accomplishing them. The NSS and NDS aren’t strategies as much as they are wish lists with no limits, as if the U.S. is living in an era in which trade-offs are unnecessary and resources are unlimited.
But when everything is a priority, nothing is. While there are various reasons why the U.S. defense budget is likely to reach $1 trillion sometime this decade — congressional parochialism and a disinterest in retiring aged weapons, to name two — the crux of the matter is a lack of prioritization and an abiding belief that the global balance of power is quickly moving to America’s disadvantage.
The reality, though, is much less scary than conventional wisdom suggests. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has been interpreted by the U.S. foreign policy elite as a direct threat to Europe’s security and territorial integrity, but the fact is that Russia simply doesn’t possess the military or economic capacity to shift the balance of power in its favor. It couldn’t do so before the war in Ukraine, and it certainly can’t do so now — the Russian army, replete with shortages of the most basic equipment and having suffered more than 100,000 casualties in just nine months, can’t hold onto Kharkiv, Ukraine, let alone capture Riga, Latvia, or Prague.
China, of course, is a different story. COVID-19 restrictions aside, the Chinese economy continues its long, multidecade record of growth. At $17 trillion, its GDP is by far the largest in Eurasia. The People’s Liberation Army is intent on building a world-class military that can rival the U.S. by the middle of the century, and its foreign policy has become noticeably more aggressive under President Xi Jinping.
China’s neighbors, however, aren’t standing still. Japan, Australia, India and South Korea are all increasing their defense budgets, with Tokyo planning to double military spending over the next five years. Japan and Australia are solidifying their security partnerships in response to what they view as Beijing’s belligerence. And India, which just clashed with Chinese soldiers along their disputed border, is slowly modernizing its own military. Rather than accepting China’s potential hegemony, the Asia-Pacific region’s greatest powers are balancing against that very outcome.
The U.S. defense budget won’t change overnight. But it won’t change at all if Washington’s strategy remains fixated on preserving a phantom unipolarity in an increasingly multipolar world.
(Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.)
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