THE PUBLIC EYE: Why We Should Reduce the Defense Budget

By Bob Burnett
Friday April 19, 2013 - 09:03:00 AM

According to a report by the National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2030, seventeen years from now the world will be remarkably different: “There will not be any hegemonic power… China alone will probably have the largest economy.” Why can’t the US plan for this and reduce our defense expenditures? 

“Global Trends 2030” predicts that four megatrends will reshape our world. One megatrend is “Diffusion of Power.” The NIC believes America will no longer be the dominant nation and asks, “Will the US be able to work with new powers to reinvent the international system?” 

Americans revel in our status as the number one nation on the planet, but that’s ending. “In a tectonic shift, by 2030, Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power, based upon GDP, population size, military spending, and technological investment.” Around 2030 China will pass the U.S. in the NIC’s “global power index.” The EU will be third with India a close fourth. (Russia and Japan have fallen far back.) 

For five hundred years, the West has dominated the planet – first Spain, then Great Britain, and since the end of World War II, the United States. Nonetheless, according to the NIC, “By 2030, no country – whether the US, China, or any other large country – will be a hegemonic power.” This shift has profound implications for America’s foreign policy, defense budget, and self-image. 

For the past seventy years, the US has been the world’s police force, whether in Germany, Korea, Vietnam, or most recently, Afghanistan, and the defense budget has grown accordingly. President Obama’s proposed 2014 defense budget is $527 billion. That’s a slight increase over 2013, holding the baseline defense budget steady after a decade of humongous growth. (The $527 billion budget does not include costs of the Afghanistan war or DOE nuclear weapons work.) 

Since America has left Iraq and plans to leave Afghanistan in 2014, it seems logical that the US could reduce the size of its military forces. This is what happened after the end of the War in Vietnam and the end of the Cold War. But when it comes to the defense budget, deliberations are seldom rational. There are several reasons for the contentious nature of defense budget deliberations. One is that US defense allocations are so enormous their size warps perspective. Writing in The New Yorker, journalist Jill Lepore observed, “Between 1998 and 2011, military spending doubled, reaching more than seven hundred billion dollars a year—more, in adjusted dollars, than at any time since the Allies were fighting the Axis.” The Council on Foreign Relations reported that in 2011 the United States had 4 percent of the world’s population, accounted for 22 percent of the gross domestic product, yet was responsible for 42 percent of military spending. Lepore observed that what drives our defense budget is “the idea that the manifest destiny of the United States is to patrol the world…six decades after V-J day nearly three hundred thousand American troops are stationed overseas including fifty-five thousand in Germany, thirty-five thousand in Japan, and ten thousand in Italy.” Former Republican Congressman Ron Paul claimed the US military operates out of 900 bases deployed in 130 nations. 

Another reason why it is difficult to trim the defense budget is because discussions are heavily politicized. Ever since 1952, when Republicans won the presidency by accusing Democrats of being soft on Communism and having “lost China,” Republicans have dogmatically advocated for gigantic defense budgets and attacked the manhood of all those who oppose this notion. . Barack Obama is the first Democratic President in sixty years to have unassailable credentials on national security. (During the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama won the final debate, on foreign policy and national security, because Mitt Romney couldn’t differentiate himself from the President.) 

Another reason for the contentious nature of defense budget discussions is that sixty-three years of ever-increasing defense budgets has fomented a military-industrial complex that constantly lobbies for billion-dollar defense projects. This has led to a bloated budget and an overabundance of generals. When senior officers do retire, they quite often join the staff of a military contractor and become lobbyists. Meanwhile, Senators and Representatives fight for military projects for their constituents believing that it will help employment and increase their prospects for reelection. 

Whenever defense budget reductions are proposed, generals and congressmen warn us, “The world continues to be a dangerous place.” They point out threats such as Iran and North Korea to justify the proposed budget. But what’s not discussed is why the United States has to continue to be the world’s police force. The NIC report indicates that we’re rapidly moving towards a quadripartite world governed by the US, China, India, and the European Community. In such a world, it makes no sense for America to shoulder most of the responsibility for policing the world and absorbing 42 percent of military spending. 

Now is the time for Democrats to drastically reduce America’s defense budget. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at