The Democrats seeking their party’s 2020 presidential nomination will surely disagree about a great many things, such as the wisdom of Medicare for all, whether to embrace a Green New Deal, and how far to go when raising taxes. One emerging consensus, though, is that, as Senator Elizabeth Warren recently argued in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, “the Pentagon’s budget has been too large for too long.” Together with a number of rival presidential aspirants, including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Jeff Merkley, and Bernie Sanders, she voted against the 2019 defense budget, which authorized an impressive-sounding $716 billion in spending.
It is a safe bet we will hear further calls for curbing the Pentagon’s putatively bloated budget from Warren and others in the weeks and months to come. But it would be a mistake to heed them.
First, it must be said that the U.S. defense establishment is badly in need of reform, and there is no question that defense planners have been guilty of egregiously wasting taxpayer dollars. There is a great deal of wisdom in Warren’s critique of the Pentagon, such as when she warns against “mindlessly buying more of yesterday’s equipment and allowing foreign countries to dominate the development of critical new technologies” and calls instead for “investing in cutting-edge science and technology capabilities at home.” I couldn’t agree more.
When Warren insists that “it’s time to seriously review the country’s military commitments overseas,” including in Afghanistan and Iraq, she clearly speaks for a large number of Americans who see little point in prolonging the U.S. military presence in either country, Defense Secretary James Mattis’s objections notwithstanding. And she is right to lament the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, which stems at least in part from underinvestment in the State Department and federal agencies devoted to fostering growth and stability in regions that might otherwise give rise to costly conflicts. All of this can be true—and yet, we’d still be foolish to pursue deep cuts in military expenditures.
Even if the U.S. were to adopt a more restrained military posture, as we should, especially regarding more peripheral interests, meeting the demands of great-power competition is almost certain to grow more expensive rather than less in the near future. The diffusion of advanced military technologies, and particularly of so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) battle networks, means that U.S. military forces no longer enjoy unchallenged superiority in every theater.
The increasing lethality of the Chinese and Russian militaries is not license for military spending to grow without limit. U.S. fiscal and human resources are limited, and the Pentagon won’t and shouldn’t be spared the making of hard choices. But if we intend to preserve our network of alliances and security guarantees in Europe and the western Pacific—something that can’t be taken for granted in the Donald Trump era, to be sure, but that Warren, Bernie Sanders, and other leading lights of the U.S. center-left maintain they favor—it is going to cost us. And any savings we’d realize from ending our presence in Syria or Afghanistan won’t make much of a dent.
And why is that? Isn’t it the case that U.S. military spending dwarfs that of China and Russia? Sanders often observes that, as he stated in an October address outlining his foreign-policy vision, the U.S. spends more on its military “than the next 10 nations combined,” China and Russia included. One can quibble with Sanders’s calculation, but his larger point is well taken. It is true that the U.S. spends more than its potential rivals. It is also true, however, that the U.S. sets out to do much more than its potential rivals. Foreign militaries that focus exclusively on using force in a single theater are able to concentrate their resources, which might allow them to achieve local superiority over a U.S. military that, while far more capable in aggregate, must divide its attention across a number of theaters. This wouldn’t be a problem if, say, the U.S. swore off exercising military force anywhere outside the Western Hemisphere, but this would represent a revolutionary shift in U.S. foreign and defense policy that is roundly rejected by the Democratic mainstream.
So long as the U.S. is committed to projecting military power at great distance from its own territory, its expeditionary forces will be at a disadvantage vis-a-vis rival powers operating closer to their home turf. Durable alliances are essential to addressing this disadvantage. If our goal is to prevent China or Russia from dominating their neighbors, it helps to have U.S. troops forward-based in potential flash points so they’re capable of blunting an enemy’s advance, giving war-winning forces time to gather over the horizon.
Since the end of the Cold War, many Americans have come to see the presence of U.S. forces in allied countries as a gesture of solidarity, which can itself deter foes and reassure friends. But forward-deployed forces are only reassuring if they have meaningful war-fighting capability, and as Elbridge Colby and Jonathan F. Solomon argue in their fittingly titled essay “Avoiding Becoming a Paper Tiger,” the U.S. and its allies have allowed the survivability and war-fighting capability of their forward-deployed forces to deteriorate. That, in turn, has made it more likely that rival powers might try their luck by launching limited attacks designed to shred the credibility of U.S. security guarantees, attacks that could prove enormously destabilizing. Dissuading mischief-making along these lines will—you guessed it—require increased investment.
There is another reason U.S. military spending is so high, one that will be exceptionally difficult for Democrats in particular to confront. According to the political scientist Lindsay Cohn, the U.S. military finds itself in a benefits trap. One of the chief ways the U.S. military attracts and retains high-quality personnel is by offering benefits that are more generous than those available elsewhere in the labor market. This recruitment strategy doesn’t work nearly as well in market democracies with more expansive welfare states, where the lure of health care, child care, education, and retirement benefits just isn’t the same. It is no coincidence that most European NATO allies stuck with conscription long after it was phased out in the U.S., and a dire shortage of military staffing has prompted Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s heir apparent, to muse about bringing it back.
But in the U.S., where the idea of conscription has been anathema for decades, a relatively generous suite of in-kind benefits has been an essential part of the civil-military contract, and it has contributed to dramatic increases in personnel costs in recent years, which are set to accelerate further. Cut all the waste, fraud, and abuse you’d like (I’m with you), and you’ll still have to deal with rising health expenditures for U.S. service members and their dependents. Crack down on unscrupulous defense contractors (seriously, please do), and military pension benefits will still grow more difficult to sustain. To contain the Pentagon’s budget without drastically retrenching the U.S. role in the world would mean, at a minimum, sharply reducing future military benefits. Leaving aside the practical implications of doing so for maintaining an all-volunteer force, such a proposal would strike most Americans, who rightly celebrate military service as selfless, as offensive on its face.
Dovish left-wingers have tended to be more vulnerable to charges of being insufficiently concerned about the welfare of service members and veterans than hawkish right-wingers, as galling as that must seem to those in the former camp, who see themselves as keeping military personnel out of harm’s way. Insofar as debates over the Pentagon’s budget become debates about military pay and benefits, expect them to become more treacherous for the revitalized left, not less.
And that is why I suspect that in the event a Democratic president is inaugurated come 2021, a possibility that would be foolish to discount, U.S. military spending will continue its upward drift on her or his watch, and the world will be better for it. I look forward to the commissioning of the U.S.S. Eugene V. Debs.