Inside Story

Imbalance of power

Despite the cuts, the United States will remain the world’s military giant for the foreseeable future, writes Andy Butfoy

Andy Butfoy 5 April 2013 1423 words

Out in strength: Barack Obama and Michelle Obama visit the US Army’s Fort Stewart in April last year. Uriah Walker/US Army

ACCORDING to over-excited headline writers, Washington’s current fiscal mess will cause crippling reductions in American military power. Don’t believe it. These reports are exaggerated, and often include the trimming of previously projected increases among the “cuts” to the Pentagon’s budget. In any case, all the evidence suggests that the United States will continue spending massively on its military.

The Pentagon’s ostensible financial crisis needs to be put in perspective. According to US Congressional Budget Office figures, even if the biggest cuts currently being discussed were implemented, “base” defence expenditure (which understates the total by excluding combat operations and a number of other items including nuclear weapons) would still run at the 2007 level. In other words, the base military budget would be the same in real terms as it was following years of considerable growth under president George W. Bush.

To frame matters differently, most estimates put total annual US defence spending at more than twice the combined defence budgets of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Add to that the fact that many of the world’s other biggest military spenders (Britain, France and Japan, for example) are friends of the United States, and the West’s strategic advantage becomes even more pronounced. A bit of trimming here and there won’t change that balance.

This level of spending seems paradoxical. A nation in reduced circumstances led by a Nobel Peace Prize winner is splurging mind-bending amounts on extra weapons it doesn’t seem to need. What’s going on? Three common but misleading explanations need to be dealt with before the question can be answered.

First, the war on terror hasn’t been the primary driver of the boom in military spending over the past twelve years. The major expansion was actually signposted in Bush’s 2000 election campaign, well before the 11 September 2001 attacks. Hunting al Qaeda hasn’t been especially expensive for the Pentagon, either, as it mostly involves intelligence operations, law enforcement and cooperation. It does draw in some military assets, particularly special forces, but these represent only about 2 per cent of defence funding.

Second, the budget isn’t driven by the challenge of rogue Third World states. The list of these is shorter than it used to be, and the often ramshackle condition of these remaining regimes would make them relatively easy prey for US forces.

Third, although spending is at Cold War levels, it isn’t driven by a need to prepare for a third world war. The Soviet Union, with its contingency plans for global conflict and tens of thousands of tanks poised in Central Europe, no longer exists. In this respect, the United States is safer than it has been for decades.

So why the taxpayer generosity, running in excess of US$500 billion per year? Domestic politics is one reason. Appeals to patriotism and a sometimes self-righteous world view, together with a politically shrewd distribution of jobs, help shield the Pentagon from rigorous scrutiny. This domestic factor can give Republicans an edge in political wrangling. The party often seems to define American greatness in militarist terms that appeal to many flag-waving voters. Democrats are made to look soft, and implicitly un-American, when they argue that buying extra weapons might be poor policy.

But while conservatives often desire more weapons, they also usually want less military activism. They especially want less Pentagon involvement in helping failed states; endeavours like these are typically dismissed as expensive, bound to fail, and the kind of social work that is beneath the dignity of the US military. Republicans tend to emphasise maximising strategic power rather than actually using it (except perhaps in the case of blasting Iran). So, in a reversal of the logic they apply to other sections of the public service, they effectively call for the armed forces to do less with more.

This doesn’t mean there’s an absence of strategic reasons for substantial military budgets. International security doesn’t just happen. The likes of Saddam Hussein in 1990 or Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in 1995 weren’t simply misunderstood and then subjected to gratuitous Western attacks. They were political monsters threatening the peace. Similarly, provocative behaviour by North Korea and Iran is not simply a figment of the neo-conservative imagination.

But these rogue states are comparatively small fry. The big fish is China, with its rapidly developing military capabilities. Before we look at China, though, we need to step back and consider how American power is viewed in a global context.

On the one hand, Washington’s periodic tendency to militarise foreign policy can look deceitful, ugly and disruptive of good global order, as it did during the Vietnam and 2003 Iraq wars. On the other hand, the potential for world politics to throw up nasty threats like North Korea means that Washington, when well-led, is seen as a global sheriff and insurance policy: it’s there to keep the peace and help fix things if they go bad.

This insurance function means that defence analysts must speculate about future dangers. They have to think about the next twenty years, not just today. When they do that, the uncertainty about the unfolding security environment is not just a challenge but also an opportunity. Elastic terms like “potential” and “conceivable” threats provide an analytically vague but politically loaded and bureaucratically useful rationale for open-ended spending on insurance premiums.

Enter China. While it’s true that on one level Beijing’s defence program is unremarkable – it’s modernising what used to be called the world’s biggest military museum – there’s still reason for concern. For instance, there’s no sign Beijing will halt its military spending at any point that its neighbours would find comfortable. Moreover, extrapolations using China’s current rate of economic growth have been used to conclude that it could overtake US defence spending within the next few decades. Add to this China’s territorial claims in the region, its authoritarian nature, its opaque decision-making, and budget propaganda that is believed to greatly understate its military outlays, and there’s been little inclination to give Beijing the benefit of the doubt.

This helps explain the nervousness among allies, such as Australia, when the deterrence and insurance associated with the primacy of the United States seems in danger of being eroded by the budgetary shambles in Washington and growing Chinese power.

But this cloud has a silver lining for Western strategists. It’s almost as if Beijing has fallen into a role written by the Pentagon’s version of central casting. Aside from the factors already mentioned, China seems to be testing the underlying assumption that America ought to remain top dog.  So China is a handy symbol: it signifies an enduring need for high American force levels and ceaseless military modernisation.

So much for perceptions and framing of policy. In practice, the United States has a significant strategic edge over China that is likely to persist. Beijing has to grapple with problems of its own, including questions of legitimate governance and the sustainability of its growth rates. Washington, meanwhile, is at the centre of a global alliance network that Beijing can only dream of. The United States also possesses marked advantages in military capabilities that took generations of effort to establish; and, despite its problems, it can sustain annual defence spending of over half a trillion dollars while devoting a declining proportion of its GNP to the effort. Furthermore, although Beijing has been closing the gap, Washington isn’t passively waiting for a hypothetical crossover point to Chinese supremacy.

That last factor points to bigger issues. Some analysts see in it the potential for sharper competition, an intensified arms race and a greater risk of war. Others see it as reassuring that Washington is making the effort to maintain deterrence. In American eyes this deterrence does not result from an old-fashioned balance of power, which is viewed as a recipe for a disastrous 1914-style contest between near equals. Instead, deterrence is to be perpetuated by keeping a crystal-clear imbalance of power in Washington’s favour. While America’s current fiscal muddle fuels concern among observers about the long-term viability of the strategy, it doesn’t mean its obsolescence. Don’t write-off the United States just yet. •