Obama Chooses National Decline
But the Pentagon has chosen a path that may buy some time.


Mackubin Thomas Owens

Far-called our navies melt away —
On dune and headland sinks the fire —
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget — lest we forget!

 — Rudyard Kipling, “Recessional” (1897)

Kipling lamented the decline of British power, a decline that contributed to the outbreak of World War I. But the decline of British power was not intended. In contrast to the British case, the Obama administration appears to be intentionally pursuing a policy of American decline. Unlike his predecessors from both parties since World War II, President Obama has embarked on a grand strategy that seems to relegate the United States to the status of just “one among many.” The president has firmly rejected the idea of American exceptionalism and the status of the United States as the “indispensable nation” that must provide the “public good” of security. His actions with regard to the domestic economy have also made it difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to increase defense spending in the future if such a response becomes necessary. This is a radical shift and a dangerous one.

The foreign-policy failures of the Obama administration are legion: the risible Russian “reset” that has enabled Vladimir Putin to strut about as a latter-day czar; the betrayal of allies, especially in Central Europe, not to mention Israel; snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq by failing to achieve a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) that would help to keep Iraq out of the Iranian orbit; the muddled approach to Afghanistan; our feckless policy — or lack of policy — regarding Iranian nuclear weapons, not to mention Libya and Benghazi as well as Syria.

President Obama has said that he was elected to end wars, not to start them, as if wars were ends in themselves, not means. But ending wars is no virtue if the chance for success has been thrown away, as it was in Iraq.

Now comes the latest defense budget to validate the view that President Obama seeks nothing less than American decline. The Department of Defense has absorbed substantial reductions in recent years. In an attempt to preempt defense-spending cuts that did not reflect strategic considerations, former secretary of defense Robert Gates initiated some $900 billion in reductions.

The president’s defense-budget request for fiscal year 2015 is $496 billion, which includes cuts that follow an earlier cut of $487 billion in defense spending over ten years and automatic spending cuts imposed on the Pentagon by the Budget Control Act (BCA) — sequestration — to include $37 billion for last year and an additional $75 billion in cuts in 2014 and 2015. But the recent budget agreement in Congress merely put sequestration on hold until 2016, when, if not resolved by another agreement, it will impose additional cuts amounting to $600 billion over ten years.

Critics of U.S. defense spending shrug their shoulders, arguing that the United States spends more on defense than the next ten countries in the world. But this is misleading. U.S. defense spending reflects the role that America has played in the world since the end of World War II: U.S. military forces essentially have provided an international “public good” by underwriting the security on which global stability, interdependence, and ultimately prosperity depend.

It has been the United States that ensured access to the “global commons” — especially freedom of navigation, which is essential to the prosperity arising from free trade and commerce — and airspace. It has been the United States that has deterred the behavior of potential aggressors in the international system. If the U.S. forces that provide this public good are stretched too thin because they are underfunded, the result will be a decline in global stability and prosperity, something already evident over the past few years. World War I illustrates how rapidly an interdependent world order can collapse if the rise of aggressive powers is not checked.

The United States has underwritten international security with a defense budget that, while high in absolute terms, nonetheless represents only about 4 percent of gross domestic product and about 15 percent of the federal budget. But under the present administration, the defense budget has been asked to bear the burden of any proposed cuts. For example, the sequester imposed 50 percent of spending reductions on defense. And the Obama administration has chosen to cut defense spending while doing nothing about the continuing expansion of entitlement programs, which make up 80 percent of the federal budget.

Back in the 1980s, much was made of Paul Kennedy’s thesis of “imperial overstretch” and the suggestion that the burden of U.S. defense spending was dragging the U.S. down relative to the other industrial powers. The stagnation of the economies of other industrial powers, especially Europe and Japan, took much of the wind out of this argument. Indeed, a better argument can be made for the decline of a great power as a result of “entitlements overstretch,” something that has afflicted many formerly powerful European states. But the thesis has another flaw that we should remember when considering the burden of defense on the United States.

Kennedy argued that Great Britain was a clear victim of imperial overstretch. But one can make the argument that what led to the decline of Britain was not imperial overstretch but the onset of a war Britain could not prevent: It was World War I that doomed the British Empire, not the expenditures to maintain the empire. In light of this observation, the burden on the United States of its defense posture is significant, but the benefits of the resulting world order far outweigh the costs. Those who argue that the United States spends too much on defense ignore the fact that the cost of preventing war is far less than the cost of fighting one. Unfortunately, the weakness inherent in Obama’s “grand strategy,” such as it is, is tailor-made to invite aggression and therefore is likely to result in war.