In Defense of Defense
From the November 29, 2010, issue of NR.


Victor Davis Hanson

Two bedrock beliefs of traditional conservatism are fiscal discipline and strong national defense. Likewise, two general rules of budgetary reform in times of economic crisis are, first, to scale back expenditures rather than raise taxes, and, second, to look at defense for some of the deepest cuts. Something therefore will have to give.

In the last two years the United States has piled up record $1.3 trillion annual budget deficits. That red ink has pushed the national debt close to $14 trillion, approaching 98 percent of the nation’s annual gross domestic product, a peacetime record. Worse still, there is no end in sight to this massive borrowing. Trillion-dollar budget deficits are scheduled at least through 2014 and will take our national debt beyond $18 trillion.

These staggering figures have caused near-panic throughout the world, as the Federal Reserve desperately prints $600 billion to monetize some of the huge debt, gold soars to over $1,400 an ounce, and Washington is chastised as profligate by everyone from Germany to China, which worries about the solvency of its massive surplus dollar accounts. 

No wonder, then, that the quest for fiscal sanity became the signature of the Tea Party movement and fueled the general Republican political renaissance. But amid the talk of across-the-board budget freezes, radical entitlement reform, and elimination of entire programs, is it fair to spare defense from the anticipated 2011 slashing?

At first glance, clearly no. After all, the United States will spend over $680 billion on defense this year alone — slated to rise to $712 billion next year — and well over $1 trillion when you include defense-related expenses that are not counted in the official Pentagon budget. Depending on how one categorizes the figures, defense spending now represents over 19 percent of the federal budget and is nearing 5 percent of the nation’s GDP. Over the last nine years, the Pentagon’s budget has grown on average by about 9 percent each year, more than triple the rate of inflation — quite apart from the supplementary spending on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Indeed, America now accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s military spending. That is six times as much as its supposed chief rival, China. And when America’s defense expenditure is added to the military budgets of Europe, as well as those of Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and other allies, the Western alliance accounts for nearly three-fourths of all global outlay on defense. Why can’t fiscal conservatives at least freeze Pentagon spending in an era of near–financial collapse?

In addition, national security and global influence are not always measured by arms alone. China, with an economy one-third the size of ours and a military budget one-sixth the size of ours, is increasing its profile in Africa and Latin America and is insidiously reminding Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan that the time is approaching when a near-bankrupt United States either cannot or will not support them in times of existential crisis. Flush with nearly $2.5 trillion in cash reserves (the result of huge ongoing trade surpluses and budgetary discipline), China reminds both neutrals and rivals that it has plenty of money to buy, bribe, or persuade its way with nations — and will have even more in the years ahead, even as its chief rival, the United States, will have less.