Defense Lessons from Europe
Europeans have believed that international institutions could replace defense. We can learn from their mistakes.


Secretary Clinton also said: “We face new and different threats. Of course there are cuts that we’re making, but then there are new responsibilities, like cyber security or missile defense, that we’re going to have to assume.” The diplomatically phrased statement seems to indicate that the United States is warning our NATO partners to stop decreasing their defense budgets and increasing their reliance on American benevolence and hegemony.

What accounts for decades of cuts in European defense budgets? In 2002, Robert Kagan wrote in Of Paradise and Power on the difference in world views between Europe and America. Europe was “turning away from power” into a “world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation,” he wrote. Meanwhile America was still living in the Hobbesian world where international laws are unreliable and “true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might.”

Today’s world tells us that we were right and the Kantian New World Order view embraced by Europe was, at best, a well-intentioned but wrong-headed miscalculation regarding the conduct of nations. China’s recent peacocking, North Korea’s puffing, and Iran’s constant provocation all highlight the very real concept of tyranny among nations and the importance of real military force to prevent it. The failure of the United Nations to deal effectively with Iran’s nuclear buildup (even though the U.N.’s sole original purpose was “To maintain international peace and security,” which are the first six words of the U.N. Charter), its noticeable absence during the uprisings in Egypt, its slow and verbal response to the massacres in Libya, and its farcical announcement of an International Criminal Court prosecution of Qaddafi (which was dangerously, from the perspective of U.S. sovereignty, endorsed by President Obama) all show us that world peace will depend not on a historical vision for cooperative world order but on the ability of nations like the United States to deter threats through the projection of military strength..

So Europe has taught us at least three things in recent months. (1) All bills eventually come due: Elected officials cannot spend unlimited sums on social-welfare and entitlement programs and expect to maintain a functioning democracy, much less a vibrant economy. (2) When the need to cut spending becomes inescapable, an enticing place to start is the defense budget, as such cuts are often less politically painful than cuts to entitlements. (3) The Kantian view of a new and more peaceful world order reliant on international institutions is demonstrably false.

Which leads to our final conclusion and recommendation for President Obama: Be bold. Cut non-defense spending, reduce our debt, and protect the defense budget from across-the-board cuts. Listen to your defense secretary, Robert Gates, who has transcended the partisan divide since his appointment, when he says: “Suggestions to cut defense by this or that large number have largely become exercises in simple math, divorced from serious considerations of capabilities, risks, and the level of resources needed to protect this country’s security and vital interests around the world.” Factions will complain, but being a leader and statesman requires you to rise above factional debate and lead when it is required. As Founding Father John Jay argued and Ronald Reagan demonstrated, the best way to deter military conflict is to maintain the “best possible state of defense.” Strengthening America’s defenses and its economic underpinning is the most significant job you have, so protect us, Mr. President.

— Ron D. DeSantis is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Adam Paul Laxalt is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a former lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, and former special assistant for arms control and international security to then Undersecretary of State John Bolton.