The world has a way of working against an American president’s own predilections and priorities. Today’s world — an exploding Middle East, pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia, the Chinese naval response to Libya, and daily intransigence by Iran and North Korea — is hindering President Obama’s strong desire to effect a “fundamental transformation” of the American economy and culture. It is hitting him in his weak spot, defense policy.
The extent to which “weak spots” are understood by allied nations, hostile powers, and terrorist actors is a matter of endless and inconclusive debate, but it is clear that we face real danger and real emerging threats throughout the world that we cannot continue to ignore.
At the same time, Americans, like many Europeans, are beginning to understand the need to have budgets that do not crush economic growth or require unsustainable levels of debt. A strong economy is the linchpin of national happiness and strength, and recent experience has exposed the intellectual bankruptcy of a governing philosophy premised on centralized planning, unbridled spending, and nanny-state regulation.
So it appears, God willing, that historic budget cuts may be coming down the pike — if not now, then very soon. Tactically, hawkish budget cutters seem most credible when they propose across-the-board cuts, including defense, which helps to mute the media’s demand for so-called “shared sacrifice.” But the fact of the matter is that defense is the one thing that should not be part of federal budget negotiations. Our defense needs should be determined first, and then the rest of our budget must accommodate this figure.
We are indeed in the middle of the most significant battle over the role of the federal government vis-à-vis our individual states since the New Deal, but it is clear that providing for the common defense is the most inherently federal responsibility. As John Jay remarked in The Federalist no. 4, the federal government needs to cultivate “such a situation as, instead of inviting war, will tend to repress and discourage it. That situation consists in the best possible state of defense, and necessarily depends on the government, the arms, and the resources of the country.” From this vantage point, it is clear that the best trains, schools, and social services in the world mean nothing if we cannot protect our way of life.
We are learning a lot from Europe these days, especially how not to govern a modern democratic nation. Unsustainable social-welfare spending, multiculturalism instead of assimilation for immigrants, and ever-decreasing defense budgets all demonstrate that the path Europe has been following is not the model for a government by the people. And most significantly, we learn that Europe’s defense budgets will continue to decrease unless there is a dramatic rearrangement of priorities among its peoples. The NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, recently warned that “the budget decreases across the continent could have dire consequences: If the cuts are too deep, we won’t be able to defend the security on which our democratic societies and prosperous economies depend. We risk a Europe increasingly adrift from the United States.”
British defense secretary Liam Fox recently complained about the proposed 10 percent reduction in the defense budget and warned that such cuts were “draconian” during a time when the U.K. is at war. Decreased capacities will force the U.K. to “increase dependence on other states for some collective security tasks (for example, in anti-piracy operations),” as Malcolm Chalmers concluded in a defense review done by the Royal United Services Institute in June 2010. Secretary of State Clinton has made it clear that the Obama administration is worried about the proposed deep defense cuts, citing the need “to have an alliance where there is a commitment to the common defense . . . Each country has to be able to make its appropriate contributions.”