The biggest problem with summer travel is missing important posts like Reihan’s back in August, in which he raises some crucial questions related to the knock-on effects of a decline in the U.S. defense budget. He frames his comments within an economic context, noting that he believes our “sole superpower status rests on economic fundamentals.” A reduction in U.S. defense spending, whether simply by choice or forced upon us by economic weakness, could lead to greater “security competition, particularly in industrial Eurasia.” The question, as Reihan indicates, is how much would the U.S. have to cut in order to stimulate the outbreak of such a security competition (an arms race, really).
There’s much more to Reihan’s arguments, but let me respond to a few of the bigger issues he raises (not least because he explicitly invited me to do so). While I agree that there’s no question that America’s ability to field a military second to none depends on our economic fundamentals, the position of “superpower” seems to me a bit more complex.
As for the strategic side of the superpower equation, I’m not sure what the best example is, but 20th-century Germany comes to mind. An economic superpower, second only to the United States, it twice chose to wage massively destructive wars that ultimately crippled its ability to shape European politics. A different and more benign strategy quite probably would have led to German political and security dominance of Europe for decades (the same could be said about 1930s Japan and Asia).
So, I would argue, the U.S. position depends just as much on a clear national will and strategy to define our interests and come up with prudent means of protecting and expanding them.
Even before the types of U.S. cuts that Reihan thinks could lead to a new security competition, then, we are seeing a change in the perception of other actors, leading to policy shifts that include increased defense spending, and a cycle of response on China’s part. #more#As for the question of whether China wants to play a larger strategic role, I think we simply don’t know enough yet about Chinese decisionmaking to conclude whether they are focused primarily on shaping the security environment in their region (which I think is likely), simply being opportunistic or being reactive to threats they perceive (which I think is probable), or slowly crafting a much larger strategy for global influence and power (which I think is accidental, if happening).
The question is what the U.S. can and should do to maintain the global stability equation. What we do sends signals we may not intend or be able to control. Shutting down production of the F-22 at a measly 187 (now 186) planes left many wondering if we were committed to maintaining control of the air. Should $465 billion in budget cuts result in the U.S. military having to reduce some of the missions it currently carries out — for example, steaming to relatively obscure waterways — then perceptions of our retreat will gather steam, leading to further alterations in the behavior of other actors. Some of those actors may well step up to provide some global goods, as Japan may be doing over maritime security in Philippine waters. Many others, of course, will take the chance to act in ways that destabilize regional balances and gain for themselves greater influence or actual control in certain areas.
That leaves the U.S. in a reactive position, and one that is much harder to recover from. When a hegemon begins to surrender its position, the effects are by definition widespread and carry far more import than those of smaller nations. We may find ourselves beset by instability in multiple regions, having a direct effect on global trade and the security of our traditional partners, without the means to concentrate power the way we have grown used to over the past half-century. The result, regardless of the size of the U.S. defense budget, would be a world of much greater danger and threat to the liberal international order.
— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute.