At 8 p.m. this Saturday evening, CBS News and National Journal will host a Republican presidential debate in South Carolina that will focus on national security and foreign policy. Another such forum will be held ten days later in Washington, D.C., hosted by CNN, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation. These two debates will give candidates a chance to depart from the economic and domestic issues that have dominated the debates thus far and explain how they would execute their principal role as president: commander-in-chief of our nation’s military.
One of the key challenges facing the next commander-in-chief will be how to ensure the Pentagon is adequately funded in a time of austerity. There is already broad agreement among administration officials, military leaders, and members of Congress from both parties that the cuts that will be triggered if the supercommittee fails to find agreement will imperil our nation’s military readiness. As the supercommittee’s deadline looms, the Republican candidates on the stage in South Carolina should make it absolutely clear that the military cannot afford further cuts.
Unfortunately, many liberals and libertarians believe there is “a difference between military spending and defense spending,” as Rep. Ron Paul put it, meaning that the job of our military is only to defend the immediate territorial integrity of the United States, and that the force can be dramatically reduced with only that mission in mind.
This argument is fallacious. America’s defense budget is based not only on the minimal necessity to defend the homeland, but also on the economic and moral interests of the United States. The U.S. maintains a global presence to keep “the global commons” — the air, oceans, and outer space — open. By dominating the oceans, the United States has driven hostile navies from the high seas, and secured the free flow of commerce. An Iran in control of the Persian Gulf or a Beijing in control of the South China Sea would not be nearly so generous to other countries as America’s maritime supremacy has been for the world, and would imperil our economy.
But America’s activity abroad is also deeply rooted in our national ideals and values. As a country founded by men who believed that “all men are created equal,” and that they are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” the United States has an intrinsic interest in the promotion and advancement of democracy worldwide. Our post–World War II alliance system allowed Western Europe and East Asia to emerge as democratic leaders and economic powerhouses, and the treaties that bind us together remain the basis for security cooperation 70 years later.
By shaping a world order that is free and prosperous, the United States secures its own peace and prosperity. Our activities abroad are not the product of an uncontrollable, imperialistic Leviathan, but a reflection of who we are as Americans. Our defense spending is tied to our belief in human liberty, and our dogged “pursuit of happiness.” When Americans see a China aggressively posturing in the South China Sea, a Russia that has effectively annexed portions of Georgia, a North Korea that routinely threatens its neighbors, and an Iran supporting terrorists and pursuing nuclear weapons, Americans naturally feel compelled to side with those standing on the side of freedom against the forces of tyranny.
The looming cuts to the defense budget will force further reductions to the size of our military, and reduce our capability to act. They will undermine our ability to uphold a free global order that benefits all. The upcoming debates will present an opportunity for the Republican presidential candidates to make the link between prosperity, freedom, and our defense budget unequivocally clear.
— Jamie M. Fly is the executive director and Evan Moore is a policy analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative.