Politics & Policy

Defense Lessons from Europe

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

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.”

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.

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