What is America’s role in the world and what are our national priorities? Ask the two leaders of the House Armed Services Committee and you’ll get strikingly different answers.
On September 5 the committee’s ranking member, Representative Adam Smith (D., Wash.), suggested the U.S. should move away from being an “utterly and completely dominant” world power. Instead, he told attendees at the Defense News Conference, we should settle for being a “major player” among other major players in the international arena: Why “cling to this notion of dominance” amid the rise of China and other nations?
Smith views the dominance we achieved in the post–World War II era as unsustainable. It’s a perception that helps justify his contention that we spend too much on defense and must make deep cuts in the Pentagon budget. “How much of that [budgetary] pie can go to defense?” he asked, suggesting that domestic priorities must take precedence. He also opined that we are spending too much on our nuclear arsenal and should be able to absorb more risk in our international engagements.
In raw dollar amounts, the U.S. spends a great deal on defense. But as the ranking committee member must know, today’s defense budget is actually quite low when measured by historic standards. As a share of the U.S. economy, it is now 3.1 percent of the country’s GDP — only slightly higher than the historic low of 2.7 percent, recorded in 1999. Meanwhile, as a percentage of federal spending, defense stands at a historic low: 14.8 percent — the least since the Pentagon started keeping statistics in 1940. As for the nuclear stockpile, the ultimate guarantor of our safety, it is now the smallest, least diverse, and oldest it has been since its inception.
The same day that Smith made these remarks, committee chairman Mac Thornberry (R., Texas) was speaking across town at an event where he received the 2018 Sam Nunn Prize from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In his acceptance remarks, Thornberry presented a view diametrically opposed to that of Smith.
The chairman’s preferred path is to preserve and strengthen the liberal international order and the military power that underpins it. Thornberry quoted Georgetown professor Paul Miller on the peace–power connection: “The liberal international order does not exist because it is a better idea. It exists because the democratic powers built bigger and better guns.” For over 70 years, those democratic powers have been led by the United States. And they continue to look to the U.S. for leadership — a leadership that is supported by American military power and the U.S. defense budget.
Thornberry emphasized the connection between global stability and U.S. military might, saying, “to me it is not a coincidence that as our defense budget was being cut by more than 20 percent from 2010 to 2017, the world grew more dangerous.”
A quick stroll around the globe offers evidence supporting Thornberry’s claim. Russia aggression, Chinese expansion, robust Iranian support of terrorism, and North Korean nukes — all have advanced over the last decade, to the point where today they seriously threaten U.S. interests.
How well can today’s military protect those interests? The Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength reports that by at least 2011 (and quite possibly earlier), U.S. military readiness was in serious decline — the result of a decade of high operational pace and insufficient investment due to the defense-spending cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act.
Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee in 2017, the newly minted secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, testified that he was “shocked” by the military’s poor state of readiness for combat. Chairman Thornberry went on to say, “Although we’ve begun to turn the budget around, we still have a lot more work to do to make sure we have a military that is ready for the challenges ahead.” This is why it is important to have the 2019 defense-appropriations bill passed on time. It is also why it is important to continue investing in rebuilding our military.
Representatives Smith and Thornberry have articulated two starkly different views of America’s proper role on the world stage and its national spending priorities. In the coming months and years, the American people and our political leadership will have to decide which path to take.
Britain faced a similar choice a century ago. It emerged from World War I as one of the few countries able to preserve peace in Europe. Yet it chose to focus internally, allowing German military power to grow unchecked. Ultimately, it — and the rest of Europe — wound up with the catastrophe of World War II.
To remain the world’s leading power, maintaining the liberal international order and preserving the values that built it, will require commitment. National defense will have to be treated as the priority it deserves to be — and that will require adequate, sustained funding.
It is worth it? As George Washington said, “to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
Thomas Spoehr is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, where Frederico Bartels is a policy analyst for defense budgeting.