The Corner

Guns, Butter, and Global Stability

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.

One thing Reihan does not discuss is political will and strategy. The negative example for political will is Japan. During the 1980s and even 1990s, Japan could have dramatically increased its military spending and military activities abroad, becoming in effect the guarantor of stability in Asia. However, it not only chose not to do so, but avoided even having a serious national discussion about the prospect. Hamstrung by the American-written 1946 constitution that prohibited formal offensive forces, and a subsequent interpretation of the constitution that forbade collective self-defense activities, Japan remained a military midget and political lightweight on the world stage. Its nadir came during the 1991 Gulf War, when it was derided for its “checkbook diplomacy,” even though it was dependent on the Persian Gulf for over 90 percent of its oil.

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.

In a way, we are already facing this dilemma, particularly in Asia. While there is little question about the current strength of the U.S. forward based presence, Asian states, rightly or wrongly, are very concerned about our staying power (i.e., our will) and our strategy for dealing with China. The result is that there is already a nascent arms race in the Indo-Pacific region. All states that can do so are buying submarines, increasing their surface fleets, and procuring or building advanced fighter aircraft (or both, like India). They are doing so for one reason: China. The great tension between Beijing’s “smile diplomacy” and its military buildup seems to have been resolved to a large degree in favor of realpolitik and the willingness to use China’s new national strength. Over the past year or so, China has expended its assertive claims throughout Asia, refused to accommodate on longstanding positions vis-à-vis Tibet and Taiwan, and even probed how far it can use military strength to intimidate other Asian nations, as it has done against Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia in recent months. That has led to increased uncertainty and insecurity in the Indo-Pacific.

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.