It has become a Washington commonplace that the federal government’s fiscal problems increasingly are becoming a strategic problem for the United States. “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt,” says Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The budget proposals advanced by Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, echo this truth. Ryan’s resolution, “The Path to Prosperity,” argues that “on its current fiscal path, the United States will be unable to afford its role as an economic and military superpower.”
This is an arithmetic truth, but not a strategy.
Not to dismiss the arithmetic, of course: Our “current path” is fiscally unsustainable. If federal revenue is held at today’s levels, entitlement spending will eat up every federal tax dollar by about 2050. Already, the increase in “mandatory” spending — entitlements plus interest payments on the national debt — is changing what our government does and is able to do. Here’s a 50-year snapshot of the shift: In 1962, John Kennedy’s administration spent 9.3 percent of American gross domestic product on national defense, 6.1 percent on these mandatory categories. Mandatory spending surged past defense spending under Richard Nixon. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, mandatory spending was double defense spending, 12 percent to 5.8 percent of GDP. On 9/11, the ratio was nearly three to one: Defense was 3.0 percent of GDP, mandatory 11.9 percent. Mandatory spending continues to rise, consuming 15.1 percent of the economy today and moving steadily upward, while the defense burden will slip to the post–World War II low of 3 percent at the end of an eight-year Obama term in office.
But budgets are not really accounting spreadsheets, they are statements of political priorities and principles. The budget proposed by President Obama earlier contains a larger-than-usual appearance by “Rosy Scenario” and has been denounced across the political spectrum for its lack of seriousness. By contrast, Ryan’s plan has been described by columnist David Brooks as setting “the standard of seriousness for anyone who wants to play in this discussion.”
And “The Path to Prosperity” is likely to be the mast to which Republican colors are lashed not just in this session of Congress but in the 2012 presidential campaign.
Indeed, it is the plan’s power that demands an analysis of the underlying and unstated strategic presumptions. Ryan states forthrightly that he intends to “restore the vitality and greatness of America” and that “the first job of government is to secure the safety and liberty of its citizens from threats at home and abroad.” And he also understands that, as a share of GDP and a share of federal spending, the Pentagon’s slice of the pie has diminished through recent decades. Thus it is surprising, when one dives into Ryan’s numbers, to find that his proposal differs not one dollar from the defense spending proposals offered by Barack Obama, not only for 2012 but for the ten-year period through 2022. “The Path to Prosperity” diverges from Barack Obama’s path everywhere except when it comes to national defense.
There are at least two further aspects to point out. The first has to do with the “baseline” or “core” defense budget, that is, the part of the budget not devoted to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.#more# By accepting Obama’s budget numbers, the Ryan plan is acceding to the many program terminations and substantial force cuts in the Army and Marine Corps proposed by the administration. It’s been apparent since things got messy in Iraq and Afghanistan that the U.S. military was too small; China’s rapid modernization and the challenges posed by new dangers such as Iran’s nuclear program also make plain the need for renewed modernization of U.S. systems.
The second is that the Ryan plan also follows the administration’s projection of the costs of “overseas contingencies,” that is, the costs of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other operations in the Middle East. Implicitly, the plan embraces the planned pull-out from Iraq at the end of this year, constrains our choices in Afghanistan and presumes that the United States will not find itself engaged in such conflicts in the future. The president’s numbers are the budgetary expressions of his hopes rather than what history suggests is likely.
To be fair, it is not the responsibility of the Congress, the House Budget Committee, or the opposition party to make more accurate forecasts about war costs — these are commander-in-chief tasks. And holding the line at the Obama baseline defense numbers may be hard to do within the House Republican caucus that sometimes blurs the line between limited government and less government. But Ryan and Republicans collectively may be prone to a kind of sequential view of restoring American power: fiscal problems first, strategic problems after. It’s not clear that the world will wait for us to sort out our finances, and fixing the money problems will take decades.
Ryan also argues that unless the United States gets its fiscal house in order, “other nations with very different interests will rush in to fill” the U.S. role as “military superpower.” But, in fact, as events in Libya and Egypt and Japan remind us, there is no one remotely ready, willing, or able to provide the global security guarantees that America does – not China, not India, not “Europe,” not the United Nations or any other international organization. American decline would be marked by a squabbling among other powers; “multipolarity” is a recipe for international competition, not cooperation. Nor would international economic life be free from such competition. The fundamental fiscal and strategic fact is, flatlining defense does little to address the fiscal crisis we face but does jeopardize the very peace and stability needed to regain our economic footing.
Paul Ryan has established a standard of seriousness that is otherwise scarce in American political discourse. That’s all the more reason to have a defense spending conversation that framed first by a debate about America’s role in the world and an understanding of the demands of our longstanding strategy. The path to prosperity begins with security.
— Thomas Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies and Gary Schmitt the director of Advanced Strategic Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.