The Agenda

Matt Frost and Jim Manzi on U.S. Military Expenditures

Matt Frost (you can find him on Twitter: @mattfrost) copied me on an email earlier today, and he’s kindly given me permission to share his thoughts with all of you:

Comparing the US’s military expenditures against the next three or five potential competitors doesn’t have much analytical value as such, because there are thresholds of capability that you can only cross at some absolute level of cost. Let $x be how much the US spends on the military.

Let $y be how much China spends. The difference between $xand $y, whether in terms of ratio or absolute dollars, doesn’t tell you much, because what matters is value $z, which is how much it costs to field a carrier battle group and maintain bases for air tankers and launch a constellation of GPS satellites and have all your planes be all-weather capable etc etc. Once you get to point $z+1, your capabilities are categorically different from those of a country at $z-1.

Sure, the US spends over $600 billion while the Chinese only spend $98 billion. That difference looks absurd in comparative terms. But between $98 billion and $600 billion there’s a threshold below which you just can’t project power globally. If we think that #winning means global power projection, then cutting to $200 billion won’t work, since it’s not a matter of keeping a 100% lead over the Chinese, or 150% or whatever. Superpower status does not depend on a proportional lead over our competitors; our place at the head of the pack requires staying above that magic increment while everyone else stays below it.

I don’t know what the magic number really is. If it’s $599 billion, then we’re spending the exact amount that our global strategy insists we spend. If it’s $300 billion, then we’re wasting half of every dollar. My hunch is that the real value is closer to the top than the bottom of this range. [Emphasis added]

Caveats: Obviously, there’s still some scalar relationship between $ spent and military capacity both above and below the cutoff: spending less could mean loss of capacity even above the threshold, and spending more gives us a few more tools and abilities. Also, I don’t mean this to be an endorsement of our current arrangement.

If Matt is right and $z is closer to the top of the range, we have serious thinking to do about whether or not we need to reduce the scale of our military commitments. Jim Manzi makes the best case I’ve seen that we do need to reduce the scale of our commitments at The Corner:

America is deeply in debt, and has an enormous structural deficit. We are in need of severe budget reform, which primarily means entitlement reform, but will very likely require reductions in military expenditures. These cannot be made imprudently. Reducing expenditures prudently means reducing commitments. Consider that, though it is losing global share, Europe has a larger population and economy than does America. We must, in our own self-interest, place Europeans (and Japanese, Koreans, and others) in the position of defending their own interests to a much greater degree than they do today. We need real allies.

The quid pro quo is that you don’t order allies around, you work with them, and they get say. This will create risks, and some degree of loss of control, versus the case of perpetual U.S. global military dominance. But that dominance will not persist indefinitely anyway. Wishing it weren’t so won’t change it.

I realize that some of our friends will characterize this as a defeatist attitude. I disagree. America, in my view, has a great deal of untapped growth potential, and I don’t doubt that we can become richer faster than other advanced economies. I’m also convinced that we’re better placed to benefit from rapid growth in the Asian heartland, due in large part to our cultural openness and capital productivity.

But the utility of military force is declining, as our experience in Iraq should have made clear. The control of territory matters far less than it did during the twentieth century because wealth, much of it in the form of human capital, is far more mobile. The Iraqi insurgency drew on the country’s density and its relatively modern communications structure to wage a highly effective, highly lethal low-cost campaign against the world’s most formidable military. Though the U.S. eventually triumphed, in a sense, the Iraq experience demonstrates that a strategy of clear, hold, and build in hostile terrain is astronomically expensive, and the benefits are almost always extremely limited. It could be that the emergence of Iraq as a swing supplier of oil will vindicate our military effort in some hard sense, and there is undoubtedly value to having removed an erratic and violent dictator in the heart of Middle East. I also don’t dismiss the view that the fact of democratic elections in Iraq has had some salutary effect on the broader region. But we should never forget the competing uses of the resources we expended, not to mention the lives that were lost and irreparably damaged. 

P.S. As a commenter notes, it is important to keep in mind that possessing high-end capabilities can deter rival states, and that our blue-water navy is the bedrock of the global economy. I couldn’t agree more. But when I suggest that the utility of military force is declining, I’m saying something very specific: the cost of coercing rival states is getting very, very high. Our carrier groups are vitally important. Yet the Chinese are continuing to develop countermeasures, including missile swarms, that threaten to shift the military balance. We can and should invest in countering these efforts in turn, but it is getting cheaper and cheaper to keep our expensive legacy systems at bay. I don’t want to see the “Finlandization” of Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia, but my sense is that those states want to preserve their options as well, which is why they’ll have to share in the burdens of countering Chinese power. I also suspect that China’s slow-motion demographic crisis will help keep them in check. I wouldn’t rely on that, of course. That’s part of why I’d rather make long-term investments in capabilities focused on East Asia rather than the Persian Gulf. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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