Nations, like nature, abhor a vacuum. It must be filled. How it is filled, by whom and with what are the challenging questions. Unlike nature, which seeks to fill a vacuum with whatever is handy and can be stuffed or sucked into the space available, nations rely on power, relationships and institutions to fill vacuums that arise in the international system. Political vacuums can readily be filled by raw power and the domination of the strong over the weak. Or they can be filled by the rule of law and a community of nations.
Twice in the last 60-plus years the United States chose to fill the vacuum caused by the collapse of old institutions, relationships, and power centers. After World War II, along with key allies, the U.S. created an entirely new international order with a set of democratic institutions and international agreements that have endured to this day. America, again in concert with many allies, also built a security apparatus and military machine of global reach and power unlike any seen in peacetime. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States did not simply declare victory and go home. Rather, even while reducing the size of its military, America chose to remain in the world, forward deployed, and committed to maintaining and even expanding long-established alliances and security relationships. As a result, the world was able to weather difficult and dangerous transitions and create or maintain a viable international system. In both cases, nations, including America’s former adversaries, had the opportunity to become part of that system and to flourish.
An Increased Role and Decreased Size
Ironically, the role of the United States military in maintaining the global order increased with the end of the Cold War. From 1945 to the collapse of the Soviet Union there were between 40 and 50 significant instances of the use of U.S. armed forces abroad. From 1991 to the present, that number nearly tripled to between 100 and 135. These figures do not include several hundred humanitarian operations, support for civil authorities after natural disasters, or the myriad of routine deployments for training purposes or to build partnership capacity. Add these other actions to the total and the activity level for the U.S. military went up by a factor of four after 1991.
At the same time, in the 1990s, the size of the U.S. military was reduced by half. With an activity level that increased four-fold and a force reduced by half, the resulting “use rate” or “stress level” on the military increased eight-fold. Two things saved the military from collapse in this period. The first was the overhang of military procurements that had taken place during the Reagan-Bush era. The military has lived off this investment for more than twenty years. The second was selective hollowing in which the services deliberately chose to reduce spending on maintenance and upgrades. For the Army alone this amounted to some $50 billion in the years prior to September 11, 2001.
Now again, the prospect of a vacuum in the international order is emerging. Unlike the previous two, this one is not the result of a war or the collapse of erstwhile major powers. Rather, it is the consequence of a gradual diminution of the power and will of those that created the current international system to sustain it. Repeated economic crises, chronic slow growth at home, and the growing burden of social welfare programs have brought most Western counties to the point of military near-irrelevance. The last time U.S. allies “walked away” from the challenge of filling the global space, the United States took up the burden.
The Need for Modernization
Today, facing some of the same challenges at home as its allies and, simply put, being somewhat tired of carrying the burden, America is also considering a less central role in world affairs. It is not just that the U.S. defense budget is being reduced; it is being gutted. As every senior defense official and an endless parade of academics and experts has testified and written, the current plan to cut $1 trillion from defense spending over the next decade will be devastating to the U.S. military.
Moreover, this is not the same military that existed at the end of the Cold War. It doesn’t have the legacy of the Reagan-Bush buildup on which to rely. It is emerging from a decade of conflict that has worn it out. There are new threats, such as the Russian sale of advanced air defense systems to Syria, which must be countered if the U.S. military is to have any future. It is also badly in need of modernization. The reason the United States requires a new strategic bomber to replace the fifty-year-old B-52 and F-22s and F-35s rather than F-15s and F-16s is because the threat is changing and it chooses not to send U.S. airmen into combat with less capable systems. The growing threat from ballistic missiles, including some armed with nuclear weapons, requires advanced missile defenses such as the Aegis BMDS and National Missile Defense system. It is also a power projection military, which must come from the homeland. This means airlift, aerial refueling, sealift, and a Navy with advanced nuclear attack submarines, aircraft carriers, and surface ships to ensure control of the oceans over which American forces must travel.
The Call for Cuts
The military also faces an internal cost problem. Overhead, administrative and personnel costs have grown to an unsustainable level. A full quarter of all defense spending is to cover administrative costs, a figure which no private enterprise would tolerate. Another 20 percent is a “tax” on all purchases due to government regulations and unique requirements. Given current budget projections, and recent growth rates for medical care, retirement and personnel, within a decade or so there will be no money left in the defense budget for new equipment. The defense of the United States is in danger of being crushed between the jaws of decreased budgets and increased indirect costs.
An even greater challenge is political, or perhaps philosophical. The 65-year-old consensus on the role of this country’s military as the central pillar of security for Western civilization and a force for global stability is over. Elements on both ends of the political spectrum have been campaigning for years for a reduced vision of America’s role in the world and a correspondingly large retrenchment in our security commitments. A few years ago, former Congressmen Ron Paul and Barney Frank, two men who could not be more diametrically opposite politically, sponsored a study of American security that proposed in essence, that this country come home and in doing so, reduce its defense burden by nearly half. Now, what was once an extreme position has taken hold of the entire American political system.
The desire to win on issues such as reducing the size of the federal government or increasing federal revenues has become so all-consuming that virtually no one is paying attention to the consequences of these absolute positions for the nation’s security. Congress as a whole has responded to warnings of the dire impacts of sequestration on the military with supreme indifference. Even centrists in both political parties are calling for America to reduce its overseas burden, stop acting as a “global cop,” and cut the size and cost of its military.
The Centrality of U.S. Power
There are three fundamental problems with the argument in favor of abandoning America’s security role in the world. The first problem is that the United States cannot withdraw without sucking the air out of the system. U.S. power and presence have been the central structural feature that holds the present international order together. It flavors the very air that fills the sphere that is the international system. Whether it is the size of the U.S. economy, its capacity for innovation, the role of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency or the contribution of U.S. military power to the stability and peace of the global commons, the present world order has “Made in the USA” written all over it.
The international system is not a game of Jenga where the worst thing that can happen is that one’s tower collapses. Start taking away the fundamental building blocks of the international order, particularly American military power, and the results are all but certain to be major instability, increased conflict rates, rapid proliferation of nuclear weapons, economic dislocation and, ultimately, serious and growing threats to security at home.
The second problem is the presumption that the country’s global security posture was created and maintained to serve others. In reality, the United States built a global security architecture and the world’s best military because it served our interests. Our network of security ties and treaties, most notably NATO, were instituted to serve a number of functions: prevent another war among the Western powers, deter the Soviet Union and its allies, and ensure that the major economic regions remain free and that global trade flowed. In the 1970s, based on the experience of the oil embargo, the U.S. focused more on the security of the Persian Gulf because of the growing importance of Middle East oil to the national economy and that of the entire industrialized world.
While the Soviet Union is no more, the essential self-interestedness of America’s military role in the world remains. Any oil expert would say that even though the U.S. is less dependent than a decade ago on foreign oil, a cutoff of the flow from the Middle East would cause oil prices to go through the ceiling. A war across the Taiwan Straits or between the two Koreas will cost us hundreds of billions in lost trade and investment income, not to mention that it would cut off most of the world’s supply of computer chips and consumer electronics. The world’s economy and America’s well being depend on the independence of a relative handful of nations, most of whom are allies.
The third problem with the case for abandoning America’s role as the security linchpin of a democratic world order and an international free trade system is simply this: while this country can run, it cannot hide. The U.S. is still the largest economy—at worst it will be number two behind China some day. America’s major companies are global, have hundreds of billions of dollars invested overseas, and millions of citizens working or traveling abroad. American culture permeates—foreign extremists would say pollutes—the world. To truly avoid international entanglements this nation would have to behave like a cloistered monk with vows of poverty and silence.
Too Late to Hide
Even if America runs, as the far left and right propose, it is too late to hide. Those who choose to be enemies can come after the United States. This is the lesson of 9-11. It also is the message that North Korea sent with its latest tests of a nuclear weapon and long-range ballistic missile. China, one of America’s largest trading partners and the holder of a trillion dollars in U.S. debt, is conducting a massive and continuous cyber assault on the nation’s private companies, infrastructure, and military facilities. To what mountaintop can America withdraw, how small must it become, and how meekly will it have to behave in order to ensure its security?
The irony is that the cost of the U.S. military had for decades represented a small and declining percentage of both overall GDP and total federal spending. Today, defense spending is about 4 percent of GDP and less than 20 percent of federal spending. For this relatively small sum the U.S. had to deter major wars—including nuclear attacks on the homeland—contain innumerable local conflicts, create an environment in which a community of democratic nations emerged, grown, and flourished, and secured literally trillions of dollars of overseas investments, trade flows, and natural resources. It is a tragedy of epic proportions that all this should be put at risk.
Dr. Daniel Goure is President of The Lexington Institute.