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Why America needs a defense policy that matches its global responsibilities
It used to be a truth widely acknowledged that instability and insecurity overseas make it next to impossible for America – or anyone else – to achieve prosperity and abundance at home. Without a modicum of security for themselves, nations cannot invest in themselves or forge productive, friendly relationships with other governments and societies. Fear comes to dominate our politics, circumscribing our thinking and lowering our shared horizons when it comes to the possibilities for peace and prosperity.
That this sort of stability and solidity in global politics – at least in a world forever changed by the industrial revolution – required active and enduring American involvement was a lesson hard learned in the first half of the twentieth century. Two cataclysmic world wars convinced many Americans and most of their political leaders that their nation’s own security and prosperity depended on its participation in world affairs. But with the end of the Cold War, questions of global security and international politics fell far down the nation’s list of priorities – so much so that voices on both left and right could gain influence by calling for the United States to retreat behinds its own borders and come home.
“Blame America First” Goes Mainstream
A disastrous decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and a two-decade stalemate in Afghanistan appeared to lend credence to these broader arguments against American involvement in global security arrangements. Now loosely organized under the banner of “restraint,” some of these voices even go so far as to hold the United States itself responsible for virtually every security problem in the world. Russia invading Ukraine? It’s America’s fault for pushing NATO expansion. China threatening Taiwan? It’s America’s fault for letting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visit the island and selling it American arms. The war in Yemen still grinding on? It’s America’s fault for not cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Restraint advocates and their more sensible fellow travelers resemble those progressive pundits and activists who deny or otherwise downplay widespread public concerns about rising rates of violent crime and general lawlessness. In that respect, at least, they’re joined by an even wider range of lawmakers, policy experts, and activists looking to blindly cut the defense budget no matter what’s happening in the world. For decades – and especially since the end of the Cold War – these voices have fixated on the enormous size of the overall defense budget and made that their main target of their advocacy campaigns.
But the overall size of the defense budget doesn’t tell us much, and the truth is that America can afford its current level of defense spending even as it confronts severe challenges like Russia’s war against Ukraine, potential Chinese aggression against Taiwan, and chronic threats in the Middle East. Indeed, the United States could probably afford to spend even more on defense than it does right now – despite its challenges and problems, the American economy remains remarkably resilient. America spends about as much on defense as a share of the overall economy and the federal budget today as it did during the late 1990s, and far less than during World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, or the Cold War.
More important than how much America spends on defense is what the American people and their political leaders expect and want from their military. Too often, our political debates and policy discussion treat military force and diplomacy as though they’re fundamentally separate and disconnected from one another rather than two sides of the same coin. This intellectual failure doesn’t just result in empty rhetoric about “ending endless wars” and “no military solutions,” it actually crowds out diplomacy and makes it harder to end conflicts. Diplomacy and military force are not exclusive alternatives to one another, but interconnected and potentially complementary – as the war in Ukraine has repeatedly demonstrated over the past year.
What Do Americans Want From Defense? Not What Some Elites Are Selling
For starters, it’s clear that many of the prophets of restraint and isolationism were dead wrong in their assertions that Americans had little appetite to defend far away nations of which they know nothing like Ukraine and Taiwan. “Could an American president rally the American people to defend a country near Russia’s border that some of them may never have heard of?” Iraq war hawk-turned-restraint advocate Peter Beinart asked in the fall of 2018. “Is that commitment solvent? We simply don’t know.”
Well, now we do know – Americans are very much willing to help a country directly on Russia’s border defend itself against the most naked act of aggression the world has seen since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Some two-thirds of Americans continue to support sending arms and military aid to Ukraine, according to a November 2022 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. That’s consistent with other public pollingon Ukraine, and another sign that oft-predicted “Ukraine fatigue” has yet to set in with most Americans. Concerns about public support for American involvement in international security remain a largely elite preoccupation, one that doesn’t reflect actual public attitudes toward an array of foreign policy and defense problems.
Indeed, the American public’s support for a balanced defense of the United States and its allies around the world remains strong. According to the Chicago Council’s annual survey of public opinion on foreign policy, two-thirds of Americans support risking open warfare with China to prevent Beijing from imposing a naval blockade on Taiwan. A similar proportion of the public believes the United States should maintain “long-term military bases” in NATO allies like Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states (numbers are similar for U.S. allies in Asia like Japan and South Korea), and three-quarters of support bringing Sweden and Finland into the alliance. Some 61 percent of the American public would likewise favor the use of U.S. troops to defend NATO’s Baltic members against a Russian invasion.
In short, the past two years show there’s a clear pathway to a balanced security and defense approach that can keep Americans safe without either over- or under-reaching in ways that harm American and indeed global security.
Nonetheless, President Biden and his team have work to do on this front. The notion of “integrated deterrence,” central to the Biden administration’s defense strategy, remains ill-defined and needs to be closely examined in our policy debates. Likewise, the Biden administrations remains excessively anxious about “provoking” potential aggressors – to the point where it has deterred itself from taking otherwise reasonable actions to protect American interests and back up partners around the world, most notably in excessive restrictions on the supply of certain weapons to Ukraine. That gets things totally backwards: adversaries and competitors like China, Russia, and Iran should fear provoking the United States, not the other way around.
New Partnerships for Peace in the 21st Century
The right path forward includes building on existing American partnerships and alliances like NATO around the world, sharing more burdens and expecting our allies and partners to do more to help address shared security concerns. There’s a long, long way to go on that front; as Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin recently noted, Europe “would be in trouble” if not for America’s strong involvement in the continent’s security and in particular our military aid to Ukraine. It's important to note that asking allies to step up does not mean America will be stepping out: the United States plays an indispensable military and – especially – political role in holding alliances in Europe and Asia together in the face of threats and challenge, and it’s manifestly in America’s interest to keep playing that role. That’s also true in a complicated Middle East today, where the United States continues to play an essential role in helping protect against threats to global security - and where it should continue to evolve its own role from being the lead security guarantor to a role that fosters greater security integration among its partners in the region.
But the exact shape and nature of that role can and should change and evolve, particularly if and when America’s allies develop greater capacities to defend themselves. The United States should see its role in European, Asian, and Middle Eastern security as more akin to the rebar that strengthens reinforced concrete – a critical component that holds a larger edifice together and makes it more resilient at the same time. No matter how its military role may evolve in the future, however, it will be vital for the United States to maintain some military presence in allied nations as a simple matter of solidarity.
The first step forward, however, requires our political debates and policy discussions discard the delusion that emerged on the fringes of American politics in the wake of the Iraq war: the idea that America’s military and security presence does more harm to the world than good. Instead, our debates should accept the fact that America has a responsibility to play an active role in global politics and international security – one that can’t be shirked or evaded. It’s only logical that our defense policy reflects this responsibility.
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