Could the much-maligned cuts to defense spending actually be a good thing for American strategy? That’s the case that historian Melvyn Leffler makes in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs. Responding to those who argue that past retrenchments have left the military ill prepared to respond to future dangers and stress the need to avoid doing the same today, Leffler argues that these fears are overblown. In his words:
Contrary to such conventional wisdom, the consequences of past U.S. defense cuts were not bad. In fact, a look at five such periods over the past century—following World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War—shows that austerity can be useful in forcing Washington to think strategically, something it rarely does when times are flush.
The argument, in a nutshell, is that when the government is operating under constrained resources, it is forced to make more difficult choices and prioritize more effectively, leading to better strategy. It has a certain intuitive plausibility to it, but the examples he presents don’t really seem to support it.