The New Welfare State

November 24, 2008 Topic: Great Powers Region: Americas Tags: Superpower

The New Welfare State

America should stop wasting money by providing defense resources for half the world. Instead, we need to focus on defending ourselves.


The Republican Party is a wreck. The election was not quite as catastrophic as predicted-though if the Democrats take the two GOP Senate seats still at risk, things couldn't have turned out much worse. Continuing on its present course obviously is no option.

Most of the arguments on the Right so far have been between social and economic conservatives, but the Republican Party also needs to reconsider its foreign policy stance. Neoconservatives had their opportunity and their policies were found wanting. With President Barack Obama and likely Secretary of State Hillary Clinton almost certain to follow the usual liberal interventionist course, the GOP should respond with a policy of strategic independence rather than even more promiscuous global meddling. In short, conservatives should insist on a "defense" policy that actually promotes America's defense instead of promoting social engineering in other nations.


There's much loose talk among conservatives about the need to increase military spending to maintain a strong defense. Even Barack Obama campaigned to expand the military's size. But the image of the United States as a beleaguered innocent under siege by enemies around the world is embarrassing nonsense. America is the globe's dominant military player, with most of its "defense" spending having nothing to do with defending the United States.

In 2009, Washington will spend roughly $700 billion on the military. Adjusted for inflation, even the $515 billion for normal (non-Afghan/Iraq) operations is more than America spent annually during the cold war, Korean War, or Vietnam War. Yet then the United States faced the Soviet Union and, in the latter two cases, was fighting a very hot war. Today America faces no threats of comparable magnitude.

Indeed, the United States bestrides the globe as a colossus. It accounts for roughly half of the world's military spending. Washington is allied with every major industrialized state except China and Russia. As Colin Powell noted in 1991, after the Soviet Union's collapse: "I'm running out of demons. I'm running out of enemies. I'm down to Castro and Kim Il Sung." Nasty characters they were, but replacements for the "evil empire" they were not.

A revived Russia is dangerous only to its immediate neighbors. Its nuclear arsenal gives Moscow the power to deter Washington from attacking, but no more. Beijing spends more on its military-estimates of China's annual outlays top out at $100 billion or so-but not enough to catch up or surpass America's military capabilities. For instance, the United States has twelve aircraft carriers while China has none. And Asia is filled with countries with an interest in constraining Beijing: Russia, India, Japan and the ASEAN states.

Terrorism remains the most serious threat facing America, but it is not one amenable to solution via carrier groups, air wings and armored divisions. Indeed, using heavy conventional forces in an attempt to eliminate terrorism typically makes the problem worse-invading countries and killing civilians creates more grievances and more enemies. Better to target terrorist sponsors, use special forces in cooperation with indigenous allies, share intelligence among friendly states, dry up funding and break local organizations, and favor limited retaliation over nation-building where states have aided terrorists.

Not only is Washington spending too much money on the military, but the United States is deploying too many of its forces to defend other nations. For instance, troops in South Korea do nothing for American security. The Republic of Korea (ROK) has twice the population and around forty times the GDP of the North. For the ROK to ask for American military aid is a bit like Washington begging for defense alms from Europe to deter a Mexican attack.

Japan enjoys the world's second-ranking economy and is fully capable of creating a world-class deterrent to any outside attack. Grant that some of its neighbors remain nervous about a more powerful Japan. That's still no argument for stationing a Marine expeditionary force in Okinawa. The United States should not babysit countries unwilling to work through antagonisms rooted in a conflict that ended more than six decades ago. Many nations want American protection. But so what? That doesn't mean Washington should waste money and risk lives to maintain a gaggle of international welfare queens.

U.S. forces in Europe, whether located in Britain, Germany, the Balkans or Donald Rumsfeld's famous "new Europe" to the east, have equally little to do with American security. After all, the European Union collectively has a larger GDP and population than the United States. Why should American taxpayers subsidize the continent's defense so Europeans can fund lavish welfare states? If the Europeans don't believe they face a threat serious enough to warrant creating and maintaining modern and professional military forces, that's their privilege. America shouldn't bail them out by taking over their defense.

In any case, a Russian attack on the core Western European states for whose defense Washington created NATO is about as likely as an invasion from Mars. The former members of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact along Russia's border understandably feel more vulnerable, but Moscow is acting more like a traditional great power interested in border security than an ideologically expansionist power planning a war of conquest. That means it desires influence rather than control.

The former still isn't a pleasant prospect for newly independent states stuck in a bad geopolitical neighborhood, but easing their discomfort is no reason for America to risk war with nuclear-armed Russia. For instance, Americans have humanitarian reasons to sympathize with the Georgian people, not geopolitical reasons to defend the state of Georgia. The major powers in Europe have a much greater interest in backing up their central and eastern neighbors.

Indeed, NATO has become a defense black hole for the United States. By continually expanding the alliance, Washington has been adding small client states with nonexistent military capabilities but multiple political liabilities, ranging from social instability to ethnic discord to border conflict. For example, what conceivable benefit does America gain from bringing Albania or Croatia into NATO? Countries like Estonia proudly send a few dozen personnel to Iraq while expecting the United States to defend them from Russia in return. The alliance has become a form of international welfare, with Washington promiscuously distributing security guarantees hither and yon.

Even less relevant to American security are the potpourri of nation-building and humanitarian interventions Washington has busied itself in the post-cold war years. There's Haiti (twice!), Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, none of which had the slightest relevance to even the barest security interest. Whatever the justification for invading Iraq, sticking around as occupier to sort out conflicts amongst the Kurds, Shia and Sunni was never worth the cost. Intervening in Darfur or any number of other geopolitical horror shows creates many risks while straining a military whose principal duty should remain protecting America: its people, territory, and constitutional system and liberties.

If the United States was only concerned about its own defense, its military requirements would be modest. No country has the capability to assault American territory with ground forces. No potential adversary possesses an air force or navy which can match, let alone overcome, comparable American forces. The greatest military threat still comes from Moscow's strategic nuclear forces, but Washington possesses by far the globe's most sophisticated and deadly arsenal. All that is lacking is an effective missile defense, which justifies continued work in this area.

But the same tyranny of distance works against U.S. intervention overseas, making it so expensive. China is the latest conservative defense bugaboo. But Beijing has no practical capacity to attack America. To launch an attack on U.S. territory with something other than missiles would require a massive army, naval and air build-up. It would not be enough for the People's Republic of China (PRC) to match America; Beijing would have to assemble forces capable of overwhelming U.S. defenders. To do that would require massive expenditures and years of effort. Some day China's moment might come, but not in the foreseeable future, especially at a time when the PRC remains notably poorer than America. Even when the Chinese economy overtakes that of the United States at some point in the coming years, China's per capita GDP will remain well below that of America. Talk of a renewed "yellow peril" in the East is nonsense.

What Beijing's increasing military outlays do is threaten Washington's ability to intervene against the PRC. China is updating its strategic nuclear forces, expanding its blue water naval capabilities, modernizing its antiquated conventional forces and developing asymmetric war capacities, such as the ability to destroy U.S. satellites. None of these steps will enable it to attack America. All of them will make it more costly for Washington to attempt to coerce Beijing, particularly in the event of hostilities in the Taiwan Strait. That is, China is creating an effective deterrent force, capable of sinking U.S. carriers, blinding U.S. intelligence and forestalling U.S. nuclear threats. For Washington to construct a military capable of overwhelming China's growing forces would force it to devote ever more resources to "defense."

Washington has two basic choices. The first is to attempt to remain the dominant military power in every region on earth, capable of waging war against any adversary or likely hostile coalition on its own territory or in its own region. For instance, assume that the U.S. government wants to undertake three tasks in addition to protecting America: defend Georgia from Russia; shield Taiwan from the PRC; and fix failed states in Africa and the Middle East.