The National Defense Strategy Commission began as a congressional panel to review America’s national defense strategy. It turned into yet another justification for ever-greater military spending. In the panel’s view, America is weak, isolated, beleaguered, and endangered. Unless military spending is greatly increased, Washington will lose its ability to run the world and a new dark age will envelop the earth.
Indeed, the barbarians are already at the gates. Complained the NDSC: “The security and wellbeing of the United States are at greater risk than at any time in decades.”
That, alas, is to be expected since “America’s military superiority—the hard-power backbone of its global influence and national security—has eroded to a dangerous degree.” Foreign conquest may be just one battle away. “Rivals and adversaries are challenging the United States on many fronts and in many domains,” the NDSC says. Not just China and Russia, but Cuba and Venezuela. What is a superpower to do?
In the face of this extraordinary danger, warned the commission, “America’s ability to defend its allies, its partners, and its own vital interests is increasingly in doubt.”
But what “vital interests” are threatened? No one can conquer America. If the nation’s economic prosperity is at risk, it is due to domestic policies. The greatest threat to the international trading system comes from President Donald Trump. Energy supplies are abundant; no one threatens to impede American access to the energy market except the Trump administration, which is attempting to force out Iranian oil. No one can stop U.S. ships or planes from transiting the globe.
As for geopolitics, who threatens America’s interests anywhere? Whatever their disputes, the United States and Europe remain allies, and even the latter faces no meaningful threat from Russia, which is dwarfed by the continent’s combined economy and population. In the Middle East, Washington is aligned with the region’s nuclear-armed superpower, Israel, as well as the Gulf States and most everyone else against a weak Iran.
North Korea threatens the U.S. only as part of its desperate effort to deter American military intervention against it. The Republic of Korea, with twice the population and an astounding 50 times the GDP of the North, is well able to defend itself.
Only China looks like a serious competitor, and it is surrounded by potential rivals with which it has been at war in recent decades: Japan, Russia, Korea, Vietnam, and India. Moreover, Beijing’s ostentatious abandonment of the policy of “peaceful rise” has encouraged its neighbors to balance against it.
China “threatens” America only insofar as it seeks to prevent us from dominating East Asia as Washington dominates Latin America. Such influence might be useful to U.S. policymakers, but it hardly constitutes a “vital interest.” And how much is Washington prepared to spend to ensure that it can force its will on Beijing? It’s a lot cheaper for the PRC to build a few torpedoes or missiles to sink a carrier than for America to build and man that carrier.
As for protecting allies and partners, why shouldn’t they defend themselves? Alliances should be a means, not an end, to enhance American security. In recent years Washington appears to have turned them into an end, accumulating allies like many people do Facebook friends. Bringing mighty Montenegro and Macedonia into NATO is just the latest example.
Second, the Commission continues to treat the Pentagon as a charitable enterprise, providing defense welfare to populous and prosperous countries. Washington’s European allies possess about 10 times the economic strength and three times the population of Russia. In the Middle East, America’s allies face far greater problems at home than from Iran, the Trump administration’s chief bête noire. South Korea is dramatically stronger than the North; there has been no need for an American conventional presence on the peninsula for years.
Predictably, the NDSC recounts the glories of liberty and stability achieved through Pax Americana. However, foreign policy should reflect circumstances. The Cold War offered a unique moment: allied nations temporarily weakened, malevolent forces united against the U.S., Americans enjoying overwhelming economic strength. That moment has now passed. Without a Cold War, the U.S. should develop a new foreign policy and military force structure more appropriate for a republic.
Not in the view of the panel, however.
The NDSC ominously warns of “a crisis of national security for the United States—what some leading voices in the U.S. national security community have termed an emergency.” We face “a perilous situation.” Indeed, argued the NDSC: “Around the world, the proliferation of advanced technology is allowing more actors to contest U.S. military power in more threatening ways. The United States thus is in competition and conflict with an array of challengers and adversaries.”
These are extraordinary claims. Washington far outstrips any combination of its likely opponents. None of them matches America. The U.S. also has a plethora of powerful allies and friends.
Nevertheless, the commission insists that “regional balances in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Pacific have shifted in decidedly adverse ways.” This alleged change is “undermining deterrence of U.S. adversaries and the confidence of American allies, thus increasing the likelihood of military conflict.” In fact, the U.S. might even lose—especially if Washington was forced to battle both China and Russia, which would leave it “at risk of being overwhelmed.”
Under what circumstance would America alone be fighting either nation, let alone both? Neither Moscow nor Beijing—and certainly not Iran or North Korea—is going to attack the U.S. directly. A Siberian invasion of Alaska by the former or Pacific armada aimed at America’s west coast by the latter? Ain’t likely. The only serious war scenarios are those where we protect our allies, but if that is the case, presumably those allies would be contributing too and we wouldn’t be alone.
So America and Europe might lose a battle against Russia? Seriously? America, Japan, and others would lose a war against China? Do the commissioners envision a campaign to occupy China?
What the NDSC imagines is not defending America but imposing a new imperium. The “threat” is that well-armed China and Russia might be able to beat off U.S. intervention on behalf of Taiwan and the Baltic States, respectively. Obviously, Washington cannot let that happen despite the cost of intervening.
Even the commission appears to understand that the price would not be cheap. Both China and Russia “possess precision-strike capabilities, integrated air defenses, cruise and ballistic missiles, advanced cyberwarfare and anti-satellite capabilities, significant air and naval forces, and nuclear weapons—a suite of advanced capabilities heretofore possessed only by the United States.” How to overcome those capabilities?
Observes the commission: “deterring Chinese aggression requires a forward-deployed, defense-in-depth posture, buttressed by investments in capabilities ranging from undersea warfare to strategic airlift.” Similarly, “In Europe, dealing with a revanchist Russia will entail rebuilding conventional NATO force capacity and capability on the alliance’s eastern flank and the Baltics, while also preparing to deter and if necessary defeat the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons.” Moreover, “across all theaters—especially Europe and the Indo-Pacific—our forward posture will be essential to deterring competitors and adversaries and thereby reducing the chances of conflict.”
That is, hundreds of billions of dollars must be spent to bolster every service “and America will need to improve its capabilities in key cross-cutting areas such as munitions, missile defense, electronic warfare, space, cyber, and air and sealift.” Indeed, the panel recommends “that U.S. defense investments emphasize achieving and maintaining a favorable military balance for the United States and its allies against China in the Indo-Pacific region and against Russia in Europe.”
All this to ensure U.S. dominance, not defend America, while assuming that Washington’s allies and friends are and forever will be completely helpless, unable to protect themselves despite their many advantages. America is alone, even more endangered than when facing the Soviet Union.
Predictably, the commission included everyone’s standby justification: “American leadership.” However, real leadership requires restraint, judgment, balance, humility, and realism. None of that is reflected in the panel’s analysis.
How much will everything cost? The NDSC complains of looming “strategic insolvency,” with the means insufficient to achieve the ends, which exists and is getting worse. However, the answer is not, as the commission assumed, to do and spend ever more, but rather to shrink unnecessarily expansive ends.
Serious tradeoffs must be made. The federal government already has unfunded liabilities of more than $200 trillion. The annual deficit will be almost $1 trillion this year and likely will head upwards, ever upwards, in the coming years. As the Baby Boomers, retire the budget numbers will worsen dramatically. Unless Congress is prepared to commit political suicide by slashing entitlements, where will money be found to continue garrisoning the globe? The commission correctly observed that social programs are where the money is. But those actually benefit voters, in sharp contrast to what the NDSC wants to fund, military welfare for allies.
Washington’s most basic responsibility is the defense of America. The next government-backed commission of worthies should begin with that essential truth. Then their results might be worth considering.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.