According to SAIS Professor Hal Brands, progressives and Americans should embrace the social benefits military spending offers to the middle class. Not only does American military strength support the liberal world order that makes the world “safe for democracy,” Brands claimed, but military spending undergirds millions of middle-class jobs for service members, civilian employees, and contractors for the Pentagon.
In reality, the opposite is true: American military adventurism and massive spending undermines middle-class prosperity and makes the world less free and secure. A militarized approach to American foreign policy harms global freedom and security far more than it helps.
Though modern Washington seems to have forgotten it, the architects of the post-World War II American-led liberal world order understood that it would not—and could not— be secured by American military power alone. Strong diplomatic and trade relationships allow international institutions to flourish and help secure global buy-in from national governments.
In recent years, reckless interventions, underinvestment in relationships and diplomacy, and the hypertrophy of the U.S. military has undermined America’s ability to shore up this order. In a vicious cycle that former Defense and State Department advisor Rosa Brooks compared to a Walmart devouring the local general store, Washington’s growing reliance on the military’s vast capacity to fill in for civilian agencies leads to further atrophy of American diplomacy and adaptability in foreign affairs. As then-CENTCOM Commander General James Mattis once warned, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
The notion that military spending underwrites a middle-class lifestyle for millions is even more off base. It discounts the long-term effects of military spending on the American economy as a whole, as political economy experts increasingly see a dangerous relationship between free-wheeling military spending and boom-bust cycles.
Boston University political scientist Rosella Cappella Zielinski has shown, for example, how the desire to sustain high levels of military spending without sacrificing domestic political priorities led President Lyndon B. Johnson to rely on debt-financed military spending that eventually precipitated the demise of the gold standard, stagflation, and a recession.
Political economist Thomas Oatley has likewise argued that every postwar economic boom, save one, was caused directly or indirectly by military spending (including stagflation and the 2008 financial crisis). Ten years after 2008, the average middle-class family’s net wealth is still $40,000 lower than 2007, and constraints on government spending throughout the West have contributed to public disillusionment and surging populism.
While military spending might subsidize a middle-class lifestyle for some, it has contributed to macroeconomic trends that are hollowing out the middle class writ large.
Using the military as a replacement for the social safety net is a boondoggle, not a boon. Brands quotes a forthcoming Carnegie Endowment study to say, “a middle-class standard of living would be put out of reach for several thousand Ohioans if they could not count on the National Guard and Reserves as a way to contribute toward their educational expenses, acquire coveted training, earn a livable wage, provide healthcare, and add to their portfolio of retirement benefits.”
A more accurate way of putting this would be to say that for Americans not living in a few elite parts of the country, healthcare, education, and a livable wage are increasingly dependent on your willingness to serve as cannon-fodder for America’s ill-advised wars. As Eric Levitz commented at New York magazine, this reflects the failure of political elites more than a sly victory for progressive (or any other) politics.
The net result of conducting social programming by way of military spending is to ensure the burdens of America’s wars fall on an increasingly small part of the population already beset by serious economic woes. In regions of America suffering trade-related job losses and bipartisan abandonment, military enlistment rates are rising to compensate for the withering American Dream. Places like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are thus hit with a one-two punch of economic decline and military casualties.
In the Federalist Papers, even our most pro-federal spending founders held that a large standing army and a heavy, un-financed public debt burden were a danger to our republic’s health and security. Combining the two in the form of an ever-growing military budget is no victory. It is a threat to the future of the United States as we know it.
Jonathan Askonas is an Assistant Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America and Fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship.