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Austerity and Defense

The Strategic Defense and Security Review released this week by Prime Minister David Cameron is bad news for anyone who believes that a strong Britain is a vital bulwark of liberty. ~Max Boot

I can’t be the only one who laughed at this sentence. Hawks often make the claim that any and all military spending is essential for defending freedom or guarding liberty, and that significantly reducing any military spending must mean a reduced ability to protect “liberty.” This takes the basic claim that a military deterrent can protect a reasonably free society from external threats and exaggerates it beyond all recognition. Reducing Britain’s ability to launch overseas expeditions has no real relationship with political liberty, except possibly to increase it in Britain by making British participation in unnecessary foreign wars less likely. This must make Boot feel particularly gloomy, since he is one of the few truly unabashed neo-imperialists around with a gauzy view of the British Empire. This is what he was writing a month after 9/11:

Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.

Aside from more sharp pangs of nostalgia for the Empire that they must be causing him, the real problem Boot has with Britain’s military spending cuts is that it will make it much harder for Britain to participate in and lend political legitimacy to the next unnecessary war that Boot and other hawks are interested in starting. This is what Boot euphemistically calls “the burden of defending what used to be called the Free World,” which has nothing to do with defending the “Free World” and everything to do with projecting power to various corners of the globe for mostly dubious or bad reasons.

Britain’s ability to defend itself is not being endangered. The coalition government is proving that it is interested in a strong defense. What it is not willing or able to pay for any longer is the ability to intervene on the other side of the planet in wars that don’t actually have anything to do with British security. In Boot’s world, where 9/11 was the result of “insufficient assertiveness,” the unwillingness of U.S. allies to waste their resources on neo-imperial missions abroad is scandalous. Obviously, the coalition government is going to continue honoring the commitments of previous governments to the war in Afghanistan, but it has given notice that there probably won’t be significant British involvement in other wars in the near future.

Boot is also concerned that the Republicans may be so inspired by the coalition government’s austerity measures that they will take an axe to some of the Pentagon’s budget, but here his fears are even more unreasonable. Everything we have been hearing from Republican leaders before the election makes it clear that there will be no serious consideration of military spending reductions. Unlike the Tory-led coalition, the GOP pretty clearly has no intention of being a responsible party of government. That would involve making hard, unpopular decisions to reduce the debt in ways that will make no one happy. Besides, the hawks’ pre-election positioning over military spending has probably all been for nothing, since it is still far from certain that Republicans will take control of the House, much less both houses. Even if they wished to make significant cuts, Republicans will be in no position to threaten cuts to military spending or to anything else.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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