By Doug Bandow
We live in a dangerous world, government officials and political candidates routinely intone to justify budget-busting military expenditures. But the question should be: dangerous to whom? Even a superpower like the U.S. must set priorities and focus on those tasks, which are essential.
In its early years the American republic possessed only a small standing military and played a very small international role. That changed dramatically in the 20th century. After World War II the U.S. defended its many friends in Asia and Europe.
However, the Europeans now enjoy a greater collective GDP and population than America. South Korea vastly outmatches the North. Japan long possessed the second largest economy on earth. In the Middle East U.S. friends, most notably Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, easily outrange America’s few potential adversaries, such as Iran.
Yet Washington still mans the big alliances, guards against pirates, fills peace-keeping missions, confronts emerging powers, garrisons defeated states, rebuilds failed societies, hunts down insurgents, promotes development, and spreads democracy. It’s a daunting list. And an expensive one.
The U.S. is one of the world’s most secure nations geographically yet it leads the world in military expenditures, accounting for about 40 percent of the total. America spends more per person and as a percentage of its GDP than do the vast majority of its allies, and does so mostly on their behalf.
Yet Washington’s emphasis on the geopolitically trivial—looking for warlords in Somalia and Uganda, attempting to Westernize Afghanistan, redrawing the map of the Balkans, seeking to fix multiple Middle Eastern countries—risks impairing America’s ability to handle the truly consequential. The more U.S. resources poured into secondary tasks which other nations could manage, the less able Washington will be to confront t threats which might transcend the abilities of America’s allies to respond.
The problem comes into stark relief when comparing the Cold War with the Global War on Terrorism. In the first the U.S. faced the possibility of nuclear destruction. In Europe the fear was essentially a renewed “Eastern Front” of World War II moved west.
In Korea, Washington fought a traditional conventional war involving the emerging People’s Republic of China. In succeeding years America worried about a renewal of that conflict and threats to Japan involving both the Soviet Union and PRC.
The costs of these potential wars, especially if they escalated to nuclear weapons, could scarcely be calculated. Yet to not defend these nations would have left America’s geopolitical position isolated and threatened if not directly endangered. And in the early decades only the U.S. could secure Western Europe, South Korea, and Japan.
The GWOT bears no comparison, despite the tendency of some military hawks to designate it as World War III. There’s no existential threat to America or its allies. While the casualties from individual attacks, especially 9/11, are horrendous in human terms, they wouldn’t even be noticed during the daily carnage of World War II.
Moreover, America’s participation in much of the fighting is unnecessary and counterproductive. The conflicts and controversies themselves were trivial compared to past global conflagrations. America’s interests usually were modest at best and other nations were capable of acting.
Worse, intervention in foreign conflicts has many unintended consequences, including increased attacks against America, which entangle Washington in more lengthy military campaigns.
Decades of involvement in such sideshows has diverted resources from preparing for the sort of conflicts which could threaten America’s existence and only be confronted by the U.S. Russia is a declining power unlikely to reemerge as a global presence, but China could become a genuine peer competitor to Washington. India is further behind but also has extraordinary potential.
It is hard to imagine either of the latter directly threatening America, but both conceivably could attain dominating positions in Asia which Washington’s friends might find hard to contain. If hostilities arose, the U.S. would need to be prepared to battle a great power with advanced weaponry, not defeat an insurgency in a traditional society. The trillions of dollars wasted in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria would be sorely missed.
Even the U.S. cannot do everything. It must make choices. Washington should focus on preparing for big threats, which could not be otherwise contained. And the U.S. needs to start doing that now, well before such a conflict occurs.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A Foreign Policy Fellow and Scholar with Defense Priorities, he also is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on July 13, 2016. Read more HERE.