Defense Roundtable: “Show Me the Missions”

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The New America Foundation’s sponsored debate over defense spending showcased two schools of American political thought entirely comfortable with allowing American power and influence to decline on the global stage.


One school argued that the United States can shed global security burdens without reducing national security. Indeed, some suggested the United States should “take solace” in the physical security afforded by our large nuclear arsenal and geographic isolation from other great powers.

There is nothing wrong with urging U.S. policymakers to fundamentally rethink global roles and missions. And, clearly those advocating a much smaller role for the U.S. believe that if we do less to defend our friends and allies, our friends and allies will do more. Many European states, and others such as India, are assumed to be willing to take up the security and leadership slack if the U.S. simply refused to perform some security functions—such as anti-piracy operations, for example.

The real-world problem is as Secretary Gates has said: “I believe given the kind of challenges that the U.S. is likely to face around the world, and the unfortunate reality that most of our allies are reducing their militaries, that the burden on us and the security challenges are going to remain unchanged and potentially even increase in the future, and therefore the need to sustain force structure.”

Another school argues that greater reliance on “selective engagement and off-shore balancing”—using Special Forces and standoff strikes with missiles and drones, for example—would avoid costly preventive wars and stability operations (like many claim in Iraq). This argument allows for steep reductions in the size of the Army and Marine Corps and the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Both camps think that a world with a smaller U.S. “footprint”—including a substantial erosion in U.S. military supremacy—is nothing to be scared of, might just be, in the words of Martha Stewart, “a good thing.”

But why would America want to give away strength that not only defeats foes but deters potential aggressors from making bad decisions? It is our military supremacy that actually avoids wars. Lost seems to be the concept of a healthy defense serving a national insurance policy for national security.

America’s role as the indispensible nation is not going away. Stable defense budgets are needed to invest in keeping an all-volunteer force combat ready and to invest in the next-generation of equipment that can assure U.S. military supremacy for the next half century.

America’s military commitments—derivative from U.S. foreign policy set by the President—are only growing. And it is easy to expect Americans will maintain certain expectations regarding our nation’s role in the world, such as rushing to meet naked aggression or natural disasters. It is imperative to keep the military properly resourced so those in uniform can succeed whenever they’re needed to take on these missions.

Cutting the military because it is unrivaled at performing its many and varied missions is kind of like slashing the size of your hometown police force because crime is down. Trying to build up a military after a threat materializes costs much more in lives and treasure than would otherwise be necessary. (Think “pennywise, but pound foolish.”)

The battle over the defense budget is about far more than money.  It is about the future of American power and the role America should play in the world. The country faces a stark choice over federal budget priorities: we can either continue to embrace a global role and lead from the front, or we can slip quietly back into the pack and take a seat next to all the great powers throughout history that, by choice or by conquest, relinquished their unique position in the world.