Solvency: The Military Buildup We Need
By Hal Brands and
The Weekly Standard
March 6, 2017
Foreign policy, Walter Lippmann wrote, entails “bringing
into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation's
commitments and the nation's power." If a statesman fails to balance ends
and means, he added, "he will follow a course that leads to disaster."
Today, America is hurtling toward such a disaster. Since
the end of the Cold War, Washington has possessed uncontested military dominance
and enjoyed it at bargain-basement prices. Now, however, America confronts
military challenges more numerous and severe than at any time in decades—just
at the moment its military resources are showing the effects of prolonged
disinvestment in defense. American politicians boast that the nation has the
finest fighting force in the history of the world. But the brutal truth today is
that the United States is slipping into what Samuel Huntington—building on
Lippmann's ideas—termed "strategic insolvency." American military
power has become dangerously insufficient relative to the grand strategy—and
international order—it must support.
That grand strategy might be described as "enlightened
liberal dominance." After the Cold War, U.S. policymakers committed to
averting a return to the unstable multipolarity of earlier eras and to
perpetuating the more stable unipolar order. They committed to fostering a
global environment in which liberal economic and political institutions could
flourish and in which international scourges such as rogue states, nuclear
proliferation, and catastrophic terrorism would be suppressed. And because they
recognized that military force remained the ultima ratio regum, they
understood that doing so would require "military strengths beyond
challenge," as George W. Bush indelicately put it in 2002.
Since the early 1990s, Washington has therefore accounted
for 35 to 45 percent of world defense spending. It has maintained peerless
global power-projection capabilities. Perhaps most important, U.S. primacy has
also been unrivaled in the key strategic regions: Europe, East Asia, and the
Middle East. From thrashing Saddam Hussein's million-man military in 1991 to
deploying two carrier strike groups off Taiwan during the China-Taiwan crisis of
1995-96, Washington has been able to project power superior to anything a
regional rival could employ even on its own doorstep. And yet, this dominance
has come at a remarkably affordable price—usually between 3 and 4 percent of
GDP, as compared with 12 percent at the peak of the Cold War. In a comparatively
benign international environment, Washington has had military primacy—and its
geopolitical fruits—on the cheap.
Today, however, the strategic landscape is darkening and
U.S. primacy is eroding. This is due to four interrelated factors.
First, great-power military competition is back. China and
Russia are seeking regional hegemony and contesting global norms such as
nonaggression and freedom of navigation. They are also developing the military
punch to underwrite these ambitions—namely, advanced power-projection
capabilities meant to bully their neighbors and anti-access/area denial
capabilities meant to prevent U.S. forces from coming to those neighbors'
Second, the international outlaws are more dangerous than
at any time in a quarter-century. North Korea has a growing arsenal of nuclear
bombs and is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles with which to
deliver them. Iran is a nuclear threshold state that tests ballistic missiles
while backing sectarian proxy forces across the Middle East. The Islamic State
has displayed far greater military competence than any previous terrorist group
and shown that counterterrorism will continue to place significant operational
demands on American forces.
Third, the rapid spread of precision munitions, stealth,
and other technologies that were once the sole preserve of the United States
means that we now face more actors who can contest American superiority in
dangerous ways. As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted in 2014, "we are
entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in
space—not to mention cyberspace—can no longer be taken for granted."
Fourth, the number of challenges has multiplied. Rogue
states, jihadist extremism, great-power rivalry, instability in Europe, the
Middle East, and East Asia: Today's security environment has it all.
And as the world has become more menacing, the United
States has dramatically cut back its investment in defense. The triple whammy of
the Great Recession, Obama-era budget cuts, and the Budget Control Act reduced
annual defense spending from $768 billion in 2010 to $595 billion in 2015, a
decline of nearly a quarter. Defense spending as a share of GDP fell from 4.7
percent to 3.3 percent, with the Congressional Budget Office projecting that
military outlays will fall to 2.6 percent by 2024—the lowest percentage since
before World War II.
The effects of this budgetary buzzsaw have been severe.
Readiness and modernization have suffered, and all the services are at or near
post-World War II lows in terms of end-strength. The U.S. military is now
significantly smaller than the 1990s-era Base Force, which was designed as
"a minimum force that constituted a floor below which the nation should not
go if it was to remain a globally engaged superpower."
This combination of increasing threats and decreasing
capabilities is having profound implications. For one thing, it ensures that
U.S. forces will face far harder fights should conflict occur, whether against
Iran, North Korea, Russia, or China. American forces might still win—albeit on
a longer timeline, and at an appalling cost in lives—but then again, they
might not. Reports by the RAND Corporation have cast doubt on whether NATO can
actually defend the Baltic states from a Russian assault, and if the United
States would prevail in a conflict with China over Taiwan. The prospects are
even worse should the United States have to fight or deter in several regions at
As the shadows cast by U.S. military power grow shorter,
American alliances are likely to be undermined, adversaries emboldened, and the
stability of the international order imperiled. The United States is rapidly
reaching the point of strategic insolvency, with all the resulting dangers.
So how should America respond? Great powers facing
strategic insolvency have three options. First, they can reduce their
commitments. For example, the United States could walk away from guarantees to
the Baltic states or Taiwan. But such retrenchment has historically worked best
when the overstretched hegemon can transfer its burdens to some friendly power.
Today, there is no liberal superpower waiting in the wings. The beneficiaries of
an American pullback would be precisely those hostile powers that U.S. strategy
seeks to constrain. Retrenchment is a recipe for aggression and instability.
Second, U.S. officials could simply live with greater risk.
They could gamble that the nation's enemies will not test vulnerable
commitments. But while hoping that exposed commitments won't be challenged might
work for a while, there is enormous risk that those guarantees will eventually
be tested and found wanting, with devastating effects on America's position and
credibility. Another possibility would be to employ riskier approaches—such as
nuclear escalation—to sustain commitments on the cheap. But relying more
heavily on nuclear weapons would hardly be credible. If Washington balked at
paying for the conventional forces needed to defend Taipei or Tallinn, would it
really fight a nuclear war on their behalf?
This leaves a final option—to dramatically increase
defense resources, bringing capabilities back into alignment with commitments.
This Reagan-like buildup would require permanently lifting the Budget Control
Act caps to provide increased resources and budgetary stability. It would
require not just procuring more existing capabilities, but also investing
aggressively in future capabilities. It would entail recapitalizing the
atrophying U.S. nuclear triad and investing in a "high-low" mix of
assets to enable effective operations against threats ranging from jihadists, to
rogue states, to great-power challengers. And crucially, greater resources must
be coupled with innovations in how to project power where it's needed.
Several recent proposals give a sense of this approach,
including the bipartisan National Defense Panel's report in 2014 and proposals
by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain and the American
Enterprise Institute. The McCain budget calls for $430 billion in new money over
five years, resulting in a defense budget of $800 billion by 2022; the AEI
proposal advocates a $1.3 trillion increase over 10 years.
How viable is this option? Critics offer three primary
objections. The first is that a major buildup is unaffordable. The second is
that this approach would simply spur arms races with American adversaries. The
third is that it would incentivize continued "free-riding" by U.S.
allies. None of these arguments is persuasive.
Although a multiyear buildup would be expensive, it would
hardly be unmanageable. Even the most aggressive buildup would push defense
spending only to 4 percent of GDP; the United States has supported far higher
defense burdens without compromising economic performance. Nor does defense
drive federal spending or deficits to the extent often imagined. Defense
consumes around 16 percent of federal spending; mandatory domestic entitlements
consume 49 percent. America's fiscal solvency will hinge on its ability to
control entitlement spending and generate greater revenues, not on whether it
spends 3 percent or 4 percent of GDP on defense.
It is also hard to see how increased U.S. defense spending
could trigger arms races with Russia or China, because these countries have
already been competing militarily with Washington for years. Finally, as for
free-riding, America has historically been most successful at securing increased
allied contributions when it, too, has been willing to do more for the common
A Reagan-style military buildup is therefore the best way
to reassure allies, deter adversaries, and stiffen the hard-power backbone of
the global order. "Peace through strength" is not a catchphrase; it is
good strategy. And though not cheap, the price is affordable for a wealthy
superpower that has benefited so much from its military primacy—and certainly
cheaper than the price of strategic insolvency.