With what former defense secretary Robert Gates termed a “gargantuan, labyrinthine bureaucracy” in the Pentagon, manufacturers and subcontractors for each weapons system carefully distributed across congressional districts and backed by aggressive lobbyists, members of Congress determined to protect constituents’ jobs, and military leaders loyal to the weapons systems they trained on and commanded, it is no surprise that the defense establishment has become extravagant, wasteful, and less agile, innovative, and forward-looking than it should be.
The last ingredient in this political mix is, of course, the White House. After last year’s budget deal, Trump captured the unfortunate national mood when he tweeted, “We love and need our Military and gave them everything—and more.” This year, defending his failure to serve in Vietnam, he boasted that with his $750 billion budget, “I think I make up for that right now…. I think I’m making up for it rapidly.” Trump is not the first president to want to leave his mark on something new and bigger for defense spending. As in everything else, he is simply the least interested in the substance of his policies and the most transparently self-serving.
If the United States faced acute threats, allocating 60 percent of the government’s unrestricted funds to defense might be necessary. We do not, but we still spend more on defense than the next eight largest spenders combined—China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, Britain, Germany, and Japan—and four of those countries are treaty allies. The disproportion has held for decades.
If threats do not justify this level of military commitment, what does explain it? Is it our choice to pursue a position of global leadership based on military strength, which has ensured the security of numerous friends and allies and created and sustained a peaceful world order since the end of World War II? This is much harder to judge. Administrations produce a National Security Strategy, a National Defense Strategy, and a National Military Strategy. They all say that conditions are dangerous, volatile, disorderly, unpredictable, and generally getting worse. Most recently, they cite the return of great power threats from Russia and China. Much of this is true. But a strategy is a means to reach a goal, and what none of these documents does—what the country as a whole hasn’t done—is to reset its goals for a profoundly altered world.
Five profound transformations, each nearly revolutionary in scope, have been packed into the short thirty years since the end of the cold war: globalization, the war on terror, the advent of digital technology, China’s growth explosion, and the emergence of populism and the weakening of democracy worldwide. Taken together, they have reshaped the world that America faces. Yet until the Trump administration, US foreign policy changed little from the goals and practices it followed for the previous seventy years. The past two years have certainly introduced change, but nothing remotely like a coherent approach to new conditions.
Economically, politically, and militarily, globalization and digital technologies make national security within fixed borders harder to achieve and to maintain. The world that lies ahead of us is unequivocally one in which more and more of the greatest challenges—cyber regulation, arms control, nonproliferation, financial stability and trade, climate change, health and the environment, crime and the rule of law—can only be dealt with multilaterally. Yet since the end of the cold war, the US has rejected most of the international agreements the rest of the world has approved, including the Law of the Sea Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Antipersonnel Landmine Ban, and the International Criminal Court. It has refused to ratify treaties protecting genetic resources, restricting trade in conventional arms, banning cluster bombs, and protecting persons with disabilities. In just two years under President Trump, it has rejected the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and withdrawn from the Paris Accord on climate, the INF Treaty on intermediate-range missiles, the UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO, the Iran nuclear deal, and NAFTA (which was renegotiated).
During this nearly thirty years of sweeping diplomatic withdrawal, America has been engaged in conflict for all but a few months. It has undertaken nine large-scale military actions, including three of the five major wars it has fought since 1945. Of these, the brief Gulf War of 1990–1991 was a clear success. The war of choice in Iraq was a catastrophic mistake. The now eighteen-year-long war in Afghanistan will almost certainly end in failure—if we can ever bring ourselves to let it end. Afghanistan is the longest war in American history and, with Iraq, the most expensive (in real dollars). We have spent more on reconstruction there than we did on the Marshall Plan (again, in inflation-adjusted dollars), with almost nothing to show for it.
It has become increasingly clear that the largely intrastate conflicts in which the US has embroiled itself, fighting small groups of shifting, local opponents rather than national armies, have not been the kind of conventional interstate wars for which its weapons systems and doctrine were designed. Every approach the US has tried—regime change, nation-building, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, redlines, responsibility to protect—alone or in concert with others, has failed to achieve the desired results.
Part of the reason is that during this period, administrations of both political parties have allowed support for the government’s diplomatic arm—the State Department, the Foreign Service, and USAID—to wither to the point that long-standing weaknesses have become serious underperformance. The problems lie both in lack of respect for the function and in inadequate funding. The tools of diplomacy—negotiation, international cooperation, the creation and nurturing of institutions, and the making of international law—have been disparaged as too slow and too ineffective. Unqualified campaign contributors are appointed to important diplomatic posts. Congress responds to the problems it sees by cutting budgets further, creating more problems. The lack of resources often means that the military is called on to carry out humanitarian and governance tasks for which it is not well suited, because that’s where the money and manpower are.
For many years, the United States has increasingly relied on military strength to achieve its foreign policy aims. In doing so, it has paid too little heed to the issues that military power cannot solve, to the need for diplomatic capabilities at least as strong as military ones and, in particular, to the necessity of multilateral problem-solving—as slow and frustrating as it often is—to address current threats. Sadly, it took a rash and unbelievably unwise decision by the president to throw away the Iran nuclear deal for members of Congress and the public to begin to appreciate what tough, patient diplomacy can achieve.
We are now at the point of allocating too large a portion of the federal budget to defense as compared to domestic needs, tolerating too much spending that doesn’t buy useful capability, accumulating too much federal debt, and yet not acquiring a forward-looking, twenty-first-century military built around new cyber and space technologies. We have become complacent and strategically flabby about adapting to a profoundly altered world. Major change will require a quality of leadership we haven’t seen in a long time, from men and women in the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon who are respected for their knowledge and national security experience and who are willing to pay a political price for what must be done. Even then the process will be tough, slow, and painful, but it is surely overdue.
—June 19, 2019, The New York Review of Books
Jessica Mathews was President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She served in the State Department and on the National Security Council staff in the White House