A consistent theme of those who seek to cut the federal budget is that the government should begin using “zero-based budgeting,” in other words, starting each new budget year from zero. How much should be spent on food stamps, or sugar subsidies, or the military? Who knows, make your argument.
For reasons that should be obvious, bureaucracies have not taken to the idea, and as a political matter, the idea has gone nowhere. On foreign policy, though, there’s a very strong case to be made that policymakers need to be forced to start from zero in order to evaluate what matters and how much.
Consider: The world of 2018 is radically different from 1980, but America’s alliance structure has changed only by expanding. All of the partners deemed vital to containing the Soviet Union are now just as vital for…something. Talk of turning NATO into a European security cooperative is viewed as fanaticism. It shouldn’t be.
One can see the power of sheer inertia in the Trump administration’s unwillingness to so much as slap Riyadh on the wrist for murdering a journalist and chopping his body up with a bone saw, to say nothing of the ruinous and barbaric war the Saudis are fighting in Yemen. According to the downright embarrassing statement Trump released on “Standing with Saudi Arabia,” we can’t push the Saudis, because
Saudi Arabia [has] been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.
This gets things obviously, egregiously backwards. The Saudis need the United States, desperately, in their regional political struggle against Iran. If Washington chose simply to wash its hands of the matter entirely, it is likely that things would get much worse for Saudi Arabia, but they likely would not get any worse for the United States. Moreover, a host of salutary consequences—not being a party to deranged and barbaric Saudi policies, not having to divert U.S. resources to provide a security blanket for Riyadh, not tying ourselves in knots to avoid the Kingdom’s obvious and longstanding support for terrorism. The United States would be better off without a close partnership with Saudi Arabia.
Or at the very least the point should be arguable. But a big part of the reason it’s not arguable is because it takes a major disruption—bigger than the collapse of the Soviet Union—to fundamentally reorient U.S. strategy.
One example of the bureaucratic log-rolling that prevents change is the practice of keeping the defense budget allocation among the Army, Navy, and Air Force more or less fixed in a “golden ratio.”
The outcome is perverse: When defense policymakers were telling us that large-scale multi-theater counterinsurgencies over several decades was the future, they did not argue that the Air Force budget should cough up some of the money to pay for it. China hawks today don’t point out that the Army would have almost nothing to do with deterring or defeating the PRC. As long as each service’s share of the pie stays fixed, all of the services have an interest in inflating every threat, and none of them has an interest in deflating any threat.
There are some initiatives focused on trying to foster new thinking that would at least allow for a significant break from the past. My old boss Chris Preble pulled together an impressive roster of experts from across the ideological spectrum to call on Congress to do a new round of BRAC. One hears regularly about the need for a new Project Solarium in Washington. Someone should actually fund one.
But in the end, power stops expanding when it bumps into something. The only candidates for that role, in my view, would be either economic collapse or China, and the prospect of bumping into either of those limits is terrifying. So in all likelihood we will continue limping along with a strategy borne of inertia and impervious to critical analysis.