The question of whether or not America should be spending more now on defense than it was during the height of the Cold War seems silly when asked, but then what explains America’s massive defense budget? A policy of providing security for wealthy nations that could secure themselves has left America spending more on defense today than it was during the period when it was attempting to contain another global super power. Charles Peña, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, writes at The American Conservative that it’s time for America to defend America, not the world.
The Pentagon’s fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget request is $639.1 billion—$574.5 billion in base funding plus another $64.6 billion for overseas contingency operations, i.e., the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. That represents a $52.4 billion (9 percent) increase over FY 2017. Yet some lawmakers—such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX)—think we should spend even more. The problem is that their position depends on accepting our current strategy, which is a relic of the Cold War, not a forward-looking strategic vision for 21st century challenges.
The world has changed, and U.S. strategy must change with it if we want to maintain our position. We must ask difficult questions about the utility of permanent alliances that force U.S. armed forces and taxpayers to provide security for wealthy allies, rather than building partners that are capable of helping us achieve our shared interests.
In a changing world, we no longer need to be the world’s policeman (nor can we afford this wasteful, expansive enterprise). Where challenges arise, we should leverage our wealthy allies to take up the burdens we once had to shoulder during the Cold War—taking primary responsibility for policing their own regions in the world.
That does not mean we would abandon our allies. But instead of being a first responder, we should be a balancer-of-last-resort and respond only when our allies are unable to contain crises that spill over and becomes a direct threat to U.S. national security—defined as defending the American homeland, its citizens, our prosperity, and our way of life.
If we set defense priorities based on those criteria, we can align defense spending commensurate to the actual task of securing the United States, not the globe. Certainly, that would not cost more than what it took to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
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