With the predictable failure of the of the budget super-committee comes the blunt ax of sequestration, which is likely the only time the military budget will ever be threatened with cuts. Such will never happen, of course, but the cries of putting our national security at risk are already flying, mostly from Republicans, but also from Democrats, since no politician wants to be accused of being soft on defense. The military has naturally also chimed in, and who is a more impartial judge of the nation’s security needs?
Some figures on just how big our military is. In 2010 we spent $687 to $698 billion (an exact total is not available to mere mortals) on the military, which is more than the next 17 nations combined and about 43% of the total world expenditure. The next largest budget, that of China, is 7.3% of the world total. Our expenditure was in 2009 4.7% of GNP; only five countries – Saudi Arabia, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Eretria – exceed that and for obvious reasons. Only the UAE, with a population of only 8 million, exceeds us in per capita spending; in 2009 our military cost every man, woman and child in America $2141. One specific and particularly relevant example: though our battle fleet has indeed shrunk in the last 20 years, it is still larger than the next 13 navies combined – and 11 of those are our allies.
The stated justification for this mammoth spending on arms are all the threats to our national security, but apart from sundry individuals, who are hardly any threat to the nation (see the article The Terrorist Nuisance), exactly who poses a serious threat to our motherland? Only an advanced nuclear power could possible threaten our shores, and there are only two who are not our allies, Russia and China, and neither is likely to attack the US in the face of total devastation. The truly dangerous nuclear states, North Korea, Pakistan, Israel and perhaps Iran, may threaten their neighbors, but for the foreseeable future they simply cannot deliver warheads to North America.
Of course a regional power could threaten to disrupt our supply of resources, but there is really only one that is absolutely vital to our welfare, oil, and it is hard to image that even Iran, unless pushed to the brink, could possibly be stupid enough to launch a war in the Gulf. Rolling in money, the Gulf states are already armed to the teeth with modern weaponry, and given the rapidly declining need of large ground forces to repel an invasion, how many carrier groups would it take to smash Iran? A nuclear equipped Iran is a different story, but the real powers in that country, the Supreme Council and the Revolutionary Guard, have, unlike Ahmadinejad, not demonstrated the complete irrationality necessary to contemplate an action that would bring absolutely no benefit to Iran and lead to massive retaliation from virtually all the developed nations dependent on Gulf oil.
We want to protect our friends, but how many of them need protecting?
Europe? Japan? Canada? Australia? Mexico? The Philippines do not want us there any more and are making their own arrangements with the other offshore Asian powers. Taiwan and China are forging more and more economic ties, and China’s economic relationship with the US makes it increasingly unlikely she will do anything that would seriously offend her most important market. China is seeking to increase her influence in Southeast Asia, but the only thing that threatens is American influence in the area. Possessing nuclear weapons and the most powerful military (after Turkey?) in the region, Israel hardly needs American help, and given her behavior, one wonders how much of a friend she would be were it not for her seeming stranglehold on American politicians. The one serious friend who is actually threatened is South Korea, and while an invasion from the north would result in immediate and extensive casualties, North Korea could be rapidly and utterly defeated by the South Koreans and minimal US forces. And if the military is the real power in Pyongyang, would they sacrifice themselves for nothing? Further, China, which ultimately controls the food and energy supply of her socialist ally, has absolutely no desire to see even temporary chaos in the Korean peninsula. They also can hardly be enthusiastic about the emergence of a seriously nuclear North Korea, since that could bring on the nightmare of a nuclear South Korea and Japan.
Not many military leaders, especially those who are quasi-political, have ever supported cutting their budget and reducing their forces, the major reason why threat assessments emanating from the Pentagon must be consumed with a boulder of salt. For American politicians, who are achieving unheard of levels of self-serving behavior, reducing the military is virtually unthinkable, since they would suffer the wrath of sundry powerful lobbies and blocs of ignorant voters whipped up by their opponents. After 60 years of having the most powerful military in the world and 20 years of virtual hegemony around the planet many Americans see any cut back in “defense” as a sign of surrender and decline.
We are no longer in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, and not only territorial but also military-based hegemonic empires are obsolete. Gunboat diplomacy only works when the threat of military intervention is real, and although world opinion and international law did not stop the US in places like Grenada, Panama and Iraq, it is clear that military operations of any scale are incredibly expensive and self-defeating in the long run. And against the backdrop of American arrogance, disregard for international law, increasing violation of other nations’ sovereignty and traditional inclination towards violence rather than diplomacy, our 13 carrier groups certainly appear to be the twenty-first century equivalent of gunboats.
Finally, not only is large-scale warfare rapidly becoming prohibitively expensive but with the emergence of a globalized economy it has also become counterproductive for the developed nations. Whatever their rhetoric or ideologies, they are all now inextricably bound together in a world capitalist web in which the economic misfortunes of one will inevitably affect the others. At least in the industrialized world less and less does national security depend on huge military establishments and more and more on sound economies, which are ill-served by wasting treasure on weapons systems with no opponents and wars resulting in nothing but dead human beings. Large scale violence must only be contemplated when there truly is no alternative, and given the increasing interconnectedness of the planet, there will almost always be an better alternative.
Then again, it is cool to be the baddest dude on the earth, even though that might be at the expense of everything else. Ask the Spartans how that worked out.