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America Can’t Fight Authoritarianism on the Cheap

Peace is worth the investment.
February 10, 2022
America Can’t Fight Authoritarianism on the Cheap

Last week, the Biden administration announced the deployment of 3,000 American troops to NATO’s eastern flank. This move, while completely reasonable and even commendable given the threat of imminent war in Eastern Europe, raises larger questions about how the United States plans to defend all of its interests and allies around the world on the cheap. One of the reasons President Biden has sought a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia, and has been hesitant to respond to Russia’s destabilizing unpredictability, is that the United States doesn’t have the resources to confront both Russia and China at the same time. Yet, that’s exactly what it has to do.

Since the United States decided not to try to isolate itself after World War II, it has done well by doing good. The current international system, which has seen the greatest period of peace and prosperity in history, has benefited the world, but America most of all. Preserving this international order is the primary American interest. Yet, very few American policymakers are willing to invest adequately in preserving peace, leaving the U.S. military unequipped for its primary mission.

Russia, China, and Iran are all locally superior forces to the United States in terms of the number of troops, military vehicles, and weapons—and too often in terms of equipment quality and readiness, too. Russia and China are building more nuclear weapons, and Iran races closer to joining the nuclear club. Yet the United States wishes to ignore this reality. America’s adversaries are mastering the art of irregular warfare, while the United States is developing neither offensive nor defensive capabilities. Meanwhile, to quote President Biden, the threat of terrorism is “metastasizing.”

The problem has been growing for years. In the 2010s, Congress abdicated its responsibility to fund the military adequately. Because of virtue-signaling about the deficit, the military lost a trillion dollars in funding over a span of ten years. Government shutdowns, budget uncertainties, and outright cuts—remember the years of “sequestration”?—weakened the force, reduced readiness, and delayed the delivery of important weapons. Worse, congressional Republicans are now dragging the military into the culture war, making recruitment more difficult.

Of course, Congress wasn’t alone in its fiscal irresponsibility. Three successive administrations—Bush, Obama, and Trump—contributed to the problem with tax cuts not sufficiently offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. The retirement of the Baby Boom generation, which is squeezing Medicare and Social Security, and the Biden administration’s money-grows-on-trees fiscal policy are putting enormous strain on the budget.

Meanwhile, expectations we have of the military remain unchanged.

Just how far is the U.S. military from being able to meet all of its goals? In 2018, a bipartisan congressional commission, co-chaired by former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman and former Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead, found that even the Trump administration’s modest National Defense Strategy was too ambitious given the United States’ capabilities. (Among the members of the commission were Kathleen Hicks, now the deputy secretary of defense, and Michael McCord, now the comptroller of the Department of Defense.)

The commission found that “by 2017, all of the military services were at or near post-World War II lows in terms of end-strength, and all were confronting severe readiness crises and enormous deferred modernization costs.” In the mid-2010s, the Army and the Navy were at their weakest overall strength since before World War II, and the Air Force was the smallest in terms of planes and personnel it had ever been. These shortfalls, the report warned, could lead to a “decisive” military defeat by Russia in the Baltics or China over Taiwan—or both.

To make up the military gap, the commissioners recommended a gradual reorganization of the Department of Defense to make it more effective; growing the Navy by expanding its fleet of submarines and long-range aircraft and by enhancing its sealift capabilities; increasing the Air Force’s roster of stealthy, long-range fighters and bombers, tankers, and cargo planes, and “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms” to “project power across the Pacific,” and other similar reforms. In short: The military needs to keep up with America’s peers and our policymakers’ demands.

It was not a change of human nature that has preserved the postwar peace; it was a change of U.S. policy. Now the enemies of peace are remilitarizing. And the United States has little influence over their decisions. But we have a lot of influence over ours, and we have decided to let our military become a rusting hulk. It is irresponsible to ask the military to keep doing the impossible. So America must make a choice.

Apart from wingnuts and ghouls on the far-left and far-right, most of both parties in America—or at least in Congress—appear ready to support the Ukrainians against Russian aggression. No doubt, as the Biden administration competes with Republicans over hawkishness toward China, the majority of both parties would support Taiwan against a threatened Chinese invasion as well. But they must realize that they can’t realistically do both at the same time—there simply aren’t the resources available.

American policymakers ought to decide whether they want America to be a regional power or a global power. If being a regional power is the objective, then America must choose a destiny as either an Atlantic power or a Pacific power and forsake the other hemisphere. Such a strategy is likely doomed to fail because of geography, history, economics, globalization, and America’s immigrant heritage which demands tending to all corners of the world.

The other option is to invest again in being a global power.

The good news is that the United States has the economic capacity to reclaim its place as the uncontested, dominant military power. Current defense spending is 3.8 percent of GDP, lower than any point of the Cold War, when America faced only one adversary. As recently as 1980, in President Jimmy Carter’s last year in office, the United States spent 6.5 percent of GDP on defense. And under Obama the figure reached 5.5 percent.

The bad news is that, while the United States wants to be a global power, it seems to lack the political will to invest in this objective, in which case the American defense of Ukraine, the Biden administration’s bolstering of NATO, and the bipartisan urge to confront China are all just hollow pretensions.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.