Will America’s budget deficit bring an end to world peace?

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Did you know that the U.S. still stations nearly 50,000 troops in Japan? That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. The war in the Pacific ended 66 years ago, and there hasn’t been a conflict in Northeast Asia since the Korean War of the early 1950s, but America still maintains a hefty military presence in the area. Another bunch of soldiers are parked nearby in South Korea. Why in the world are all those soldiers still there?

They’re keeping the peace.

Not everybody may agree with me on that assertion. I can’t imagine Kim Jong Il is too happy that tens of thousands of armed Americans are sitting on his doorstep. But most of the leadership of Asia fully realizes that the U.S. military presence in the region has, without question, provided a stability rarely experienced. The traditional rivalries between local powers (China, Japan and Korea) have been kept at bay. American security allowed Japan, South Korea and most of the rest of the region (including China) to focus on economic development and alleviating poverty. It is because America ensured peace in East Asia that Asians have been able to get rich.

People all over the world have benefited in a similar way. American security for Western Europe during the Cold War allowed the region to rebuild after World War II. The American security relationship with Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf has helped oil to flow peacefully to the world. Year after year, it is American armed forces that most often take the lead in resolving the world’s security issues, whether that has meant stopping genocide in the Balkans or hunting down Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Sure, America’s military dominance has produced a fair share of hostility, in Iran, Libya and other countries that have refused to join the U.S.-led global political and security system. And of course the U.S. has made its share of blunders when flexing its military muscle (Iraq). But the fact is that the world expects America to use its armed forces to solve the world’s problems. When Washington takes a backseat and lets others drive for a while – as in the current conflict in Libya – the White House faces stiff criticism.

But as the debate in Washington rages over how to close the budget deficit and control rising government debt, I’ve started wondering how long the U.S. can afford to play the role of global security officer. And if the U.S. doesn’t, who will?

I began thinking about this issue upon reading President Barack Obama’s recent speech announcing the reduction of troops stationed in Afghanistan. This passage especially struck me:

We are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens here at home.  Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times.  Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource –- our people.  We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industries, while living within our means.  We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy… America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.

Now I’m far from an isolationist – I’ve spent the past 15 years stationed in Asia – but it’s hard to argue with Obama’s reasoning. Why should we be spending so much fighting the Taliban in far-off Central Asia when schools are closing due to lack of funds at home? Shouldn’t we define our national security in a broader context – as not just the strength of our tanks and missiles, but the strength of our economy and education system? As Obama points out, the foundation of American power has been its economy. If American economic power isn’t sustained, how can the country sustain its military power? And if the nation’s deficit and debt is such a concern, then how can we justify humungous outlays to the military? Defense and security account for about 20% of federal spending, and by some estimates, the American military budget represents more than 40% of total global military spending. If the U.S. is to tackle its national financial mess in a serious way, it’s hard to imagine Washington can avoid taking a knife to the military budget. How deep the cuts might be will depend on how Washington ends up setting its spending priorities and tax levels. But it seems impossible that the armed forces won’t face a bit of austerity like everything else. (Nor shouldn’t they.)

Yet the consequences of that are potentially frightening. There is simply no one else who can step into America’s military boots. The Europeans? They’re wrapped up with their own financial problems. The United Nations? That organization lacks the legitmacy, the funds, and the ability to make clear policy decisions. China? You’ve got to be kidding. Beijing is too busy pursuing an irresponsible foreign policy focused solely on its own narrowly defined interests. How else can you explain China’s continued support for regimes like North Korea. Burma and Sudan? Ayaan Hirsi Ali of the American Enterprise Institute noted in a recent comment in The Financial Times that any sign of American withdrawal from its role as international peacekeeper, such as Obama’s policy shift in Afghanistan, can have dire consequences for global security:

From the Taliban’s perspective, the withdrawal is a sign of US weakness and their impending victory. Not only the Taliban will see it this way: Iran’s and Syria’s regimes and the malignant units in the Pakistani military and secret service see a weak America that roars but retreats when the going gets tough. The short-term benefits of abandoning counter-insurgency may be politically appealing. The long-term costs may be greater than Mr Obama anticipates.

That’s why much of the world’s leadership doesn’t want to see the U.S. withdraw from its global military role. Look at how Australia is solidifying its strategic alliance with Washington even as China becomes a major source of economic growth for the country. And take note of how old enemy Vietnam is cozying up to the U.S. for support in its dispute with China over claims in the South China Sea. The world doesn’t want the U.S. to scale back militarily, because the world realizes there is no current alternative to American power.

Yet is that fair? A super-dominant role for the U.S. may have made sense in the years after World War II, when much of the rest of the free world was poor or rebuilding. But now there is much greater economic balance. Why shouldn’t the global community better share the costs and responsibilities of maintaining global security? Why should it be America that continues to sacrifice its treasure – both in terms of money and, more importantly, lives – while other countries benefit from those sacrifices without contributing anything in return? These questions are especially relevent as global economic competition heats up. With the rise of China, India and other emerging economies, the U.S. must fight to maintain its economic advantage like never before. Why should the U.S. spend money for troops in Japan that could be used to make the nation more competitive? China, India and other rising powers are focused strengthening their economic competitiveness – why should the U.S. not do the same?

We also have to ask what impact a withdrawal of American military power would mean for the global economy. The world has prospered more than at any other point in its history under the security umbrella extended by the U.S. since the end of World War II. Holes in that umbrella could lead to increased uncertainty and instability – two things investors and businessmen don’t care much. It is impossible to separate security from prosperity – just ask the poor people of Yemen, whose economic fortunes have vanished amid the nation’s political upheaval. What if we witnessed the same on a global scale?

My sense is that the world’s political leaders have not yet wrapped their minds the global consequences of an America in financial trouble. America, as I’ve noted earlier, plays a unique role in the global economy that makes its debt problem very different than other nations’. The same is true in regard to global security. Many people around the world like to complain about an “imperialist” America with its intrusive, overbearing military machine. They might find themselves complaining a lot more when that machine starts to run out of gas.