For most of our history, the United States had very few national interests to which it needed to assert military power outside of the Western Hemisphere. This was because the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans acted as a barrier to any real threat from an aggressive power, and our other major national interests were largely taken care of by the United Kingdom. For example, we had a vital national interest in freedom of navigation on the high seas, but the British Navy largely took care of that problem for us. As a result of this narrow view of our national interests, our military was quite small over most of our history. It was only when we began to build up our Navy in the late 19th Century that we were first capable of asserting power globally. Even after World War I, our military forces were tiny, and with the exception of protecting the Philippines, Hawaii and other territories, we really had no interests that required the assertion of our military power globally.
World War II and the Cold War changed everything. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, our allies like the United Kingdom were no longer capable of defending Western Europe, much less protecting freedom of navigation. The United States decided the fill the vacuum, and as a result, we defined our interests globally.
The defense budget that we have now is based on the construct that our interests are global. It assumes that we have vital national interests in peace and stability in Europe and Asia, in freedom of navigation worldwide, in access to important oil resources in the Middle East, and in the effective deterrence of an attack within our borders. With the rise of global terrorism, we also have an interest in defeating terrorist non-state actors before they can attack the United States, which has lead to the assertion of military power in Africa as well. This view of our national interest is also embodied in our multinational alliance in Europe (NATO) and a series of bilateral alliances in Asia (with, among others, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines).
To a significant degree, our defense budgets have been driven by this transformation of the view we have of our national interest. Of course, other factors to be discussed in later posts have also come into play (such as the end of the Cold War and the decline in Russian military power driving down defense spending), but the real driver has been our view of our national interest.
So the first critical decision is whether the post-World War II national defense establishment view of our national interest still makes sense. Do we continue to have a vital national interest in peace and stability in Europe and Asia? Given our reduced reliance on oil from the Middle East, does it remain a vital national interest. And in both Europe and Asia, should we expect our allies to pick up more of the burden? The decisions on each of these questions will dramatically affect defense spending. For example, if we no longer have an interest in defending the Middle East, we could eliminate several expensive bases in the region and would no longer need to take possible aggressive action by Iran into account in sizing our force.
My own view is that while we should expect our European allies to assume more of the burden of defense, the current national interest construct largely gets it right. The United States and the world have benefited greatly from this construct and the assertion of U.S. power based on this construct. After centuries of conflict in both Asia and Europe, both regions have been remarkably peaceful and prosperous for the last 70 years. This has greatly benefited both the average American and those who live in the region. The low level of military spending by our allies (and most non-allies) in Asia and Europe reflects a decision that U.S. power has been a positive force in these regions.
While U.S. dependence on the Middle East is significantly less than in years past, this is not true of our allies--notably Japan. Moreover, the Middle East is central to our fight against the non-state actors that threaten our country. Finally, there are unique factors in Asia that merit caution before we disengage. It is no accident that our alliances in Asia are all bilateral and not multi-national. this is because our major Asian allies are deeply distrustful of each other. To say that South Korea and Japan do not trust each other would be an understatement. If we disengage in Asia, the resulting build-up by our allies could well cause conflict between them.
To be clear, we have made bone-headed decisions about the exercise of our power under this construct (our decision to get so deep in the Vietnam conflict and our decision to invade Iraq being the most obvious examples), but the broader decision about our national interests seems correct--at least to me.
Clearly, my view on the proper view of our national interest is subject to challenge. The important point is that determining the proper construct is the critical first step to determining the size and shape of our defense budget.
Defense Spending 101, Part 1: Don't Get Distracted By the Wrong Numbers
Defense Spending 101, Part 3: Evaluating the Threat
Defense Spending 101, Part 4: Sizing the Force to Meet the Threat