The modern international system was created by Europe and, for the last 65 years, has been largely maintained by the United States with help from allies across the globe. Now, as both the United States and Europe face their worst financial crises in post-war history they are looking for ways to reduce excess government expenditures. Defense obviously comes to mind. Europe is today spending a paltry average of 1.6 percent of GDP on defense. As a consequence, our NATO allies were unable to conduct the air operation against Libya without significant U.S. assistance. So Europe cannot afford to spend less on defense but will surely try, given the Euro crisis.
At first blush it would appear eminently sensible for the United States to reduce its defense spending too. This country spends as much on defense as the next dozen nations combined and most of them are our allies. Washington spends more than twice as much as Europe. It is facing economic difficulties almost as bad as that of Europe. In terms of fairness, it is time for those we have guarded so assiduously for decades to take up their own shields and swords or suffer the consequences.
But it is precisely this last point that makes it imperative that the United States not gut its defense capabilities at this time. For there will be consequences and not just for our allies. Europe is played out as a world power; it may soon not even be able to protect itself. Together, the economies of Europe and the United States account for half the entire world GDP and for nearly a third of world trade flows. What threatens Europe also threatens us.
Beyond Europe, U.S. interests and allies reside largely in two unstable regions of the world: the Middle East and East Asia. The United States alone is capable of maintaining peace through deterrence of aggression and a balance of military power. Reduce the U.S. military and Washington may have to choose between seeing the flow of Middle East oil interrupted or our exchange of goods with Asia vanish.
Do the math. The United States today conducts over $4 trillion a year in international trade of both goods and services or $40 trillion over ten years. The Obama Administration proposes to reduce defense spending by some $450 billion over the next decade. In effect, we are talking about an insurance policy that amounts to one percent of the potential cost in the event of the collapse of the international system. That is cheap.
If the United States takes down its military, the world will be left to the tender mercies of two kinds of nations. The first kind is those nations that while they may not be militarily robust will see a U.S./European decline as the chance to settle old scores. The second kind is those that would pursue regional hegemony based on a combination of ancient history and modern economic and military power. In neither case would U.S. interests be well-served by those nations achieving even local dominance.
The United States does not maintain the world’s most powerful armed forces simply from the love of military bands or a desire to waste scarce resources. It does so because this nation’s well-being depends on a stable world order. For now, the United States alone is capable of sustaining that order. The price for global stability is truly incalculable.
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