President Biden has issued a flurry of executive orders since taking office, addressing issues ranging from immigration to the environment to public health.
And his $1.9 trillion stimulus package shows that he is willing to go big in addressing our most pressing domestic problems. But he has yet to take meaningful action on one critical issue: how best to realign America’s investments in national security with current realities. Press reports suggest that the administration’s first Pentagon budget may be a status quo document that maintains spending at roughly last year’s levels. That would be a mistake.
With deaths in the United States from the COVID-19 pandemic approaching half a million people – more than have died in all U.S. wars from World War I to the present – it’s long past time to rethink what constitutes security. Add to that the ravages of climate change and the wounds inflicted by racial and economic injustice, and it becomes clear that traditional military instruments are largely irrelevant to the greatest challenges we face.
At $740 billion per year, spending on the Pentagon and work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy is at one of its highest levels since World War II – far higher than at the peaks of the Korean and Vietnam wars or the Reagan buildup of the 1980s.
Spending such large amounts on the Pentagon has serious implications. The Pentagon budget consumes well over half of the federal discretionary budget. This imbalance in public investment severely constrains the amounts that can be devoted to environmental protection, public health, infrastructure, alternative energy and other underfunded needs. For a sustainable approach to security, it will be necessary to shift funds from the Pentagon to diplomacy and domestic rebuilding.
A Sensible Defense for Less
A new approach to defense can free up hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade. One blueprint for doing so is contained in the report of the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, a group comprised of former White House, Congressional, and Pentagon budget officials; retired military officers; and think tank experts from across the political spectrum, including myself. The task force’s report outlines $1.25 trillion in savings from projected Pentagon expenditures over the next decade by ending America’s endless wars and reducing the size of the armed forces accordingly, taking a more realistic view of the military challenges posed by China and Russia, leading with diplomacy in dealing with regional powers like Iran and North Korea, and scaling back the Pentagon’s massive nuclear modernization plans.
President Biden has pledged to end America’s “forever wars,” albeit with the caveat that he might leave a small contingent of counterterror advisors in some theaters of conflict. He should go a step further and pull all U.S. troops and military contractors out of Iraq and Afghanistan. He should also reduce the size of the U.S. military by at least 10%, with an emphasis on cutting the size of the Army and the Marines. This would be consistent with a strategy of avoiding large scale counterinsurgency and nation-building efforts of the kind that have been undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the Costs of War Project at Brown University has documented, America’s post-9/11 wars have cost over $6.4 trillion, and hundreds of thousands have died on all sides of the conflicts. A key lesson of the past 20 years should be that Iraq- and Afghanistan-style wars are immensely costly and counterproductive. There is no need to maintain large forces in preparation of future misadventures of this sort.
Many analysts and policy makers have suggested that any funds freed up from pulling back from America’s wars in the greater Middle East should be channeled towards addressing great power competition from Russia and China. But the challenge posed by China is more economic and political than military, and spending more on weapons and forces designed to confront Beijing is likely to diminish rather than enhance America’s ability to engage constructively in solving global security problems.
The United States spends over two and one-half times as much on its military as China does, and the margin grows substantially larger when U.S. allies in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Australia, India and Vietnam are factored in. And the deployed U.S. nuclear arsenal is over four times the size of China’s. There is no need to spend more to dissuade China from attacking the United States or its allies. A strategy that involves confronting China in its front yard is neither advisable nor affordable. The Biden administration is right to want to cooperate with allies in dealing with China, but cooperation should be centered in the diplomatic and economic spheres, not on the creation of an anti-China military bloc. As Sarang Shidore has noted in a recent issue brief for the Quincy Institute, ”Over-militarized U.S.-India relations could help push Asia closer to a paradigm of military blocs, frontline states, and zero-sum games, while also planting seeds for a nationalist backlash against the United States in South Asia as a whole.”
As for the prospects of a technological arms race between Washington and Beijing, the key question will be whether the U.S. can invest adequately in its civilian scientific and engineering base, not whether it throws more money at the Pentagon’s already massive research and development budget, which exceeds $100 billion per year. The greatest guard against Chinese preeminence is for America to get its act together at home, not to seek military predominance thousands of miles from its shores. The Biden administration made this very point in its interim national security strategy document: “The most effective way for America to out-compete a more assertive and authoritarian China over the long-term is to invest in our people, our economy, and our democracy.” It should budget accordingly.
Last but not least, a policy of cooperation rather than confrontation with China is essential for addressing life-threatening issues from preventing pandemics to curbing climate change to alleviating poverty and inequality on a global scale. The Biden administration should resist the pressures to enter into a new Cold War – or worse, an exorbitantly expensive arms race – with China, and focus instead on tackling common challenges that threaten the future of life on this planet.
Russia poses a different challenge than China does. Moscow relies as much or more on disinformation and political interference as it does on traditional military power, and to the extent that it does pose a military risk that risk should be primarily dealt with by America’s European allies, which collectively spend over three times as much on their militaries as Russia does. And as with China, there are areas, like nuclear arms control, where cooperation between Washington and Moscow will be essential to creating a safer world. The Biden administration’s decision to extend the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty is a good first step.
As for major regional challenges, the Biden administration should apply its pledge to pursue “diplomacy first.” It should re-enter the Iran nuclear deal as quickly as possible, as a prelude to moving towards a normalization of ties with Tehran. And the administration should seek a formal peace agreement on the Korean Peninsula, as called for by Korea Peace Now!. This “peace-first” approach would provide an essential measure of reassurance that could open the way to constructive negotiations for reductions in North Korea’s nuclear forces.
Finally, the Biden administration should dramatically scale back the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization plan, which would build a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles — along with new nuclear warheads to go with them — at a cost of up to $2 trillion over the next three decades. The new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), known officially as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), is of particular concern. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has described them as “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world’” because the president would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them on warning of attack, increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm. The organization Global Zero has crafted an alternative, “deterrence only” nuclear posture that would eliminate ICBMs and rely on a force composed of ballistic missile submarines and nuclear bombers, as a first step towards further reductions. The Biden administration should cancel the new ICBM and explore ways to protect the United States with a smaller arsenal along the lines proposed by Global Zero. These changes can and should be a step towards the ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether.
The Biden administration’s first Pentagon budget proposal is now slated to come out in early May. Rather than sticking with current levels of spending, the administration should craft a plan that reduces the Pentagon budget while freeing up funds for investment in other security priorities. Doing so would mark an important first step towards revising America’s approach to security and allocating resources accordingly.