The debate about defense spending will likely reignite this month. Unfortunately, much of that debate will not be very helpful or informative.
The debate about defense spending will likely reignite this month as Congress returns from recess and the end of the fiscal year draws near. Unfortunately, much of that debate will not be very helpful or informative.
Instead of arguing the merits of a particular military spending level, much of the debate will revolve around Democratic opposition to increasing defense spending without proportional increases to non-defense spending. The usual arguments for cutting defense spending will likely pop up as well. But what’s really needed is a more thoughtful debate. Once you get beyond the talking points and the political agendas, what should the United States spend on defense?
The ideal defense budget debate
Determining what the United States (or any country) should spend on national defense is much easier in theory than in reality. But let’s start with the theory.
The first step is determining the vital interests of the United States. What must we, as a country, protect? Almost everyone would agree that we must protect America and our citizens from attacks by terrorists or nation-states. But beyond protecting the homeland and its people, it gets more complicated. Should the United States protect its allies? International commerce and the commons in and on which this commerce happens? The human rights of individuals in other countries? These are the types of questions that need to be answered in order to determine the vital interests of the United States.
The next step is figuring out what threatens these vital interests. Some of these threats are obvious, such as nuclear war and terrorist attacks. Some threats seem to be growing, such as Russia’s aggressive actions and China’s cyber attacks. The goal should be a clear-eyed analysis of what truly threatens our vital interests today and what may threaten those interests in the future.
The third step is figuring out how to protect America’s vital interests from both the threats of today and those of the future. This will likely include elements of hard power (i.e., the military) and soft power (i.e., diplomacy, alliances, trade) used in concert to deter or, if necessary, defeat the threats. This should produce a cohesive strategy for protecting America’s vital interests. While outlining a full strategy is too large a task for this article, the most recent National Defense Panel report is a good bipartisan example that assesses vital interests and threats and then outlines a strategy.