The Defense Spending Meme That Needs to Die
There a thousand reasons why Democratic presidential frontrunner Bernie Sanders should never be within 1,000 miles of the White House. Most of those are economic or social proposals that greatly expand the power of the federal government, but a Monday tweet by the Vermont senator showed why he should never, ever be commander-in-chief.
This talking point is not original. It’s shared everywhere from college classrooms to lefty politicians and commentators to righty libertarian types. But, simple-minded talking points often get us into trouble and this one is no different. There are at least three major problems here.
The first two and quite simple. First, Sanders is just assuming that countries like Russia and China are being honest in their reporting, so many reports could simply be experts’ best guesses. Second, while Sanders translated the numbers into U.S. dollars, it does not show what one USD can buy you as opposed to what you can buy for one Russian Ruble.
But that aside the biggest problem with Sanders’ argument is that completely misses the point. The proper amount of money to spend on the military is dictated by the country’s national security needs. Not by how much it spends relative to others.
Take Brazil as an example. Brazil does not to spend great amounts of money on its military because the country does not have any considerable threats. If Venezuela was to ever do something stupid, fellow South American countries and maybe even the United States would come to its rescue if that was even needed.
Or take Italy as another. Italy is a U.S. ally so the we spend money not just to defend ourselves, but to defend Italy as well because we believe that the two are one in the same. But while Washington and Rome have sworn to defend each other, their roles in the alliance are very different.
The U.S. is the global power, Italy is the middle-of-the-road Mediterranean power. Washington keeps the sea lanes open and contributes most of the troops to various missions. Rome supports and contributes to some of those missions, but for obvious reasons, can never take the lead role.
The same is true for other U.S. allies on that list. Even Britain and France, which maintain, or at least try to maintain, blue water navies, cannot commit to large land, naval, or air deployments to the Pacific.
The reason why the U.S. spends and needs to spend greater amounts of money on defense is because the U.S. faces threats to several of it vital interests in multiple theaters.
The Chinese have been greatly expanding their navy and the U.S. has been slow to respond. The Chinese navy is perhaps the greatest conventional threat to U.S. interests and influence in the world today.
China does not need to sink U.S. ships, it just needs to out-build us then use its superiority to threaten its neighbors into compliance with China’s view of the world which is basically that China says “jump” and everybody else asks “how high?”
China has built islands in the South China Sea and then cited those islands as evidence that the South China Sea is a really just a Chinese lake, all while putting airfields on them. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force has been eating itself alive.
Elsewhere in Asia, the North Koreans are an ever present threat to our allies in South Korea and Japan not to mention the United States itself.
In the Middle East, JCPOA or no JCPOA, Iran will continue to be an adversary that requires U.S. attention.
And of course in Europe there is Russia, seeking to return to what it sees as the glory days. It’s trying to re-enter the Middle East and the U.S. Navy is warning that the Atlantic Ocean is no longer a safe haven due to increased Russian submarine activity.
To counter these adversaries the United States needs a navy to connect itself our allies, to take the fight to a potential enemy in his backyard in places where the Army cannot immediately go due to basic facts of land geography. We needs a properly funded air force to be able to give ground forces every advantage they can and an army good enough to take advantage of those situations. We need various upgrades in old weapons systems to keep up with Russia and China so they don’t gain an advantage in unconventional weapons or conventional missile systems and as the creation of the Space Force indicates, this all relies on the our ability to protect ourselves in the final frontier.
All of these things — the ships, planes, tanks, missile systems, the nuclear deterrent, satellites, and the R&D that go into them, not to mention salaries of the the men and women who operate them cost money. The question isn’t how much money does the rest of the world spend, but are we spending enough to defend ourselves, our interest, and our allies?