By Ryan McMaken*
In perhaps the most predictable column of the year, the Wall Street Journal this week featured a column by Walter Russell Mead declaring that it’s “time to increase defense spending.”
Using the Beijing Olympics and the potential war in Ukraine to push to channel ever more taxpayer dollars into military spending, Mead explains how military spending should be increased to match the kind of spending not seen since the hot days of the Cold War.
Mead asserts that “the world has changed and American policy must change with it”. The presumption here is that the status quo is one of lower military spending in which the Americans have adopted a sort of isolationist foreign policy. But the reality does not reflect this assertion at all. The status quo is really one of very high levels of military spending, and even outright growth in most years. This kind of gaslight for my military hawks lives up to attempts by the left to portray the modern economy as one of unregulated laissez-faire.
On the contrary, according to estimates from the White House Office of Management and Budget, military spending is expected to peak after World War II in 2022, reaching more than $1.1 trillion. This includes $770 billion spent on the Pentagon, plus nuclear weapons and related expenses. Also included are current expenditures for veterans. Keeping veterans’ spending separate from defense spending is a practical and sly political fiction, but veterans’ spending is just deferred spending for active-duty veterans needed to attract and retain personnel. And finally, we have the “defense” portion of debt interest, estimated at around 20% of total interest expense. Taking all of this together, we find that military spending has increased 13 years over the past twenty years, and is now at or near the highest spending levels since World War II.
This, unsurprisingly, is not enough for Mead who would like to see military spending much closer to the Cold War average of 7% of GDP, up from current spending of just under 4%. To restore that average would require at least $300 billion in additional spending, possibly levels of spending not seen since the bad old days of the Vietnam War. At that time, of course, the United States was busy spending huge amounts of taxpayers’ wealth on a lost war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. The expenditure was so enormous that the American regime was driven to sever the last link between the dollar and gold and subject ordinary Americans to years of price controls, inflation and other forms of economic crisis.
But none of this will deter hawks like Mead who are constantly beating the drum for more military spending. Also note that Mead uses the “spending as a percentage of GDP” metric, which is a favorite metric among military hawks. They use this metric because the US economy has become more productive, wealthy, and generally larger, the US has been able to sustain exorbitant levels of military spending without increasing the amount of spending relative to GDP. Using this metric allows hawks to create the false impression that military spending is somehow falling and that the United States is being taken over by pacifists. In reality, spending levels remain very high, it’s just that the economy as a whole has been robust.
Yet even if we use this metric – and then compare it to other states with large militaries – we find that Mead’s account doesn’t quite match up. These figures by no means suggest that the US regime is eclipsed by its rivals in terms of military spending.
For example, according to the World Bank, China – with a GDP comparable to that of the United States – has military expenditure amounting to around 1.7% of GDP (in 2020). Meanwhile, the total was 3.7% of GDP in the United States. Russian military spending reached 4.2% of GDP in 2020, but this is based on total GDP which is a small fraction of US GDP. Specifically, the Russian economy is less than a tenth the size of the US economy.
So when we look at actual military spending, we find that the disconnect is quite clear.
According to the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, in 2020 total Chinese military expenditure totaled approximately $245 billion in 2019 dollars. In Russia, the total was $66 billion. In the United States, the total – which in the SIPRI database excludes veterans’ expenses and interest – was $766 billion in 2020.
In other words, the total military expenditures of these alleged rivals are only a fraction of the total expenditures of the United States. Moreover, as China scholar Michael Beckley has noted, the United States benefits from pre-existing military capital – think military know-how and production capacity – accumulated over decades. Even if the United States and China (or Russia) currently spent comparable amounts on military capabilities, it would demonstrate some kind of real military superiority in real terms.
But, as usual, Mead’s strategy is to pretend that fiscal prudence is actually recklessness with the usual refrain of “you can’t afford to not spend tons of extra cash! This claim is based on the new domino theory proposed by anti-Russian hawks today. This theory posits that if the United States does not start wars with all the countries that have pushed back against American hegemony, i.e. Iran or Russia, then China will see this “weakness” and start to conquer countless nations within its own periphery.
The old cold warriors were telling us this in 1965 too, insisting that a loss in Vietnam would place the whole world under the communist boot. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, and Vietnam turned out to have nothing to do with US national security.
But none of this will convince the usual hawks – for example the Heritage Foundation – that there is still enough military spending.
Caution, however, suggests that the United States should go in the opposite direction. At its most belligerent, the US regime should adopt a doctrine of restraint – focusing on naval defense and reducing troop deployments – while changing its nuclear posture to one that is less expensive and more defensive.
the ideal The solution is far more radically anti-interventionist than that, but a good start would be to eliminate hundreds of nuclear warheads and freeze military spending indefinitely. After all, the United States’ deterrent second-strike capability does not depend at all on maintaining an arsenal of thousands of warheads, as many hawks claim. And geography continues to favor American conventional defense today, as it always has.
Unfortunately, we are a long way from a change to a much more sensible policy, but at the very least we must reject the latest opportunistic calls for a new cold war and for trillions of additional taxpayer dollars to be burned in the name of “defense”. “.
*About the author: Ryan McMaken is an editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Wire updates and Power and marketbut read the instructions in the article first.
Source: This article was published by the MISES Institute