Imperial Overstretch: Is A Bloated Defense Budget Weakening the U.S.?

ANALYSIS

 @JosephLazzaro
on November 20 2011 1:36 PM

It's hard to believe that a nation could spend more on defense and actually become weaker.

But that, in fact, is what's happening in the United States -- and what will continue to happen, if the U.S. continues to divert too much of the nation's resources to defense programs.

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

Yale University History Professor Paul Kennedy perhaps best demonstrated the link between too much military spending and national decline in his seminal work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House: 1987). In it, Kennedy argued, among other tenets, that the relative strength between the major powers in the world never remains constant, and that, repeatedly, a great power has thought it could engage in military adventures -- extend itself beyond its ability to maintain those commitments, and neglect its economy, but the result has been empire decline.

Kennedy's term for the phenomenon is imperial overstretch, also known as imperial overreach, and the two classic examples are: the British Empire and the Soviet Union. Each spent too much of its resources on the military -- to the neglect of its economy -- and we know what resulted: each empire ended.

And the view from here argues that the United States -- another great power -- in this case a superpower that overspent on defense, has weakened its economy and is in danger of driving its empire to the fate of Britain's and the Soviet Union's, if it doesn't change its course and reverse the policy.

Kennedy's overstretch thesis, in detail, is as follows: As defense spending increases, this reduces the investments in economic growth, which eventually, leads to the downward spiral of slower growth, heavier taxes, deepening domestic splits over spending priorities, and weakening capacity to bear the burdens of defense.

Harvard's Kennedy was not the first to warn about the dangers of excessive defense spending. Author Daniel Guerin wrote about  it in 1936, and the term for the policy -- the military-industrial complex -- was popularized in the famous farewell address by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, in January 1961.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower said. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

Eisenhower, a five-star U.S. Army general who served as supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe, and led our nation to victory in World War II versus Adolph Hitler's Nazi Germany, limited U.S. defense spending and rooted-out unnecessary defense programs like no other president in the modern era.

Eisenhower started with a Pentagon budget of $49.3 billion in 1954 or $415 billion in 2011 dollars, and finished his two-term presidency with a Pentagon budget of $49.6 billion or $375.6 billion in 2011 dollars in 1961. Further, Eisnehower was able to limit military spending despite the fact that the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1950s was intensifying!  

Eisenhower, or Ike, was much lauded by economists, historians, and public policy professionals for his ability to see the economic and societal damages caused by excessive defense spending, and one can also see why Ike was able to turn back the Pentagon brass' continually excessive requests. Pentagon brass? Ike was the epitome of Pentagon brass. In other words, who among the Pentagon generals had the strength of argument to oppose Ike, who knew U.S. defense operations as well as any defense expert? Further, had Ike been a Democrat, the public probably would have viewed him as being soft on communism. But Ike was a Republican, a war hero, and an outstanding general, and hence the public never supported the wild, unsubstantiated, slanderous accusations by the demagogic U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis.

U.S.: Spent $5 Trillion Too Much on Defense in 20 Years

However, unfortunately in the decades that followed the United States did not have an as knowledgeable and formidable defense public policy professional as Eisenhower, and as a result the U.S. overspent on defense, and really overspent in the last 20 years. 

Basically, the United States has spent $5 trillion too much on the U.S. Department of Defense over the past 20 years -- i.e allocated a staggering $250 billion a year too much to the Pentagon that instead should have funded social programs and served as resources for other civilian needs. The egregiousness of the miscalculation is stunning: there was no reason for the U.S. to spend this extra amount on defense during this period -- the Cold War was over, and no other power represented a territorial threat to the United States, and certainly not an existential threat.

What's more, underscoring -- the United States did not have the money to overspend on defense during this period -- it extended the militarily far beyond the nation's ability to rationally support those adventures. The borrowing used to fund the excessive defense programs created a double hole: the nation will now pay a massive amount in interest to pay-down that defense debt.

Net Result: Social Service Underinvestment, Weaker Economy, Weaker U.S.

Further, as noted, the defense overspending has led to a civilian / social service deficit -- including under-investment in infrastructure, education, and health care -- and as consequence, the economy has suffered, resulting in lower GDP growth.

Moreover, it does not take an economist or a business executive to see the glaring signs of the civilian / social service deficit. Our infrastructure is crumbing -- bridges are falling, highways/roads and public transit systems are in disrepair, water and sewer systems leak. Airports are woefully inadequate or in need of renovation. The electric grid must be upgraded. Along with increased funding for education and basic research, schools need to be rebuilt, as do many hospitals. Health care services must be expanded. In short, the civilian / social service deficit has resulted in a nation with fewer skills and without the state-of-the-art infrastructure needed for commerce to flourish, and the U.S. economy has suffered -- GDP growth is below where it should be. Further, the unemployment rate is high. And now, most recently, social unrest has started to surface in the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.

Further, it is that economic underperformance triggered by overspending on defense that leads to great power decline. Doubt whether that $5 trillion mis-allocation of funds to defense programs has led to a decline in U.S. power? Ask yourself, in Paul Kennedy-like fashion, the following:

The United States has been fighting the Afghanistan War for more than 10 years. Compared to 2001, what has happened to the status of each -

Iran: weaker or stronger?

China: weaker or stronger?

Russia: weaker or stronger?

Point: All three nations became stronger -- and stronger vis-à-vis the United States -- while the U.S. has expended resources in Afghanistan and has become weaker.

Point: Overspending on defense is weakening the United States' economy and, by extension, is decreasing the nation's power relative to other, major powers and nations. And the United States will continue to weaken, if it does not substantially reduce its defense spending: as noted, it does not have the resources to spend $500 billion per year on defense, let alone the more than $700 billion it's spending now.

Overspending for Afghanistan War - Needless

Further, another tragedy in this drama is the fact that the overspending for the Afghanistan War was needless and the conventional war strategy represented the wrong war plan.

A Washington, D.C. public policy colleague,  who has spent more than 20 years near the defense industry, and who spoke on condition he not be identified by name, says the U.S. Department of Defense's conventional war strategy for Afghanistan was doomed from the start.

The conventional war strategy is wasteful and it's not going to work in Afghanistan, he said to the International Business Times. The lack of developed societal institutions, the culture and the terrain essentially mean there isn't an 'Afghanistan' in a national sense. There are only war lords and tribes. It would have been more cost-effective and we would have been more successful had we just done commando raids, knocking off the bad guys, and rewarding the good, and fighting only on our terms, jumping in and jumping out.

Instead, the Pentagon chose to fight the war conventionally, which was a mistake, he said to IBTimes.com. I don't how one could view it as not being a mistake. We're 10 years in to the conventional war and a victory in Afghanistan is no where in sight. And we could spend another five, seven, eight years using the same conventional strategy, and still not be any closer to victory. We need to end the conventional war and bring the troops home now and re-engage only on commando terms. It will save many lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. We've already spent $475 billion on the Afghanistan War after spending $800 billion on the Iraq War.

And, as the public policy professional noted, ending the conventional war in Afghanistan will help reduce the nation's bloated defense budget  -- it will help bring defense spending in-line with what the nation can afford, and in the process free-up money to address the civilian / social services deficit. The sooner the United States recognizes that it is engaging in imperial overstretch, the sooner it will begin to arrest its economic decline, and, by extension, its empire decline.

Of course, Republicans, Tea Party faction members and other conservatives disagree with Kennedy's imperial overstretch thesis.

In fact, many if not most Republicans want to -- incredibly -- increase defense spending. Despite almost $1.3 trillion spent on two wars with unfavorable outcomes -- these conservatives want to increase defense spending further -- diverting even more resources from civilian / social programs.

To be sure, as Congressional Republicans push for another increase in U.S. defense spending they will have their supporters. National leaders in China will be rooting for them. And so will leaders in Russia.

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