Redefining national security

March 23, 2016 Mark R. Wilson
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This series of Volume 3 response posts are written by scholars who offer their perspective on the topic of fiscal policy and how to best prepare the next president for the challenges of the first year. This series is coordinated and edited by Christy Ford Chapin, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The Volume 3: Critical First Budget essays say little about the budget for defense. Perhaps this is because defense outlays have looked relatively stable in recent years, especially in comparison with the fast-growing Medicare and Medicaid programs, whose 1960s origins are recounted in the essay by Guian McKee. The defense budget’s apparent sustainability may seem even more impressive if we consider its relative decline since the early Cold War, when the United States spent far more on defense than it did on social welfare. Today’s $800 billion-a-year defense budget amounts to less than 5 percent of GDP. 

Still, by any measure, $800 billion in annual expenditures, or a little over 20 percent of total federal outlays, represents a massive amount of resources. While not quite as important as it was half a century ago, what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” still looms large. Given the enormity of today’s defense spending, should the next president seek national security budget cuts?

My answer is both “yes” and “no.” The Pentagon budget should be overhauled, not so much to achieve large overall cuts, but rather to shift resources into the most promising new programs. Equally important, we need to rethink our understanding of what constitutes national security. Indeed, the new president should articulate a new vision for the nation’s future, one in which social security and national security become complementary. With this new definition of national security, the incoming administration should then insist that spending on security deserves not less funding, but more.

Let’s start with national security more narrowly defined, by considering the Pentagon’s budget. Here I propose that the incoming administration focus on encouraging internal reforms rather than seeking steep cuts in aggregate outlays. Big overall defense cuts over the next few years seem unlikely to occur, especially if we consider the long-run historical record. The outgoing Obama administration, like the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Clinton administrations, presided over small but significant defense cuts as they implemented drawdowns from wars, both hot and cold. The new president taking office in 2017, by contrast, will lead a post-drawdown administration, comparable to those of Kennedy and Carter. Notably, those administrations failed to achieve continuing decreases in the defense budget; instead, they oversaw modest increases. Perhaps the new administration taking office in 2017 will be able to buck this trend, but given that U.S. defense spending is already below 5 percent of GDP, it is probably not realistic to expect very large additional reductions.

However, giving up on the idea of massive cuts to the total Pentagon budget does not mean accepting the status quo. Rather, the incoming administration should push hard to reallocate resources to the programs that are truly valuable and promising. Here the White House (along with the Secretary of Defense) must resume its now-traditional role as a voice of reason in the “military-industrial complex,” in which Congress and the defense lobby have too often worked together to allocate large sums to outdated and less necessary technologies.

As Maya MacGuineas suggests in her essay, the White House should propose significant cuts to some of the military’s largest, older weapons programs. The savings should be spent on newer, leaner, more effective systems. (If recent trends are any indication, this probably means even more emphasis on special forces, cybersecurity, and robots.) As it pursues this latest re-invention of the military, the administration should rely upon some of the many would-be reformers already working inside the military establishment, which—contrary to popular myth—is populated not just by stodgy bureaucrats and knee-jerk hawks, but also by smart, creative thinkers.   

But where the new administration should apply the most focus is toward an effort to redefine national security so that the term reaches beyond the Pentagon and across a much wider field of public concern. Environmental sustainability is important for national (and global) security, as is the quality of the nation’s physical infrastructure, its human capital, and its public health system. These public goods, as Jared Bernstein argued in his valuable essay, deserve more investment from the federal government because they promise excellent returns.

In some cases, the national security implications of such investments are obvious: improvements in our public health infrastructure would help to limit the potential damage of a future pandemic, while the upgrading of physical infrastructure could help prevent another Hurricane Katrina or Fukushima disaster. In other cases, the new investments in public goods would have more indirect, but equally significant, effects. For example, additional investment in sustainable energy systems and public transit could limit the dangers associated with environmental degradation. And more investment in education, communications, and transportation infrastructure would improve the nation’s economic competitiveness, which has always been a crucial feature of national security.

I will conclude with the most important, if most obvious, piece of advice about national security spending. To avoid busting the defense budget, the incoming president should do her best to avoid going to war or engaging in far-flung conflicts. As Jeffrey Engel counsels in his essay, the new administration should try to “do no harm” by remaining cautious when it comes to war. As history shows, the chance that the new president will be forced to respond to a serious new global security crisis is already quite high, even higher than the substantial risk of a new financial crisis as described by Robert F. Bruner in his essay. So the incoming administration must be prudent enough to avoid war when possible. Meanwhile, if we reform the budget in ways that provide for more investments in long-run national security—broadly defined—the United States as a whole, and not just its world-class military forces, can become stronger, more resilient, and more secure.

Mark R. Wilson is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.  His research examines the business and politics of U.S. military-industrial relations and war mobilizations, from the 19th century to the present.  He is the author of two books: The Business of Civil War (2006), and the forthcoming Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II (2016).