The fiscal crisis rocking Greece will be soon occur in other European countries. In a few years, it will occur in the US, where government spending and the national debt have risen in an effort to counter the recession. President Obama and economic advisor Paul Volcker have expressed grave concern over the national debt and signaled that deep budget cuts will be needed.
Just where the cuts will come is unknown, but for many citizens and observers, reduced military presence around the world will seem a likely place for the budget axe to fall. For a number of reasons, however, a marked reduction in US commitments around the world is unlikely.
Globalism is a basic part of America’s understanding of itself and will not be abandoned easily. A military presence in some 84 countries around the world came as a surprise to Americans born before WWII; it was a fundamental part of the national identity to those born after the intoxicating victory of 1945. It greatly exceeded the nation’s dabbling in colonialism in the previous century and the American identity of prosperity and virtue became infused with global power and mission.
The disaster of Vietnam damaged the appeal of globalism yet brought no withdrawal, only indeterminacy and paralysis. The helplessness of the Iranian hostage ordeal led Americans to feel that restored military might was essential; small, easy campaigns in Grenada, Panama, and the first Iraq war (1991) re-acquainted them with the romance of war.
The September 11th attacks charged the nation with the mission of defending itself through various campaigns across the world and bringing light to darker parts of it. Relinquishing this mission, and the national identity behind it, will be difficult, especially now that terrorism is returning to America.
The American political system is deeply divided along party lines. Each party opposes almost anything advocated by its foe. Presidents endure vicious partisan attacks in congress and the media. Healthcare, gun laws, abortion, and now immigration ”“ highly partisan issues all.
Not so global military commitments and the defense spending upon which they rely. Squabbles over domestic issues are put aside and majorities in both parties support globalism. Little wonder: defense funds pore into most congressional districts, providing jobs in facility support, R&D, and manufacturing.
Indeed, military spending provides an important and high-paying part of the country’s troubled manufacturing sector. And the next few years are not going to be an advantageous time to cut jobs.
There is widespread foreign opposition to US globalism. Leaders complain of US policies and various people demonstrate against them, peaceably or not. Indeed, opposition to the presence of US bases is a rallying cry for terrorist groups as well.
But despite public and private demurrals, many governments wish to see American globalism continue. Eastern Europe is eager to place itself under the wing of the US and NATO. Saudi Arabia and other states in the region expect the US to guarantee the free flow of oil from the Gulf ”“ and even to defend them as it did Kuwait in 1991. Israel’s expectations of continued arms supplies and defender of last resort is obvious.
Taiwan, India, S. Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and other countries wary of China’s military build-up look upon the US navy as part of their defense strategies. Vietnam now welcomes American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Even countries with considerable differences with the US in certain parts of the world are willing to abide US forces in others. Russia is angered by the US-driven expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, but concerns with Islamist militancy spreading into its sizable (and growing) Muslim population make Russia reluctant to see the US abandon Afghanistan. Similarly, though circumspect of the US navy patrolling offshore, China does not want to see Islamist militancy spread into its western provinces.
Historically, deep recessions have led to political instability, demagogues, and war. That was certainly the case during the Depression of the 1930s and the present downturn is thought to be the worst since then. Many countries will look upon the US as a guarantor of stability. Americans will see it their duty.
US casualties in various theaters, without attendant accomplishments, will increase domestic pressure to reduce globalism. That was the case with WWI and Vietnam, where senseless battle deaths appalled the public and ushered in periods of lessened involvement in world affairs.
Casualties in Iraq, even at their peak back in 2006, were comparatively light; presently they are negligible. Fighting in Afghanistan is seasonal, as insurgent fighters return home for winters and harvests. In other times, insurgents initiate most engagements, leaving them in control of fighting and casualties ”“ and to some extent western support as well.
Unlike previous American wars, casualties fall largely on working-class groups, who are more inclined than the public at large to support wars and accept the deaths of family members and neighbors. Privileged strata may protest, but only in muted ways. For most Americans, the re-acquaintance with the romance of war during the Reagan years had the condition that their children know nothing of it.
Ongoing Cost Cuts
Reductions in military expenditures in certain spheres are already underway and will ease the cost of global commitments. The war in Iraq once cost $10 billion a month, but with fighting down and the US scheduled to be completely out by the end of next year, the cost will soon be negligible.
The Obama administration has reached an agreement with Russia to reduce each country’s nuclear arsenal, which require elaborate security and maintenance systems. Similarly, the scrapping of much of the SDI missile defense system slated for Eastern Europe will spare the country this expenditure.
Much larger savings will come from the Pentagon’s shift from conventional warfare to counter-insurgency operations. Conventional forces require armored vehicles, fighter aircraft, and immense logistical systems. Counter-insurgency warfare eschews most of those big-ticket items and rely instead on small, lightly-equipped teams.
In one telling change of priorities, the Pentagon has reduced purchases of the latest generation of fighter aircraft ($361 million per plane) and increased purchases of drones ($10.5 million per plane). In other words, a Reaper drone used for reconnaissance and assassination costs 3% of an F-22 Raptor used for air superiority and attacks on armor columns ”“ neither of which is relevant in Afghanistan or Yemen or Somalia.
Financial Institutions and Foreign Policy
Soaring debt is alarming bondholders. They will seek to use their fiscal power to influence national policy: no fiscal discipline, no more money. Debt-plagued democracies are relinquishing their sovereignty to outside powers, and just as European countries have forced Greece to make reforms, those who hold the US debt ”“ the Federal Reserve Board, US banks, and countries such as Japan and China ”“ will be in a position to force changes on Washington.
It is unlikely, however, that the financial powers will want the US to markedly decrease its global presence. They recognize that US globalism facilitates and guarantees world commerce and that withdrawal will bring instability or at least uncertainty.
There is the possibility, however, that the Fed and US banks will introduce a measure of cost-benefit analysis to the country’s foreign policy and military posture around the world. Such a framework has scarcely entered into the national debate since the heady aftermath of WWII.
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The unlikelihood of a fundamental change in globalism will be welcome to some, but unwelcome to others. The burden of maintaining forces in 84 or so countries will do nothing to aid the faltering American economy. Nor will it increase national security, only the more ethereal and misleading notion of national prestige.
Â©2010 Brian M. Downing
Brian M. Downing is the author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.