Notes Towards a Policy Platform: Part I

Per my last post: these are notes towards a policy platform that are not remotely intended to be “smart” things for a political party to advocate. Rather, they’re an outline of what I think we need to do as a nation to prepare for the more competitive world we are in.

Military Spending

As the “lone superpower” the United States spends truly astonishing amounts on our military. We’re not entirely in a class by ourselves on a percentage basis, but we spend far more as a percentage of GDP than any other rich country, and hugely more than any other country on an total dollar basis. For all intents and purposes, not only do we have the world’s greatest navy and airforce, we have the world’s only navy and airforce. There’s no material competition.

Military spending is largely a dead loss to the economy. Yes, you get valuable civilian spinoffs from military research, but this research is a tiny component of overall military spending, and it’s not obvious why you wouldn’t get a better result spending directly on civilian research; presumably you would. Ditto for the addition to GDP from spending as such; we’d be better off spending on something productive. If we’re in a more economically competitive world, where productivity matters a great deal, we can’t ignore the size of the military sector as something holding us back.

The biggest component of our spending is on manpower. People are expensive, well-trained people are even more expensive, and you can’t have a big standing army without lots of well-trained people. Even if we eliminated the most expensive weapons systems, we’d have a hugely expensive military.

And yet, as we discovered in our two current wars, we are understaffed for our current mission. We did not have sufficient manpower available to effectively prosecute the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

What that means to me is that our current mission is not sustainable.

How we might change our foreign policy depends greatly on whether we believe we have a genuine and enduring commonality of interests with our major allies.

Right now, none of our major allies is permitted a materially independent foreign policy, and they largely cannot pursue one because they are too small to matter and/or their militaries are not organized for independent action, as opposed to action under NATO auspices. That’s by design, but it creates very little incentive for any of our allies to develop real substantial military capabilities. Many European militaries are basically arms of the welfare state; the age structure and occupation breakdown of their armed forces is transparently absurd. They may spend 1-2% of GDP on their militaries, but they cannot actually conduct military operations of any kind.

That could change. The European Union could develop into a real military power. They are certainly rich enough and populous enough, collectively, to do so. Currently, they lack the necessary institutions for collective decisionmaking, but those could certainly develop. There is certainly a substantial elite constituency for developing such institutions.

America has historically discouraged such a development, particularly but not exclusively in the military sphere. We have been consistent advocates of making the EU as broad as possible, but generally opponents of making it as deep as possible.

If we believe that a truly united Europe would have policy goals broadly in-line with American goals, then it might make sense for us to change this stance, to move from a position where we try to police the world ourselves to one where we have genuine allies who can pull their own weight. Of course, if they can pull their own weight, then they won’t take dictation. Indeed, they’ll expect us to toe their line as much as we toe theirs.

If we don’t believe there is an overall harmony of objectives, then the alternative is reducing the scope of our ambitions. This will probably ultimately land us in the same position, with a united Europe as a new major power, because an America with a reduced horizon is going to be less likely to intimidate European elites from their own ambitions. But the route will be different, and perhaps slower.

The real question, it seems to me, is: who do we have more concerns about, our allies or our adversaries? NATO, it was once said, was supposed to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. If we have to choose, metaphorically, between letting the Russians in, or letting the Germans get up, which is more worrisome?

Regardless of the answer, this, from a spending perspective, strikes me as the key question we need to be asking ourselves. Because if we can’t answer this question intelligently with respect to Europe, we haven’t a prayer of answering it intelligently with respect to Japan, or India, or China, or any of the other major powers with whom we’re going to have to share global responsibility in the future.