Hegemony vs. Restraint in the Debate Over U.S. Defense Cuts

The need to bring order to America's finances has made defense budget cuts unavoidable, with the question now turning to where and how much to cut. A recent CNAS report offered some granular -- and alarming at the high end -- details in terms of how various levels of cuts would impact U.S. military capabilities. Now two articles in Foreign Affairs bring into focus a more reassuring view of both defense austerity, which Benjamin J. Friedman likens to "the best possible auditor," and retrenchment, which Joseph Parent and Paul MacDonald deem to be the most promising way for an overextended superpower like the U.S. to regroup. The arguments are thought-provoking for those in the hegemonic lobby, of which I consider myself a member, who have fallen into the habit of accepting at face value the claim that without America's global security backstop, today's largely benign global order would quickly devolve into violent disorder. Parent and MacDonald also deserve credit for their measured and sober portrayal of America's relative decline, which both sides of the argument tend to exaggerate.

If there's a weakness to both articles, it's that their arguments depend largely on best-case scenarios of outcomes that remain uncertain. As such, the retrenchment they call for represents significant risk to both U.S. interests and the global order, risk that the authors address by assuming it won't materialize. This is especially true for Parent and MacDonald. For instance, they argue that none of our allies in Asia or Europe face territorial threats, certainly true in the sense that total wars of territorial conquest are unimaginable, although Taiwan could be reasonably considered an exception to this rule. Nonetheless, it's safe to assume that China has no desire to occupy Japan or South Korea, and that even if it did, both have sufficient capabilities to deter such an intention. The same holds true for Europe vis à vis Russia. However, the authors don't address the far more relevant threat of "nibbling at the edges" of disputed borders, as in the South China Sea, the Caucasus and even along the China-India border. Nor do they take into serious enough consideration the question of intimidation, because for them, reducing America's forward base structure in East Asia will not mean a reduced U.S. commitment to its regional allies. As a result, it will have no impact on either assuring our friends or on deterring potential rivals.

Perhaps, but perhaps not. A U.S. presence means U.S. skin in the game in the event of even an initial outbreak of hostilities. That has a far more visible and concrete impact in terms of assurance and deterrence than the promise of a U.S. riposte to any aggression. Offshore balancing certainly offers the U.S. more strategic flexibility than forward bases, but that very flexibility can create doubt in the minds of both allies and adversaries -- let alone friends that are not allies, such as India, that we are hoping to integrate into a regional security architecture.

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