Seeking Fiscal Safety, U.S. Defense Cuts Raise Geopolitical Risk

Seeking Fiscal Safety, U.S. Defense Cuts Raise Geopolitical Risk
Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Jun. 1, 2013 (Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo).
More than anything else, grand strategy is about balancing risk. In a world of limited resources, countries cannot have everything they might like to have, or achieve everything they might like to achieve. They cannot defend perfectly against every threat, or spend robustly on every priority at home and abroad. This is why grand strategy requires policymakers to choose—to make judgments about what risks a country can accept, and what risks it cannot. This is precisely the dilemma illustrated by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s speech on the defense budget on Feb. 24. As Hagel made clear, the armed forces are expecting a period of prolonged fiscal austerity, with spending levels falling considerably below those envisioned even in the retrenchment-minded 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. These reductions, in turn, will require real cutbacks in military force structure and capabilities. Along these lines, the Pentagon had already made clear that lengthy stability or counterinsurgency operations would no longer be on the menu. That limitation will now be accompanied by reductions in troop strength across the services, the termination or delay of selected modernization programs, a cap on the acquisition of Littoral Combat Ships and the phasing out of existing capabilities such as the A-10 Warthog, the U-2 spy plane and others. Hagel has called the budgetary cutbacks that necessitated these limitations “irresponsible,” and Democrats and Republicans have traded accusations over who is to blame for this situation. But another way of thinking about the cutbacks is that the United States is trading one sort of risk for another. The goal of defense cuts, and federal budget cuts more broadly, has been to reduce the long-term fiscal risk inherent in sustained deficit spending. This risk, military leaders acknowledge, is all too real. As then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen noted in 2011, uncontrollable deficits represent a significant threat to U.S. national security. In this context, reducing those deficits by cutting back on military spending would only seem prudent. Yet paring down the defense budget should not be seen simply as a way of managing fiscal risk. For in doing so, the United States is necessarily courting other kinds of risk, both geopolitical and military. First, there is operational risk: the possibility that the U.S. military will be unable to successfully accomplish the missions assigned to it, or that conducting those missions will incur higher costs and casualties along the way. This was the scenario that plagued the U.S. military in the late 1970s, when severe and sustained budget reductions combined with the impact of the Vietnam War to create a “hollow force” plagued by low readiness, and top U.S. officials have raised similar concerns about current trends. Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno has warned that current cutbacks may make it exceedingly difficult to successfully conduct even one large-scale combat operation, and current Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey has predicted that “we may not be ready to go” in future crises. A second and related form of risk is strategic risk, or the chance that military austerity will leave the United States struggling to make good on its current strategic commitments overseas. This type of risk is most pronounced in Asia. Navy officials have judged that the current budgetary climate will undercut the ongoing “pivot,” thereby weakening America’s ability to defend allies and partners like Taiwan, the Philippines or Japan, and undermining the overall effort to preserve a favorable regional balance amid the ongoing Chinese military buildup. By seeking fiscal savings via defense cuts, the United States may also be reducing its ability to protect long-standing interests and objectives abroad. This danger, in turn, relates to a third type of risk: grand strategic risk. This term refers to the possibility that decreasing military power will also decrease Washington’s capacity to act—as it has for the past several decades—as the stabilizer of key geopolitical regions and the international system more broadly, and as a reliable partner for the countries that constitute America’s vast network of alliances. The chances of such a development may seem remote, but they are hardly far-fetched. In many ways, American military power has been the glue holding together the international system since World War II. When that power declines, the glue will probably weaken. In fact, we have already seen fears to this effect among U.S. allies such as Japan, who increasingly worry about an emerging mismatch between America’s global role and its reduced military capabilities. If all of this sounds like a lot of geopolitical risk to be running, that’s because it is. Military retrenchment does not actually do as much as one might expect to reduce long-term fiscal risk, simply because American deficits are driven largely by domestic spending—particularly entitlement spending—rather than defense outlays. Yet military retrenchment simultaneously exposes the United States to several different forms of risk abroad, none of which can be taken lightly by a country that has accumulated a vast number of global commitments, that has often found it necessary to use the military in support of those commitments and that has played an outsized and indispensable role in crafting and sustaining the current international order. It may be, of course, that these geopolitical risks will prove overstated. The U.S. military might not be called on to perform taxing missions in the near or medium-range future. Allies might not be unnerved, and adversaries might choose not to test whether American power is declining along with U.S. military spending. But given the cutthroat and unpredictable nature of international politics, these propositions are themselves very chancy bets to make. And if they do not pay off, then the current tendency to trade fiscal risk for geopolitical and military risk may no longer look so prudent. Hal Brands is an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. His most recent book is “What Good is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush,” just released by Cornell University Press.

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