The Realist Prism: Hagel Hearing Leaves Strategic, Budget Priorities Unclear

The Realist Prism: Hagel Hearing Leaves Strategic, Budget Priorities Unclear

After a bruising confirmation hearing last week before the Senate Armed Service Committee, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the nominee for the position of secretary of defense in the second-term Obama administration, may be reconsidering whether he truly wants the position. But the stress he endured on the hot seat before his former colleagues may pale in comparison to the challenges that he -- or anyone else nominated for the position should he fail to be confirmed -- will have to cope with in the coming years.

America's ongoing fiscal crisis and the seeming inability of its executive and legislative branches to find a lasting solution to the continuing budget impasse mean that the days of throwing money at national security problems are over. Even if Congress accepts Obama's proposal for avoiding sequestration -- the automatic budget cuts that were delayed at the last minute from coming into effect on Jan. 1, 2013 -- national security expenditures are still going to shrink, albeit in a more measured and tempered fashion. Because Hagel's confirmation hearing tended to focus on his past controversial statements and misstatements, rather than probing deeply and extensively into his vision for U.S. national security in the coming lean years, specifics as to how a Secretary Hagel might structure future budgets and commitments remain elusive.

One of the most important questions is how the U.S. will deal with the so-called free rider problem. As part of his farewell address to fellow NATO defense ministers, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that the growing divergence between U.S. and European spending on defense was bound to create new tensions in the trans-Atlantic relationship. The Libya and Mali operations have highlighted the shortcomings in the defense posture of the key European states, especially in terms of gaps in their capabilities and supplies of armaments. One of the factors motivating a greater U.S. role in the anti-Gadhafi operation in 2011 was the recognition that Washington needed to backstop its allies to make up for critical shortfalls. But will there be a point in the future when, if Europe is unable to rise to a challenge, it cannot expect the United States to automatically make up any deficit? This question is not rhetorical, as North Africa remains unstable in the aftermath of the hostage crisis in Algeria and the assassination of Chokri Belaid in Tunisia. Conflicts in the former Yugoslavia could also easily reignite. Is the United States willing to reverse its "pivot to the Pacific" if European allies prove unable to cope with instability in the Mediterranean and the Balkans without significant American assistance?

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