The Realist Prism: Rethinking the Cost of U.S. Global Leadership

In George Lucas’ dystopian 1971 film, “THX-1138,” the protagonist is pursued by police after attempting to escape from a futuristic totalitarian city-state. However, the city has only budgeted a certain amount to cover the costs of the pursuit. In the penultimate scene, as the officers are about to recapture the renegade, the comptroller’s office informs them that because of cost overruns, the chase is to be terminated. “Economics make it necessary to terminate any operation which exceeds five percent of its primary budget,” the officers are told.

With the specter of sequestration -- which on Jan. 1, 2013, is set to cut U.S. defense spending by nearly 10 percent -- now looming, one wonders whether or not the maxim enshrined in THX-1138 may end up guiding U.S. national security policy in the years ahead. Will certain missions be deemed too expensive for the United States to conduct?

It is interesting that the cost of U.S. global leadership has not yet emerged as an issue for debate in this year’s presidential election. Both candidates assume that the money to sustain defense spending will be there and that the American people will continue to support shouldering the burden of providing global public security goods. During the days of the Cold War, when for its own security the United States needed to construct a series of trade pacts and military alliances to contain the Soviet Union, most Americans could understand the reasons both for increased defense spending at home and dispensing foreign aid abroad. Today, it is no longer automatically clear how the average American benefits from a forward-deployed, interventionist foreign policy. And when stark choices need to be made in the years to come, especially as domestic social programs increasingly come under the chopping block, will the U.S. political establishment be willing, as it did in Libya in 2011, to shell out $1 billion to depose a dictator who posed no direct threat to the U.S. homeland?

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