The looming threat of sequestration is presenting the American national security community with a dilemma. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has laid out what some of the consequences will be if Congress and the president cannot agree on a plan to rescind the automatic spending cuts that are set to go into effect next month: One of the two U.S. aircraft carrier groups deployed to the Persian Gulf region will be withdrawn; deployments to Latin America will be canceled; and the U.S. presence in Europe will be reduced. Panetta even warned that a diminished U.S. military presence overseas would, over time, run the risk of relegating the United States to second-class power status.
These arguments are primarily intended for domestic legislators, but they cannot help but have an impact on other governments as well. And how those governments choose to regard the possibility of American defense cuts could have serious implications for future U.S. grand strategy.
On one hand, Panetta, his immediate predecessor Robert Gates and other previous Pentagon bosses have consistently warned American partners that the post-Cold War defense status quo, in which the United States maintains a large defense infrastructure while allies are free to continue to cut down on their military spending to focus on domestic welfare, is not sustainable. In Gates’ valedictory address to NATO allies in summer 2011, he bluntly warned that the Western alliance would face a “dim, if not dismal” future if there were not more-equitable burden-sharing among its members. He noted that it was not feasible for European leaders to continue to expect “American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.” The current mood in Congress seems to be the validation of Gates’ prophetic statements.