The most common argument for cutting our defense spending is that when faced with budget constraints, funding for other national priorities like education and social benefits should be protected first. That is not the primary argument I will make here. There is a much simpler reason why we need to start protecting our national security at a cost within our means: We need a smarter national security strategy.
Republicans have framed the discourse on defense spending in a way that necessarily conflates increased military spending with an improved national security position. By not challenging this assumption, some Democrats have fallen into the trap of trying to rationalize funding other federal programs over national security. Instead, we need to invest more in diplomacy and development and less in military defense. This misframing has kept us from seeing the optimal solution – one that supports a robust national security strategy while also being more cost effective.
The real blow to our national security was not the triggered Defense Department spending cuts; the tragic hits were cuts to the State Department and USAID announced earlier this year.
In a speech to the Center for American Progress, Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides described the danger of disproportionate protections of the Defense budget, saying, “I’ve said this until I am blue in the face and I’ll repeat it again: The State Department and USAID make up about 1% of the federal budget. Deep and disproportionate cuts in the State and USAID won’t do anything or make any sense if our goal is to enhance our national security.”
Clearly, a more balanced national security strategy with consistent support for our diplomatic and development initiatives and cuts to defense spending can better mitigate short- and long-term threats. Promoting of good governance and using foreign aid, a tool to stimulate development and pull people out of poverty, will save us from the last resort (and most expensive option) of intervening militarily.
Now, more than ever, we cannot support excessive military spending. Lacking social services, investment in infrastructure, and investment in health care and education, coupled with an urgent need to reduce the national debt, means defense cuts cannot wait. Proponents of high spending argue that our security situation demands these funding levels, yet President Dwight Eisenhower managed to responsibly reduce military spending during his presidency from $415 billion (in 2011 dollars) to $375 billion by 1961 – and this was during the Cold War!
USAID saw its fiscal 2012 request dropped from $1.5 billion to $900 million. To give some perspective, the DoD’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s 2011 budget request was $11.4 billion, and total defense-related expenditure requests in 2012 totaled more than $1 trillion dollars. This graph represents how little of national security spending is allocated to USAID and the State Department.
There are times when, due to budgetary constraints, we have to make compromises and weigh painful tradeoffs. Those are the tough decisions, the ones that require cost-benefit analyses of conflicting outcomes and a deeper look into our values as a nation. This conversation is different. In this case, the more financially responsible strategy is the more effective approach. Let us not make the mistake of thinking too naively about security. A strong State Department and well-supported USAID, with the backing of our outstanding military influence, protect our interests more effectively and sustainably.
Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy New Zealand