Recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be a costly affair. On top of the already burgeoning national debt, Congress and the President will be adding trillions to it. It’s a sea of red as far as the eye can see.
With the defense budget being the largest piece of the federal discretionary spending pie, it is certain to be a target for sharp cuts. Republicans will see exploding deficits as an urgent policy matter to fix, while Democrats will be looking for any monies they can carve out to fund their ever-increasing domestic agenda. Both parties will ignore the “mandatory” side of the budget—Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, et al.—even though it now is well over 60 percent of the budget, and growing.
We’ve seen this movie before. In the wake of the Great Recession, the Obama Administration cut nearly $800 billion in planned defense expenditures in its first 3 years, matching essentially the amount it poured into its 2009 “stimulus” package. With the subsequent enactment of the Budget Control Act, from 2011 until the first Trump budget in 2017, the percentage of the federal budget that went to defense dropped from nearly 20 percent to 15 percent and, as a percentage of the GDP, from 4.6 percent to 3.1 percent.
The difficulty with following a similar path is two-fold.
First, the security environment has gotten both worse and more complex. Russia, China, and Iran have become more aggressive and more potent adversaries. Toss in North Korea and the continuing threat of Islamist-led terrorism and the security mandate facing the American military is arguably larger than it was a decade ago. Saying we need to spend less on the military so we can spend more for preparing for the next pandemic or bailing out this segment of the economy will not make the global security environment any less problematic.
Second, although the Trump Administration has increased the defense budget top line since coming to office, it hasn’t actually rebuilt the military, as the President likes to claim. The hole the military was in was too deep to be fixed that quickly.
The 1990s, under Bill Clinton’s purview, saw a “procurement holiday” with the end of the Cold War. The Bush Administration that followed spent more on defense but the vast amount of those dollars went to fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and paying the all-volunteer force to do so. Recapitalizing the force with new weapons was secondary. The Obama years saw further cuts, some by design by his team and some tied to the BCA’s mandate. For almost a quarter of a century, then, too little capability has been bought to ensure the American military can confidently carry out its security commitments in the world’s critical regions.
It’s true of course that China, Russia, and Iran will also suffer economically from the pandemic and, in theory, that might make it more difficult for them to expend greater sums for their own militaries. However, it’s also the case that authoritarian regimes can make budgetary decisions that, while not totally ignoring domestic concerns, can more readily prioritize their national ambitions over public approval. Indeed, China, Russia and Iran have all modernized their militaries despite any number of major domestic issues that need urgent addressing. In short, we shouldn’t expect the fallout of the drop in global economic performance to be evenly distributed between the United States and our main adversaries. The last global recession saw more, not less, confrontational behavior from Beijing and Moscow.
One would like, of course, to have America’s allies pick up the slack, but they too will face tough budgetary imperatives. Following the Great Recession, our major allies also cut spending, although not as deeply as the United States. Now, as the United States has begun to spend more, so, too, have our allies in Europe and Asia. It may not be as much, or as quickly as Washington would like, but well over a hundred billion dollars more has been committed to defense in recent years. The reality is: we cut; they will cut. If we want allies not to back away from their commitments and carry more of the load, then it’s in our interest to not slash our own defense budget.
For some, the answer to this dilemma is to radically draw back strategically. In the short term, that’s an easy fix. But whether it would be a lasting fix given the ambitions of America’s adversaries is a different question. With the Russian and Chinese economies slowing, and President Xi’s and Putin’s legitimacy waning, both may well be tempted to see adventures abroad as a way to recoup sway at home. There are plenty of potential flash points in Asia, Europe and the Middle East that would be attractive to take advantage of if the American military were gone and which would, if a conflict were to occur, likely require Washington to intervene to keep a whole region from being destabilized.
Pandemics are costly. But great power conflicts cost even more in blood and treasure.