Defense: When Is Too Much?

May 26, 2017–President Donald J. Trump yesterday took his campaign rhetoric to the level of potential diplomatic crisis, accusing fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies of, in effect, “owing” the United States due to the lesser amounts of money they invest in their military establishments. At the ceremonies opening a new NATO headquarters Mr. Trump pointedly remarked he had not asked how much the building cost–though as a contributor the U.S. knows perfectly well–and in a speech Trump castigated fellow allies with the language noted above.

Most commentaries on this matter have focused on the president’s politesse, or lack thereof. The sharper issue is, why should allies follow Mr. Trump’s stupid defense policy–and what business has the United States criticizing them for not following our disastrous lead.

Trump’s criticisms, on the campaign and now, ignore the entire reach of NATO history. The fact of the matter is that resource allocation has been problematic throughout the history of the alliance. During the Cold War that mattered. In the 1950s, before the reunification of Germany, and facing massed Soviet armies across the Iron Curtain, military buildup was a huge issue. That involved even the creation of a new German army–prohibited since World War II. A major NATO conference at Lisbon in 1952 even set down a timeline for force creation designed to field a military suitable to defend NATO Europe. But NATO allies, barely recovered from the war, could not meet the promises.

That was only one iteration of this story. NATO has never met either its force goals or its investment promises for one simple reason–the differential economic performance of its many, many economies. Not in the 1950s when the Soviet threat loomed. Not in the 60s-80s when the threat of tactical nuclear weapons use implied the destruction of Western Europe in its defense. Not in the 1990s, with the Soviet Union gone and the global economy booming. Not in 2016, in the wake of the European Community economic collapse of 2009.

The first piece in the puzzle is to ask why the United States ought to expect otherwise today, when there is no looming archenemy (even Mr. Trump proclaims Russia is our friend) to set against many competing economic demands.

Next question is, what is a proper level of defense spending. In the 1960s, to bring back that old bug-a-boo Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary brought in a generation of so-called “whiz kids” to revamp U.S. budgeting procedures (their system is still our foundation today). One of them was Alain C. Enthoven, whose key work is titled How Much is Enough? and sought to illustrate methods for rational decision-making in defense planning. Enthoven’s question is ours. Against what enemy are we building forces? None. The United States military outspends the next seven world powersincluding some of our NATO allies–taken together. But Mr. Trump pretends our defenses are deficient and wants to expand the defense budget another ten percent. What specific threat are the forces facing? Terrorism. But defense budgets buy aircraft carriers and infantry divisions that do not defend against terrorists. Most experts on the subject would actually argue that military forces are less effective against terrorism than diplomacy, spies; information and propaganda; economic aid, and other means. The Trump budget cuts all the more effective means in favor of mindless force-building.

A corollary element is where to draw the line. The whiz kids, arguably, would say it is at the point where military spending distorts the rest of the economy. Some experts think we passed that point long ago, but the gouging of non-defense spending in the Trump budget certainly puts a fresh, harsh light on this problem. To finance the defense increases plus tax cuts for the rich, Mr. Trump is gutting all the elements of the nation’s budget that help make America the place it is. And he is demanding that our NATO allies follow him in this?

The other side of the ledger is the cost of diplomatic confrontation. The “Article 5” of the NATO Treaty of August 24, 1949, has been much in the news recently. Article 5 is the central element of the alliance and provides the “one for all, all for one” aspect of action. But while that has garnered all the world’s attention, no one has been talking about the other aspect of Article 5–a geographic scope covering only Europe and North America. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 all the talk was about would NATO survive, because future conflicts would be “out of area” with respect to Article 5. Once the Bush administration began fighting in Afghanistan, later Iraq, it deemed the support of other NATO members crucial to the legitimacy of the conflicts, and NATO countries rewarded the Americans.

Mr. Trump is thumbing his nose at his sole base of international support, in service of a farcical defense policy that has a good chance of wrecking the fabric of American society.

Trump has smart bombs but stupid strategy.

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