The U.S. dominates the globe militarily. America’s reach exceeds that of the Roman and British Empires at their respective heights. The threats facing the U.S. pale compared to its capabilities. So why is Washington spending so much on the military?
The military budget is the price we pay for the nation’s foreign policy. The U.S. currently is spending nearly as much as the rest of the world. In real terms, Washington is spending more today than at any time during the Cold War, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War.
In 2010 the U.S. will spend roughly $700 billion on the military. The Obama administration’s original non-war defense budget was $534 billion. The latter is an increase of $20 billion, or 4 percent (2 percent after inflation). Yet conservatives attacked Obama for “cutting” military outlays. Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace charged that the administration was signaling that “the American retreat has begun.”
It is a curious form of “retreat.” The U.S. is ramping up the war in Afghanistan. American troops continue to occupy Iraq. The U.S. remains the principal member of every major Cold War alliance: NATO, U.S.-Japan, and U.S.-Korea. America is allied with every major industrialized power outside of China and Russia. U.S. troops are stationed at hundreds of installations in scores of nations around the globe. The American secretary of state continues to circle the globe instructing other nations how to order their economies, reform their political systems, and behave in international relations.
Despite initial plans for zero growth in defense spending in coming years, there are rumors that the Department of Defense will receive a 2 percent increase in real outlays through 2015. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the Pentagon needs about 6 percent more dollars just to carry out the administration’s current plans. The CBO’s Matthew Goldberg testified: “CBO projects that carrying out the plans proposed in the president’s 2010 budget request … would require defense resources averaging $567 billion annually” in constant terms from 2011 to 2028, compared to just $534 billion in 2010.
And with Congress voting to preserve weapons systems targeted by the administration, actual outlays likely will end up higher. Moreover, the “surge” in Afghanistan will boost Afghan war costs from about $65 billion to $95 billion in 2010 alone.
Still, none of this spending is enough for those determined to micro-manage the globe. The slightest caution, the least restraint, the barest hesitation is attacked as “isolationism.” Some conservatives want to enshrine a military build-up in law, mandating that outlays be fixed at 4, 5, or even 6 percent of GDP.
Hawks focus on the percentage of GDP going to the military—currently about 4.4 percent—since it has fallen over the years. The most recent peak was 6.2 percent in 1986. Thus, Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute contends that the cost of “primacy” has been falling.
But America spends more dollars on the military today than in 1986 or at any other point since World War II. The numbers are striking. Using 2000 for constant dollars, the U.S. devoted $774.6 billion to the military in 1945, the last year of World War II. In 1953, the last year of the Korean War, military outlays ran $416.1 billion. Peak expenditures during the Vietnam War hit $421.3 billion in 1968.
In contrast, in 2010, before the Afghan surge and other unplanned expenditures, the administration expected to spend $517.8 billion ($700 billion including Afghanistan and Iraq). That is more than during two large, hot wars. More than during a lengthy, often warm Cold War. And two-thirds as much as during the worst conflict in human history.
Expenditures as a percentage of GDP have fallen because the U.S. economy has grown, not because military outlays have dropped. The 2010 GDP (in 2000) will run about $11.7 trillion. That is almost twice as much as in 1986 (also in 2000 dollars). That’s more than three times the U.S. GDP in 1968. It is nearly six times America’s GDP in 1953. And 6.6 times the GDP of 1945.
Thus, spending the same GDP percentage on the Pentagon today as in 1986 would double outlays. Spend the same percentage as in 1968 and expenditures would be three times as large. Do the same as in 1953 and spending would be six times as high. Military outlays should be tied to threats, not economic growth. Can anyone credibly claim the military threat facing America is two, three, or six times as great today as during those years?
Equally important, the U.S. spends vastly more than any other nation and devotes a larger percentage of its GDP on the military than do most of its allies and adversaries. Of course, a few poorer or smaller states spend more—columnist Jeff Huber points to “juggernauts like Burundi (5.9 percent), Eritrea (6.3 percent), and Qatar (10 percent).” But the GDP percentage tells us little about their capabilities.
U.S. outlays per capita dramatically outpace those of other nations. My Cato Institute colleague Chris Preble figures that in 2010 citizens in America will devote more than five times as much as Germans, about eight times as much as Japanese, and more than 27 times as much as Chinese.