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Boosting Military Spending Usually Backfires for U.S.

Mar 27 , 2017
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to ask Congress for an increase in the country’s defense budget of about 10 percent, or $54 billion, in FY 2018. That will make the total defense spending surpass $600 billion, about 3.3 percent of the U.S. GDP.

Why would Trump want such an increase, as the U.S. has always had the largest defense budget of all countries in the world? The answer Trump has offered is that a large defense budget can make the U.S. military win all wars in the future. Unfortunately, his calculation is not true. Since the end of World War II, with a large defense budget, the U.S. lost the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and in recent years failed to achieve its aims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over-reliance on military spending and fundamentally fraught military strategies are to blame, and the large defense budget, in a certain sense, did a disservice.

First, enough military spending is important in wars, but not the decisive factor. In modern wars, more military spending could mean better or superior military equipment in fighting. More sophisticated weapons and robot soldiers, better communication facilities, powerful annihilation capabilities and intelligence-collecting systems could help avoid heavy casualties. As recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate, the U.S. could easily destroy most military facilities there and wipe out active fighting forces by relying on its superior military equipment. But the U.S. military invasion has broken the political balance in the two countries and reaped hatred, unable to effectively cope with guerilla-style warfare. The large defense budget and the best military equipment encouraged U.S. military policy-makers and generals to have blind faith in pure military theory, and not see the plain truth that war is the continuation of politics.

When the U.S. is wrong politically and violates basic international norms, it finds it very difficult to win a war. Many observers agree that the U.S. has won no complete victory in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The U.S. has failed to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan till now and has to send troops or military advisers again to Iraq. This is a big lesson meriting great attention, which the Trump administration needs to learn.

Second, it is not a wise strategy to continue to work in every possible way to maintain military hegemony in the world. U.S. pursuit of military hegemony causes competition in military equipment and strength. Military conflicts would hardly be avoidable as the U.S. is doing its utmost to prevent any single country from gaining overwhelming power in any parts of the world. With the rise of newly emerging countries such as China, India, Russia and Brazil, a new world is coming into being with fundamental changes in the strategic military environment. In the long run, it would be a mission impossible for the U.S. to possess forever the military power to dominate the entire world. In fact, thanks to long-term sustained attrition, the U.S. has already found that it is losing its dominance in certain specific military-related areas of research and equipment manufacturing.

Third, though the increase for defense this time is not a very big sum in the total federal government budget, its negative impact would be enormous. As the economy has not yet achieved robust growth, the federal government budget is tight and total debt keeps climbing, it is very difficult to save money for additional defense by altering the country’s spending on Medicare and Social Security. It would be very controversial to leave millions of Americans uninsured due to the budget reform. It is politically damaging to the administration to create jobs in the military-related businesses at the expense of other sectors of the society. It would also be an unwise choice to lift the debt ceiling again and again in order to avoid a default, though it might not happen as the Trump administration does not intend to increase the total debt.

Fourth, the U.S. has the difficult task to combat international terrorism, especially IS. But over-reliance on military force in the fight has been proved to be counter-productive. To win the war against terrorism, the U.S. urgently needs to adopt a cost-effective approach. The U.S. must improve its relations with the Islamic world, work closely with the United Nations, other major powers and countries in the Middle East, direct more resources to help eliminate poverty, and realize national reconciliation with each and every country.

Fifth,the U.S. faces no immediate massive threats to its security, nor a compelling danger that threatens its very existence. It is even safe to say that the U.S. faces no clear challenges that endanger its dominant position in military terms. China has long pursued a policy of peace and friendship with the U.S., seeking neither confrontation nor conflict, seeking win-win cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual respect. China clearly has no intention to engage in a military competition with the U.S. — China has slowed down its growth rate of defense spending while the U.S. is trying to increase it. More important is the fact that China’s military is in a defensive posture.

In view of the new world military environment, the best military strategy is for the U.S. to work together not only with NATO and Japan, but with China and Russia to promote world peace and prosperity. Increasing military spending is entirely unnecessary when the U.S. is truly strengthening military and security cooperation with all other major powers in the world.

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