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Harmful Effects of US Defense Budget

May 06 , 2013

Officials in the George W. Bush as well as Barack Obama administrations have argued that

Ted Galen Carpenter

Indeed, Washington’s military budget for 2013 (including funding for the war in Afghanistan) is more than six times Beijing’s official defense budget. Given that China is located in a region with multiple security concerns while America’s neighborhood is extremely stable and peaceful, it would seem that it is the US’ military spending that is excessive for its legitimate defense needs.

Such a bloated commitment of resources to the military is unhealthy both for America’s domestic health and minimizing international conflicts. It places an undue burden on US taxpayers while making other countries uneasy and suspicious.

A new infographic from the Cato Institute shows just how wildly out of proportion Washington’s military spending is to that of other countries. Perhaps the most striking statistic is that the US now accounts for 44 percent of all global military spending. Put another way, the US spends nearly as much on the military as the rest of the world combined.

The overemphasis on such outlays is evident in other ways. Twenty percent of the US federal budget is devoted to military spending, while the average for its NATO allies is a mere 3.6 percent and for Japan just 2.3 percent. Five percent of America’s GDP is allocated to the military, but for NATO countries, and Japan and China, it is well below 2 percent.

Washington’s exorbitant spending encourages friendly, allied countries to free ride and keep their own defense budgets lower than they might be otherwise, thereby freeing up financial resources for domestic priorities. However, for nations that have a more ambivalent or complicated relationship with the US, the effect is decidedly more negative. Major countries such as China, Russia and India have reason to wonder why US leaders give such high priority to military power when Washington already has a huge advantage in that area and the avowed adversaries it faces are small and weak.

It is indeed hard for the US to justify spending at such elevated levels given the superiority in its conventional forces and the existence of a large, sophisticated nuclear arsenal and delivery system.

Major powers that are not US allies could well suspect that Washington’s underlying motive for continuing its huge military outlays is an attempt to intimidate potential competitors. Smaller countries that are on bad terms with the US have even greater cause to worry. There is an ever-present concern that they may become targets of forcible regime change. Since Washington adopted that strategy with respect to countries such as Iraq and Libya, it is not an irrational fear.

Washington’s adversaries face a very unpleasant situation because there is no way that they can defend themselves successfully against a concerted campaign by the US military juggernaut. For them, the choice appears to be a stark one between capitulation to Washington’s demands or acquiring a nuclear deterrent.

The actions of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Iran indicate that at least some countries may opt for the latter. In a classic case of unintended consequences, Washington’s vast conventional military superiority (combined with a belligerent policy) appears to have created perverse incentives for nuclear weapons proliferation – the last thing in the world that US leaders wanted.

Greater restraint in US military spending would benefit both the American people and the prospects for better relations in the international community. Today, the amount Washington spends on its military each year is a whopping $2,300 per American. The comparable obligation for an average NATO country is $503 per capita. For China, it is less than $200 per capita.

That disparity imposes an enormous, needless financial burden on the American people. If US leaders did not insist on trying to micromanage the world’s security affairs, meddling in every manner of local or regional quarrel, and attempting to prevent other powers from playing more substantial roles, the US military budget could shrink dramatically. And it could do so without endangering America’s core security and economic interests.

Especially when the US government faces chronic, massive budget deficits and a growing debt problem, it is time American leaders established more prudent foreign policy priorities and pruned unwise or unnecessary commitments and objectives. A shrewder security strategy would provide the basis for much lower levels of military spending. The US ought to have a new, downsized military budget that is appropriate for the country’s legitimate defense needs.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and has nine books, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America, to his credit.

© 2013. China Daily

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