Fiscal austerity has arrived in Europe, and defense is not being spared, which now risks opening a new round of useless bickering over the “defense burden.” The Germans have announced plans to reduce their combat forces by more than one third, or 85,000. The French are slowing their defense acquisition programs and looking for new ways to partner on projects with their allies. And the UK announced yesterday a plan to reduce their defense plans by eight percent over the next four years, retiring its Harrier aircraft, eliminating the Nimrod aircraft program, trimming the force structure, and mothballing one of the two aircraft carriers it plans to build over the next decade.
As I have argued for some time, this day is coming for the United States. US defense spending will be hit by a double tsunami in the next two years. One wave will be rising demand for the same kind of fiscal austerity the Europeans are facing. It will receive new impetus from a likely Republican victory in the November elections, bringing a new wave of small government conservatives into the Congress. Additional fuel will be poured on by post-election reports from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force (co-chaired by Dr. Alice Rivlin and Sen. Pete Domenici), due in mid-November, and the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (co-chaired by Sen. Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles), due in early December. All of these participants in the debate agree that deficit and debt control depend, both economically and politically, on putting all federal spending and revenues on the table.
The other tidal wave will be the end of the US deployment to Iraq, due next year, and the more-rapid-than-forecast US withdrawal from Afghanistan. More rapid than forecast because the current US strategy is not winning, but the US and NATO seek to be helping bring the Taliban to the table for a negotiated settlement with the Karzai government. Such a settlement would provide ample cover for a swift reduction in the US military presence. As with the end of the Cold War, when US forces are no longer deployed overseas in combat mode, the political space opens at home for a discipline badly needed in US defense planning and budgeting.
As this broad restructuring of defense plans and forces emerges, we are bound to see another wave of arguments over “burden-sharing.” The defenders of high US defense budgets will argue we cannot cut our budget because the Europeans are refusing to “share the burden,” throwing responsibility on the US. And even proponents of disciplining the US defense budget, like Reps. Barney Frank and Ron Paul are arguing that we should cut back and call on the allies to “share more of the burden.”
It is high time to ask what we mean by this “burden.” The American argument seems to be that the US defines the “burden” and everybody else should share it. We do not ask our allies what they think the “burden” is – maybe their defense plans reflect a slightly different conception of the burden today from what it was in the Cold War. Maybe the US has defined a “burden” that grows exponentially without priority-setting, adding counter-insurgencies, military counter-terror operations, and building security forces around the world to the pre-existing missions of nuclear deterrence, counter-proliferation operations, conventional combat, and global sea lane patrol. Perhaps the US has not set priorities and calculated risks around these missions; perhaps some of them need a good deal less performing. Perhaps performing some of them has been exacerbating the very tensions and conflicts they were designed to prevent or deter.
Perhaps, in the end, the priority burden all share is the need to straighten out the mess in the national and international fiscal house. This includes re-learning the reality that a nation’s defense commitments and capabilities, like all government capabilities, have to live within a nation’s resources and not the other way around. This means setting priorities, calculating real risks, making choices, and using a more balanced approach to global engagement, something the US has not done for the past ten years.
The “burden” needs to be defined before defense responsibilities are passed around like rhetorical accusations or hot potatoes from ally to ally. The gradual close of the Iraq chapter and the coming closure in Afghanistan may give all of the industrial nations an opportunity to take a breather and re-examine what we mean by the burden. The US has not engaged that conversation; it is what should be happening, but is not likely to, at the forthcoming LIsbon NATO summit. Instead, the US is likely to insist that its ever-expanding definition of the burden is one the allies must accept, triggering another round of bickering, rather than the necessary reassessment.