The price of our defense

Even under sequestration, we spend far more on the military than any other nation

Published May 27, 2013 4:00PM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on Boston Review.



Boston ReviewOne of the major points of contention in the Budget Control Act that became law in August 2011 was the “sequestration” that went into effect on March 1 of this year. It seemed as though neither President Obama nor much of Congress wanted to see the across-the-board sequestration cuts go through. Indeed, as key players and the media routinely reminded the public, sequestration was supposed to be so onerous that it would never come to pass.

But sequestration proved politically unstoppable, and now a series of defense and nondefense cuts have begun. The White House decided, as allowed under the Act, to exempt the pay and allowances of the nation’s uniformed men and women from the rollback, but every other account of the national defense program will be docked. In addition, if the Act is not overturned, defense budgets between 2014 and 2021 will be significantly lower each year than is envisioned under the budget request President Obama submitted to Congress in April of this year.

As sequestration took effect, some observers claimed that it would have dire consequences for national security. “It would be a shameful act of irresponsibility if Congress just stood to the side and let [the] sequester take place,” outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told USA Today. “It would turn America from a first-rate power into a second-rate power.” Echoing Joint Chiefs of Staff head General Martin Dempsey, Howard “Buck” McKeon, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, declared, “We are on the brink of creating a hollow force.”

But even after the congressionally mandated cuts take effect, the nonwar portion of the national defense budget will still be as large as it was in 2007 — hardly a year in which the United States was deemed a hollow, second-rate power.

In 2007, Congress budgeted half a trillion dollars for defense, not including the more than $170 billion allocated for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the United States continues to spend vastly more on its military than does any other country. All of the NATO allies combined spend less than half what the United States does, and no other country comes close to that NATO-ally spending. A 10 percent cutback in U.S. defense appropriations would not change the global strategic calculus.

The bigger danger for future U.S. power is not lower military budgets but rather the fiscal and economic consequences of overspending. With the federal debt on track to double in relation to the economy within the next two decades, interest payments alone could eat up a big chunk of federal budgets, hampering our ability to deal with future economic downturns.

Cindy Williams is Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Security Studies Program.

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