President Trump likes to brag about the size of the military. He did so in May of this year in a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, crowing about presiding over the largest defense budget in American history (it’s not, but let’s leave that aside for a second). He even bragged about the defense budget increases his administration has secured to a group of children at the White House Easter Egg Roll (with the Easter Bunny standing behind him). Yet the president routinely complains that the United States can’t afford to maintain its alliance commitments and suggests military exercises on the Korean Peninsula are so costly that they can be traded for vague promises of North Korean denuclearization. At the same time, the president will preside over a military parade in Washington later this year that will cost nearly as much as the exercises.
What explains this apparent contradiction?
It seems evident that the president sees the U.S. military not as an instrument of national power but rather as a symbol of it — which, by extension, makes it a symbol of his own power. This is a dangerous way to conceive of military power for a number of reasons.
Trump’s contradictory ideas about military power have been evident for a while. On the one hand, upon taking office, Trump promised a “great rebuilding” of the military — signing an executive order to that effect at the Pentagon. On the other hand, he complained that the United States could no longer afford to defend allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. According to Trump, those allies should go their own way — even to the point of pursuing nuclear arsenals of their own. President Trump has refused to go as far as rescinding American security guarantees, but he has routinely chided America’s allies for insufficient defense spending — most recently at last month’s NATO summit in Brussels — and has questioned the purpose of the alliance.
Yet if the United States no longer has allies to defend, then it has little reason to spend the vast amounts of money it does on defense. While the United States has frequently undertaken costly “optional interventions,” to borrow a phrase from political scientists Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, the bulk of its force structure requirements are a product of the security guarantees it provides. As political scientist Barry Posen notes, the reason America’s national defense is so costly is because American wars are, by necessity, “away games.” Projecting military power over transoceanic distances to defend allies is an expensive affair. So if the president is concerned with the cost of America’s national defense, he should be calling not just for policy retrenchment but also a defense spending drawdown. If military exercises on the Korean Peninsula are so costly, he should also be canceling the military parade.
But the military parade and high levels of defense spending fit perfectly with President Trump’s symbolic conception of military power. Even before his presidency, Trump routinely demonstrated that the perception of strength is what matters most to him. In a 1990 interview in Playboy, Trump articulated how a then-hypothetical President Trump would view military power, and it had little to do with mission requirements: “He would believe very strongly in extreme military strength … He’d have a huge military arsenal, perfect it, understand it.” In the same breath — but also throughout the interview — he claimed America’s allies were ripping it off, suggesting the “huge” arsenal he would oversee had little to do with upholding the security guarantees that are the main reason for America’s high levels of defense spending relative to the rest of the world.
Since his inauguration, little has changed about the way Trump sees military power. In addition to his boasting about the size of the defense budget, the president appointed retired and active-duty generals to important positions in his administration because they were “straight out of central casting” — that is, they projected strength. He regularly referred to Secretary of Defense — and retired U.S. Marine Corps general— James Mattis as “Mad Dog” (a nickname Mattis reportedly despises). In addition to his routine crowing about the size of the defense budget, Trump even bragged in a tweet early in his presidency about the U.S. nuclear arsenal being more powerful than ever, despite not a single substantive change having been made to it.
It is easy to dismiss such rhetoric as just Trumpian showmanship, but regardless, it is a dangerous way to view the military for at least four reasons.
First, it is needlessly provocative. The president’s desire to speak loudly and carry a big stick will necessarily worry potential adversaries and American allies alike about how he intends to use that stick. His talk of “fire and fury” in response to North Korean nuclear and missile tests unnecessarily exacerbated an already tense standoff over the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear program. The fact that he has the military power (including more or less unilateral authority over America’s nuclear arsenal) at his disposal to back up such rhetoric, coupled with President Trump’s tendency to hurl personal insults at his adversaries, increases the possibility that a crisis will spiral out of control.
Second, and related, to see the military as a symbol disconnects military power from its instrumental purpose. The United States needs a large military budget today because it defends allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. There is a debate to be had about the value of these commitments. But without them, the need to maintain a large military capable of projecting power around the globe — and the high levels of defense spending it demands — disappears.
Military power, as Clausewitz argued, is supposed to be an instrument of state policy. The political aim in war places limits on the use of military force and imposes rationality on it. Disconnecting military power from its rational purpose suggests there are potentially no limits on its use. Military forces do not exist for their own sake. They are a means to fulfilling political ends. While these ends can and do vary in their necessity and feasibility — mostly with regard to the frequency of the “optional interventions” mentioned above — the core political ends of American grand strategy since 1945 have been deterring aggression and assuring allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Third, the increases in defense spending that underpin Trump’s boasting are fiscally problematic and potentially economically dangerous. The United States is already carrying large amounts of debt, which the Congressional Budget Office projects will rise to 100 percent of GDP by the end of the next decade — and, assuming recently passed tax cuts are allowed to expire in 2026, to 152 percent of GDP by 2048. Moreover, research by political scientist Thomas Oatley suggests that debt-financed increases in military spending can lead to boom-bust cycles because they serve as a form of procyclical stimulus.
Finally, Trump’s symbolic understanding of military power is damaging to American civil-military relations. That the president seems to see the military symbolically leads him to regularly politicize it. He routinely uses the first-person possessive — “my generals” and “my military” — when referring to it, and he even used the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier to encourage the assembled sailors to support a partisan agenda.
A military that is apolitical from the perspective of partisan politics is essential for a number of reasons. As Alice Hunt Friend of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has explained, a military loyal to a partisan agenda might raise questions about the peaceful transfer of power and the ability of an opposition party to assert control over it once in power. According to Friend, partisan concerns over a politicized military can also lead to variation in how the military is treated, in terms of funding and use, depending on who is in power. Moreover, there is a danger to societal values in a liberal democracy, given the popularity of the military as an institution, when it is linked to a particular political leader or party — rather than to the Constitution and elected civilian officials in general — and can be used to delegitimize the opposition.
Yet there is little incentive for either military leaders or members of Congress to push back against the president on this issue. Both strategic and parochial reasons play a role in their acquiescence. For the former, the increased defense budgets that underpin Trump’s boasts about the military serve a strategy both civilian defense officials and military leaders remain committed to — which includes preparations to defend American allies, as well as continuing ongoing operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Moreover, the leaders of bureaucracies generally favor budget increases — particularly when the activity is as costly and uncertain as military preparedness.
For the latter, defense hawks, too, remain committed to America’s traditional strategy — while even less hawkish legislators can benefit from increased defense spending if defense production provides jobs in their home states and districts. And were that not enough, the president’s party controls both houses of Congress. Even if Republicans had not built their reputation over the past several decades on being defenders of America’s military, it is unlikely they would seek to actively undermine a commander-in-chief from their own party.
To this point, President Trump has shown a tendency to bluster but back down on the world stage. However, his continued desire to demonstrate the appearance of strength through bragging makes it likely the type of provocations discussed above will continue. And given potential flashpoints in Syria, Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific, the odds of Trump’s rhetoric leading to the misperception of his intentions and the escalation of a crisis — where an adversary decides to take action rather than leave themselves vulnerable to an attack — are increased. Moreover, defense budget increases divorced from strategic considerations pose fiscal and economic challenges, while continued politicization of the military is a dangerous proposition for American politics.
There are reasonable — and essential — debates to be had over the political purpose of America’s military instrument. That the American military should be understood as an instrument, rather than a symbol, should not be up for debate. To treat it symbolically is to invite dangers both abroad and at home.