alliances, allies, Biden, burden sharing, China, defense budget, Democrats, Donald Trump, Europe, globalism, Japan, Lippmann Gap, NATO, North Atlantic treaty Organization, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, progressives, Russia, soft power, South Korea, Walter Lippmann
No, it’s not the title of a newly discovered Philip Roth novel. Instead, the ”Lippmann Gap” is a phrase coined by scholars to describe the result of a country’s aims in foreign policy exceeding the means available to pursue them.
It was named after the twentieth century journalist, philosopher, and frequent adviser to leading politicians Walter Lippmann, who called attention to its frequency and dangers in his classic 1943 book, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic. (P.S. In this post, I described a major flaw in Lippmann’s thinking, but he was right about the importance of establishing a sustainable relationship between a country’s ambitions and its ability to realize them.)
Troublingly for Americans, and for other countries that have long relied on the United States for protection, evidence has emerged that the gap could soon return in a big way under the Biden administration – whose principals, including the President, are typically described as diplomatic “adults in the room” making the welcome return to power after the dangerous tumult of the Trump years.
The evidence consists of reporting (see here and here) that the administration later this spring will submit a defense budget request that seeks no new funding over last year’s levels. Of course, this reporting may turn out to be inaccurate. Or the Biden-ites could still change their plans even if it is currently accurate. In addition, negotiations with Congress, which needs to approve these plans, could result in some increases.
Moreover, a flat defense budget request is by no means necessarily bad news for anyone, except for whichever defense contractors lose expected sales to the Pentagon. For example, the Defense Department has long been notorious for wasteful spending. And adopting different priorities, or more efficient weapons and other equipment, could well provide America and at least most of its allies with just as much “bang for the buck” as previously, as changing circumstances produce a shift in deployments from missions judged to have lost some of their importance to missions seen to have become more significant. In fact, I’ve long favored major cuts precisely because the nation spends way too much seeking objectives – like shoring up the defense of Western Europe – which haven’t been necessary in decades, and indeed in theory create greater dangers than they can address.
But there’s no reason to think that such considerations would be driving forces behind a reported Biden defense spending freeze, or near-freeze. And this is where the Lippmann Gap comes in. Because there’s every reason to believe that Mr. Biden intends to expand America’s foreign defense commitments on net, and because in at least one major reason of concern, the main potential enemy (China) keeps strengthening its militaty and has been acting more aggressively in recent years, and because a major object of China’s expansionist aims, Taiwan, has become the manufacturer of the world’s most advanced semiconductors – the computer chips that serve as the brains of an explosively growing number of civilian and defense-related products.
What other conclusions can one draw from the President’s repeated globalist assertions that “America is back,” and that in particular, it means to reassure allies around the world that allegedly become unnerved about U.S. reliability after four years of being (rightly, in my view) harangued by Trump attacks on their own skimpy defense spending, and threats to leave them in the lurch unless their alleged free-riding ends? (P.S. – not only weren’t these threats carried out, but as I noted in this article, in some noteworthy ways, the former President actually bolstered America’s alliance-related foreign military deployments. Mr. Biden, meanwhile, has decided, at least for now, to let Europe’s members of NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance – Japan, and South Korea all off the burden-sharing hook, as made clear here, here, and here.)
Indeed, a flat or even reduced Biden defense budget request might come about in part from pressure from Democratic progressives to cut spending significantly. Fifty House members of his party have just urged him to reduce the defense budget “significantly.” And their rationale has nothing to do with the aforementioned potentially sensible reasons for cuts. Their case for a smaller U.S. military emphasizes that
“Hundreds of billions of dollars now directed to the military would have greater return if invested in diplomacy, humanitarian aid, global public health, sustainability initiatives, and basic research. We must end the forever wars, heal our veterans, and re-orient towards a holistic conception of national security that centers public health, climate change and human rights.”
I’m all for many of these particular aims, and also strongly support developing new definitions of national security and how to achieve and maintain it. But the Biden administration seems likeliest not to redefine national security significantly, but at most add these new domestic-oriented objectives on to the existing list of traditional goals. Therefore, if the progressives get even some of what they want, the effect inevitably would be to assume that “diplomacy, humanitarian aid, global public health, sustainability initiatives, and basic research” can substitute adequately for military force in carrying out an American foreign policy agenda that’s growing, not contracting.
Whether or not I believe this (I don’t), or you the individual reader believes, this is beside the point. U.S. adversaries seem unlikely to be impressed with these forms of what political scientists call “soft power.” Hence China keeps boosting its own military budget, and Russia responded to Obama administration Europe troops cuts by invading Crimea and attacking Ukraine.
U.S. allies are reacting skeptically, too. For example, European leaders evidently worry that Trump’s election revealed a strong popular U.S. desire to shed many global defense burdens that the Biden victory hasn’t eliminated. Therefore, there’s been increasing talk, anyway, in their ranks about reducing reliance on U.S. hard power by building up their own. And as I’ve repeatedly written, that would be great for Americans. But it’s sure not part of any Biden plans that have been made public.
A defense budget request fully reflecting the President’s bold “America is back” vow wouldn’t make me especially happy. But it would be far better than one that reopens or widens (depending on your views of current U.S. capabilities) a Lippmann Gap – and indicates to both domestic and global audiences that he really means to carry out globalism on the cheap.