Late last month, I worried here that President Biden could open up a dangerous “Lippmann Gap” in U.S. foreign and national security policy by proposing a defense budget incapable of supporting his expansive ambitions. Yesterday, the administration came out with its first official budget request, and although it lacks the detail to justify firm conclusions, I’m still worried.
The nub of the problem is this: The President has repeatedly announced his intention to reverse course from his predecessor’s America First strategy and return U.S. foreign policy to its decades-long pre-Trump sweeping global activism and engagement. And since Mr. Biden’s “America is back” declarations clearly entail at the least a determination to fill an allegedly vital gap left by Donald Trump, and probably to pursue an even more expansive agenda, logic and common sense alone dictate that he request much more defense spending than at present.
It’s true that Pentagon budget and the military forces it supports are by no means the only tools available to the nation to carry out its international aims. It’s also true that defense spending can be made more effective without boosting overall spending levels by spending existing funds more efficiently and wisely. The latter’s potential won’t start to be revealed until the more detailed budget request is made later this year.
But for now, what is known is that Mr. Biden will ask for some 1.6 percent more for the Defense Department proper for the coming budget year (fiscal 2022) than the resources allotted to the Pentagon during the Trump administration’s final year (fiscal 2021). When adding in national security funds not provided to the Department itself (mainly for maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile – which is handled by the Energy Department), the Biden increase is also about two percent over the funding appropriated during the final Trump year. (This figure is calculated from here and here.)
Knowledgeable observers of defense spending may note that these Biden fiscal 2022 requests are considerably bigger than the Trump fiscal 2021 requests. These sought just 0.1 percent more for the Pentagon itself than was spent in 2020, and 0.34 percent more for that larger national security budget including the non-Pentagon money. (These figures are found here and calculated from here and here.)
But Mr. Biden charged that the Trump national security agenda was sorely inadequate. So it’s natural that he’d want more military spending than his predecessor. What’s noteworthy, however, is that the Biden request isn’t that much more. In fact, if inflation takes its expected course this year, this latest military spending proposal will leave the Defense Department and the other agencies responsible for national security with less money when adjusting for rising prices than they spent last year.
Moreover, even in terms of “top-line” spending figures, this Biden request is hardly the last word. The Democratic Congress is practically certain to make further cuts.
Again, wiser spending could fill some of this gap. But what the Biden administration has said about its priorities isn’t all that encouraging, either. Just one example (but a big one): The administration stated yesterday that its military spending request “prioritizes the need to counter the threat from China as the [Defense] Department’s top challenge. The Department would also seek to deter destabilizing behavior by Russia.”
It’s still possible, as suggested above, that moving funds into U.S. China- and Russia-related accounts from lower priority accounts could accomplish these aims even though overall outlays decline in real terms. But in the very next sentence, we learn that the administration isn’t confident that these moves would be the answer (assuming they’re even being contemplated). For it claims that
“Leveraging the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and working together with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, DOD [the Defense Department] would ensure that the United States builds the concepts, capabilities, and posture necessary to meet these challenges.”
That is, help from allied countries supposedly will be crucial to countering the Chinese and Russian threats. But not only have these countries skimped on their own defense for decades. For the time being, the President has decided not to press them overly hard to share more of the defense burden (as documented in my original “Lippmann Gap” post).
To repeat: I’m not calling for more U.S. military spending. In fact, I’d like to see Pentagon budgets shrink. But this position reflects my judgment that the nation can be adequately safe and sound by doing less in the international sphere. As long as President Biden wants to do more – not only than me, but also than Donald Trump – the only responsible policy would be to boost military spending. Anything else amounts to inverting former President Theodore Roosevelt’s approach of speaking softly and carrying a big stick – which history teaches never, ever ends well.