The release a week ago of an Australian defense plan calling for a substantial upgrade in forces based on the assumption that the United States will be reducing its commitments to the Asia-Pacific region has slowly gotten the attention of the foreign policy commentariat.
The paper in question, “Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030″ [PDF] is “breathtakingly ambitious,” indeed, calling for massive investment in land, sea, air, cyber, space, and ISR capabilities. This is predicated on some not unreasonable assumptions:
Australia’s strategic outlook over the coming decades will continue to be shaped by the changing global distribution of economic, political and military power, and by the future role and weight of the United States. We are not likely to see the emergence of an alternative political and economic system to rival the network of liberal, market-based democracies that emerged after World War II, as the communist system attempted to do last century during the Cold War. Globalisation will ensure that economic interdependence links states and regions together more closely.
We will, however, see changed strategic power relativities and an increasingly ‘multipolar’ global order, driven by changing patterns of underlying economic power and political influence. Our long-term planning will have to recognise that the range of even moderately likely strategic futures is wide.
Will the United States continue to play over the very long term the strategic role that it has undertaken since the end of World War II? It remains the case that no other power will have the military, economic or strategic capacity to challenge US global primacy over the period covered by this White Paper. But the United States might find itself preoccupied and stretched in some parts of the world such that its ability to shift attention and project power into other regions, when it needs to, is constrained.
Given that Australia expects that “China will also be the strongest Asian military power, by a considerable margin,” a substantial increase in security investments seems prudent.
Andrew Shearer, a fellow at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, took to the editorial pages of WSJ to sound the alarm bell. He asserts that “The Bush administration generally performed well in Asia” but that “in 2007 an about-face on North Korea policy fed a growing sense of strategic uncertainty in Japan and perhaps among other U.S. allies.” He believes the Obama administration “has continued this trend, and risks unsettling America’s longstanding democratic allies in Asia by skimping on defense. ” He concludes,
[I]f the Obama adminstration does not show it is serious about maintaining the U.S. military presence in Asia, Australia may end up with no choice but to get serious about strengthening its military defenses, even beyond what is in the policy paper. “Smart power” has its place, but U.S. allies in Asia would feel more secure if America backed reassuring rhetoric with real military muscle.
Christian Brose, formerly a speechwriter for Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, jokes that this comes “from the government of Mandarin-speaking, left-wing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, no imperialist war-monger he.”
He asks, “why is it a bad thing for our allies to strengthen their defenses? Absent some major surprise, the relative decline of U.S. power seems like a pretty sturdy long-term trend, and we shouldn’t do anything to catalyze it further than recent events may have already — say, by assuming that future conflicts will necessarly look like our present ones or that the old axiom of power abhorring vacuums won’t apply to new great powers.” He points to Westhawk, a “private investor” and former U.S. Marine officer, for the obvious answer: “If the Australian defense ministry can reach these conclusions, why shouldn’t the Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Singaporean, Indian, and Russian defense ministries also formulate these seem planning assumptions?”
I’d go even further. The United States should want the Indians, and the Japanese, and the South Koreans, and the Indonesians to reach the same conclusions. We should actively encourage them to reach the same conclusions. And that goes for our NATO allies as well. (The Russians, not so much.) We should work to get more and more of America’s like-minded allies investing in the capabilities to shoulder a greater share of our collective defense. And to that end, the perception that the “unipolar moment” is passing can actually play in our favor, as will the fact that China’s “peaceful rise” remains an open question at best.
This is not an argument for America to retrench — to send the signal to our partners that they are free-riders who need to be weened off a dependence on U.S. power. To the contrary, it’s a reason to do even more with our Pacific allies and to expand our joint capabilities. The rise of potentially aggressive great powers creates a natural incentive for their wary neighbors to provide more for their own defense, and I think we actually further that trend by showing a greater resolve to do so ourselves.
Matthew Yglesias, a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, points to a related discussion by Cato’s Will Wilkinson and Joseph Heath of the University of Toronto on the more general topic of burden sharing and wonders,
Is it really the case that cutting U.S. defense spending would force Canada to increase its defense spending? In a generic sense, it’s hard to see the argument. If our military were smaller, Canada would need a bigger military to defend it against . . . what? Invasion from the United States? An amphibious attack mounted by Peru?
Now I think it’s true that if the United States massively scaled back our defense spending then other allied countries would need to step up to an extent. The US Navy does provide some real public goods in terms of freedom of the seas, and some of the responsibility for shouldering that load would need to devolve to Europe and Japan with hopefully China and India pitching in as well. But a considerable portion of American defense spending is genuinely wasteful. If we didn’t do it, it just wouldn’t be done. After all, it’s important to understand that excess capacity in military equipment is about as close as you can get to a real-world example of entirely wasteful public sector activity.
Finally, Foreign Policy Watch’s Matt Eckel observes,
This gets at an old debate among observers of international relations, namely, the extent to which imperial power is illusory. In other words, Yglesias assumes that the role of the United States military in maintaining global stability is minimal. The U.S. Navy might help keep the sea lanes safe, but overall the fact that there are American boots on the ground on every inhabited continent doesn’t really contribute that much to the stability of global economic and political intercourse. The other view, assumed at least in part by Wilkinson and Heath, is that the American military provides the foundational support to the global economic and political superstructure. Take away the American ability to be an offshore balancer pretty much anywhere on Earth, so the argument goes, and you’d get a large-scale, wrenching adjustment in the global order, an adjustment that would involve a period of major instability and insecurity.
As someone who, as a matter of principle, supports getting American military spending under control, this is an important question, and also a very difficult one. What would Pakistan look like today absent U.S. military intervention there? What would the situation be in Central Asia without an American presence? Without the U.S. playing a strong role in the Middle East, would states there be more openly and violently aggressive as they jockeyed for influence? Absent American troops on the ground in East Asia, would Japan and South Korea be engaged in an arms race with Beijing? It is, of course, impossible to really find out, because we don’t have a parallel universe in which to conduct the experiment, but I do think Yglesias is a bit too blase about the possibility that a globally-positioned American military really does make major contributions to the political stability that makes the modern, economically-integrated world possible.
The problem with Yglesias’ “waste” argument is that deterrence is largely immeasurable. The United States spent an inordinate sum maintaining a deterrent against the Soviet Union for four decades. Ultimately, the USSR collapsed and we avoided nuclear holocaust and were able to declare “victory” in the Cold War. Would these outcomes have been attained had we built two fewer submarines, a dozen fewer tanks, and so forth? In hindsight, probably. How about 10 percent less overall spending? A third less? Who knows? One simply can’t accurately assess those risks in real time against an adversary whose intentions and capabilities can’t be fully known.
It’s even dicier now. To be sure, there’s no peer competitor on the horizon. The terrorist threat is real but not existential, at least in the near term. But the threat is also much less certain outside the bipolar superpower framework, requiring the United States to maintain capabilities to respond to numerous potential threats, possibly simultaneously.
Yglesias is right that marginal cuts in American military spending don’t necessarily impact other countries. The combination of the sheer volume of American military spending and global conception of our interests creates a free rider problem that we have complained about but accepted for decades. Even our great power allies have much more limited interests than we do and we’ve got enough excess capacity that they would be reasonably confident that we would meet our treaty obligations even with a somewhat smaller force.
How much would we have to cut back to change that equation? Again, it’s unknowable. Clearly, just the hint that we might be recalibrating in Asia seems to have woken up the Aussies. Then again, they’re arguably our most enthusiastic military ally, having demonstrated an uncommon willingness to join in any fight. We would likely have to trim our military to levels currently unimaginable to shake most Western European countries out of their comfort zones and into picking up a significantly larger share of the overall defense burden.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.