With the intent to reduce the US defense budget over the next ten years by $350 billion, Einstein offers sage advice when thinking about major problems. “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.”

The problem in this case is not the defense budget. Rather, the defense budget is a reflection of special interests, Congressional discretions, and presidential priorities. Thus, as the super-committee of legislators meets, it is first important to identify the reasons for defense spending growth, which is not as straight forward as it appears.

Fareed Zakaria sees growth due “to an out-of-control military-industrial complex.”


P.W. Singer, meanwhile, notes “roughly 65 percent of that [post-2001 defense] spending went to operations, not modernization.”

After reconciling conflicting views on defense spending growth and taking into account reducing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, policymakers need to validate current roles and missions assigned to the US military as expressed in strategy. The current military strategy defines the objectives as countering violent extremism, deterring and defeating aggression, strengthening international and regional security, and shaping the future force.

That strategy drives action is more academic than empirical, but President Barack Obama understands the necessity of “a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world.” Without it, then an ends-ways-means mismatch will occur, shifting risk to those on the frontlines of defense policy.

Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta agrees:

“Choices must be based on sound strategy and policy. In the past, such as after the Vietnam War, our government applied cuts to defense across the board, resulting in a force that was undersized and underfunded relative to its missions and responsibilities. This process has historically led to outcomes that weaken rather than strengthen our national security – and which ultimately cost our nation more when it must quickly rearm to confront new threats.”

If a strategic discussion precedes defense cuts, some leaders, researchers, and pundits will want to redefine national interests to restrict actions, but 65 years of history suggest this does not work. Prescriptive strategic ideas like off-shore balancing, America First, or selective engagement are inconsistent with American values and misunderstand the US role in the world. Expansionist interpretations of US military strategy fail to take into account the supporting role the US provides friends, allies, and almost every country in the world. As former US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker recently wrote, “Nations around the world depend on us as an honest broker, to maintain stability, and to balance out more worrying regional actors.”

That is not to say that the United States should not seek greater efficiencies from these global relationships. In Afghanistan, for example, NATO trainers increasingly fill the role occupied by Americans as international partners shift from combat to training roles. Or with Libya, it is largely French, British, and Italian aircraft leading the effort with the United States providing enablers such as air refueling, command and control, and intelligence. In the Balkans, it is through German preponderance that the Kosovo operations sustain. Or when it comes to peacekeeping, it is forces from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia who wear blue helmets in post-conflict zones. These contributions to international security should not be overlooked and policymakers should consider how the United States enables international security.

Derek S. Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is assigned to NTM-A; he is the author of Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the US Military. He is currently on leave from the Naval War College.