This isn’t just about getting us out of the red – military and foreign policy leaders have been increasingly vocal about economic strength as the foundation of national security. Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey is the latest: “It makes no sense at all for us to have an extraordinarily capable military instrument of power if we are economically disadvantaged around the world.” The fight that matters most is the one in the global economy and for the “dominant narrative,” not the one on the battlefield. A dozen years into the 21st century, and you would think we’d understand that defense and national security or even national success are not the same things.
A balanced budget that makes smart, targeted reductions could strengthen our economic foundation and increase our global standing. This means re-prioritizing investments in the programs that look to play our real strengths rather than try to cover perceived weaknesses, address peace and security challenges in a globalizing world, and create a sustainable economy for our people increasingly connected to that world.
To regain economic momentum, we need to curtail programs that lost purpose decades ago. In our current budget, the government is prepared to spend half-trillion dollars over the next decade to maintain a bloated nuclear arsenal now more a liability than an asset in the face of 21st century challenges like socio-economic de-stabilization, natural disasters, terrorism and other transnational threats, and cyber security.
Some argue that reducing the Pentagon budget would adversely affect the job market, but more evidence demonstrates that the defense industry is among the least effective job creators compared to construction, education, healthcare, or even tax rebates. With wars ending in Iraq and Afghanistan, we would do better by our returning veterans by investing in education and job-training to leverage their leadership and experience to help rebuild our nation’s social and physical infrastructures.
We have a clear path towards a stronger and more strategic future, but that first requires our elected officials to listen to us. Surveys by the Stimson Center and the Chicago Council show that two-thirds to three-fourths of Americans believe defense should be cut to rebalance our budget and strengthen our economy. In fact, when building their own Pentagon budget, they cut current levels by an average of 18 percent. In tough times, American households put everything on the table to tighten their own budgets – our government must do the same.
And critically, less could actually be more. Substantial re-balancing of fiscal priorities could be a driver for national security reform, which we desperately need. The "fiscal cliff" is an opportunity finally to overhaul our Cold War approach to foreign policy and national security. We need to think and act more strategically because our modus operandi of throwing money at the Pentagon produces minimal security returns on investment.
If our elected officials are looking for a smart and balanced solution by the end of this month, they need to look at the entire picture. Peace, prosperity, and security are more than the tanks on the ground, ships at sea, or planes in the air. We do lots of security sector reform and nation-building abroad. It’s time we did some here at home.
Holshek, a retired colonel, is a senior fellow with the Alliance for Peacebuilding.