10 reasons US military strength remains essential

As the new Congress prepares to convene in January, it will face few tasks, if any, more important than adequately funding our nation’s defense. While our armed forces’ most fundamental mission lies in defending our nation and deterring our adversaries, a strong defense budget brings many other strategic benefits.  

Five years ago, when testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, then-CENTCOM Commander Gen. James MattisJames Norman MattisUS leaves dozens of 'high value' ISIS detainees behind amid Syria retreat: report White House officials stand by Syria withdrawal, sanctions delay amid bipartisan pushback Sunday shows — Officials rush to Trump's defense on Syria, sanctions MORE made a memorable plea for the State Department’s budget: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

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In this oft-quoted statement, Mattis offered an arresting argument for the importance of the State Department and diplomacy in preventing armed conflict and security threats to the United States.  Yet the opposite also is true: to strengthen the State Department, along with U.S. diplomatic and economic influence, we need a large defense budget.   

A common misconception in many policy debates is that military force and diplomacy stand in opposition, at polar ends of the statecraft spectrum. A powerful military can strengthen diplomacy and make peaceful settlements more likely, precisely because the possibility of force looms in the diplomatic background.

The historical record bears witness to this. American military power has played an indispensable role in the creation and sustenance of the international political and economic order for three-quarters of a century. For most of this time, our military strength helped accomplish much of this without firing a hostile shot.   

Specifically, a strong military:

  1. Preserves the open lanes of global commerce and finance for the American economy.  In this sense, the Seventh Fleet has done as much for the economic renaissance of the Asia-Pacific region as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Maintaining an open maritime system and trading lanes also helps prevent conflict ruinous to economic growth. In President Theodore Roosevelt’s memorable observation, the U.S. Navy is “an infinitely more potent factor for peace than all the peace societies of every kind and sort.”  

  2. Induces fence-sitters to lean our way. To take just one example, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s decision to expel all Soviet military advisers in 1972 came in part from his desire to forge closer ties with the United States, which, after years in the Soviet orbit, he saw as the stronger, more reliable partner.
      
  3. Helps secure and preserve peace treaties. America’s burgeoning ties to Israel and Egypt eventually led to President Jimmy Carter’s negotiation of the Camp David accords and the landmark Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Part of the cement that solidified Camp David came from the U.S. guarantee of large arms packages to both countries, which continue to this day, and were possible only because of the appeal to Egypt and Israel of the superior quality of American weapons systems.  

  4. Spurs our allies to spend more on their own defense. A robust American military budget can induce our allies to deepen their own commitments. For example, upon taking office in 1981 and launching his massive defense build-up, President Reagan prioritized persuading U.S. allies to increase their military spending. These efforts succeeded with our NATO allies and, most especially, with Japan, which followed the U.S. example by dramatically upping its defense budget.

  5. Strengthens our economic negotiating posture with allies. In the 1985 “Plaza Accord,” the Reagan administration, led by Treasury Secretary James Baker, successfully negotiated favorable changes in international monetary policy with Japan and America’s other G-7 allies that devalued the dollar and relieved U.S. trade deficits. The strong U.S. military and defense commitments to these allies contributed to their willingness to make otherwise difficult concessions on currency policy.
  6. Strengthens our negotiating posture with adversaries. Perhaps the most notable arms control agreement of the past half-century is the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed by the United States and Soviet Union in 1987. This came about only because of Reagan’s controversial deployment of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Western Europe four years earlier, which brought tremendous pressure on the Soviet system and induced Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to make significant concessions that he previously resisted.

  7. Makes us more attractive to potential allies and partners. The peaceful end of the Cold War prompted several Warsaw Pact nations in Central and Eastern Europe to want to join their erstwhile adversaries in NATO. The Clinton administration astutely decided to expand NATO and welcome these countries. Their desire for NATO membership stemmed in part from a calculated assessment that the U.S. military had proven stronger and more resilient than the Soviet military and Warsaw Pact, and these nations wanted to align with the winning side.
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  8. Provides new channels for diplomatic leverage and intelligence collection. An advanced military encourages nations to desire training from U.S. forces and the acquisition of U.S. materiel. These security assistance programs, in turn, provide the United States further channels of influence through American technical experts embedded within foreign militaries for training, equipping and maintaining weapons systems; the diplomatic leverage that comes from foreign governments relying on American weapons systems; and the information and intelligence-gathering that such relationships facilitate.

  9. Helps promote and strengthen democracy and human rights. U.S. security assistance programs have helped support the democratic transitions, and improved respect for human rights in numerous other nations. Our alliance with the Republic of Korea in the 1980s gave the Reagan administration leverage and multiple channels of influence to help encourage South Korea’s transition in 1987 from a military dictatorship to a democracy. Security assistance can function as a stick as well as a carrot, such as the Clinton administration’s termination of aid to the Indonesian military in 1999 for human rights violations in East Timor.  

  10. Improves humanitarian relief operations and enhances U.S. public diplomacy. The Navy’s leadership in the immediate aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia saved thousands of lives in Indonesia and provided a demonstrable boost in public attitudes towards the United States in this majority-Muslim country. This, in turn, improved America’s diplomatic posture and standing in a crucial region for the fight against militant jihadism.

In 1984, Secretary of State George Shultz delivered a speech titled “Power and Diplomacy” declaring, “The hard reality is that diplomacy not backed by strength is ineffectual.  This is why, for example, the United States has succeeded many times in its mediation when many other well-intentioned mediators have failed.  Leverage, as well as goodwill, is required.” To give U.S. diplomacy the leverage it needs for 21st century challenges, Congress needs to fund the Pentagon at full strength.

William Inboden is associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, executive director of the Clements Center for National Security, and a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, all at the University of Texas at Austin. His previous government service includes senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. This article is based on testimony he gave before the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 26, 2018.