Military madness in the age of COVID-19
The United States faces an unprecedented threat to its national security. The biggest existential danger to our nation isn’t the external military menace from the People’s Republic of China or the Russian Federation. The major challenge to our survival as a world power is the internal peril from the pandemic sweeping the nation and the economic devastation that trails in its wake.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently proposed a plan to rebuild the economy. He would cut the Pentagon budget by 10 percent and use the approximately $75 billion in savings for economic improvements in poverty-stricken parts of the country. The Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives plans to introduce its own plan to cut military spending.
The progressive push for cuts in defense spending comes from an urgent need to rebuild the economy in the wake of the pandemic. The official unemployment rate is more than 11 percent. State and local government capacity to provide economic and medical relief is crippled by a sharp decline in tax revenues.
Sanders lost the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but his words still have great power. “In the midst of the worst public health crisis in 100 years and the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, we do not need to authorize $750.5 billion in bombs, weapons, fighter jets and endless wars.” What we have here is a bad case of overkill in U.S. military spending.
The federal capacity to fund economic recovery is limited since military spending eats up more than half of the federal discretionary budget and because the federal budget deficit has ballooned since Donald Trump became president.
Let’s do the math for military madness in the age of COVID-19. There’s certainly room for cuts in Department of Defense spending. The U.S. this year will spend as much money on its military as the next 12 countries combined.
China is second in military spending and it spends only a third as much on its armed forces ($237 billion). The People’s Republic of China is betting that its massive economic growth will be the force that allows it to outstrip the U.S. as the strongest power on the world stage. Let’s not allow that to happen.
The four biggest external threats to our national security — China, the Russian Federation ($48 billion), Iran ($19.6 billion) and North Korea ($1.6 billion) — combined spend less than half as much on their armed forces as the U.S.
If you add the military spending of our allies such as the United Kingdom ($55.1), Germany ($50 billion), South Korea ($44 billion) and Japan ($49 billion) to the mix, we would still have a massive advantage over potential foes, even with the 10 percent cut that Sanders proposes.
National security is as much about economic strength as it is about military muscle. The U.S. didn’t vanquish our fascist foes in World War II because of our small standing pre-war army. We won the war because we were the arsenal of democracy with an economic infrastructure that our enemies could not begin to match.
Back in 1987, historian Paul Kennedy wrote the influential book “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers”. It was a history of big power international politics and economics since 1500. His thesis was that nations that overextend themselves militarily at the expense of their own economies eventually disappear as international power players.
Kennedy’s story of national dominance and decline starts with Spain in the 16th century. Spain was the dominant power in the world with dominion of vast stretches of Europe and central and South America. But Spain devoted so much of its wealth to the military control of its vast empire that its economy and its position in the world collapsed. Kennedy wrote “at the center of the Spanish, decline, therefore, was the failure to recognize the importance of preserving the economic underpinnings of a powerful war machine.”
History repeats itself and Kennedy’s book was a warning to the great powers of the 20th century that the same thing could happen to them. The Soviet Union devoted such a large portion of its gross national product to its armed forces that its economy couldn’t stand the strain. Now Russia is a second-rate international power trying to live off its past glory. The same thing could happen to the U.S. if we don’t change our budget priorities.
Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is also the host of a radio podcast “Dateline D.C. With Brad Bannon” that airs on the Progressive Voices Network. Follow him on Twitter @BradBannon.