A Word from London
Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research and is co-author with Jed Babbin of The BDS War Against Israel.
Weighing Aspirations, Trump Argues for Increased Defense Spending
During President Trump’s recent address to Congress, he said we must add $54 billion of spending to the defense budget in order to bolster the nation’s defense capabilities. Considering the $1 trillion in defense sequestration during the Obama years, this number may be relatively modest. The problem is making an assessment of what’s adequate and necessary.
Defense spending in the age of advanced military hardware is an exercise in reading tea leaves. The number of variables in any equation often overwhelms the serious analyst.
Take the F-35 as an example. The head of the program said that the cost of the aircraft will be reduced to $85 million by 2018. But that number has significance only if seen against a backdrop of lifetime use. An aircraft with an 8,000 to 10,000 flight hour cycle is more expensive than one with a 5,000-hour life.
Then, there’s the question of mission. An aircraft designed to perform a single mission — e.g., the A-10 Warthog — is cheaper to build than an aircraft capable of multiple missions. However, single mission planes will necessitate a larger than anticipated force and arguably a budget increase.
In today’s environment, it’s also appropriate to ask whether the aircraft is manned or unmanned. Perhaps it’s wise to spend more on anti-aircraft weapons and less on fighters and interceptors. Could stand-off platforms be less expensive in the long term than fighters and interceptors? Could stand-off weapons render Russian and Chinese airplanes irrelevant?
For a considerable period after World War II, military leaders and the corporate sector argued — without much push back — for additional annual defense spending. President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to this condition as “the military industrial complex.” With GDP growth at four percent, it was widely believed that continued defense spending provided an insurance policy against prospective threats.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and emerging sacrosanct entitlement expenditures, President Bill Clinton engaged in significant military retrenchment to close the nation’s budget gap. These defense cuts were increased dramatically by President Barack Obama, who implied that defense spending was fungible, and could be the fulcrum that maintains budget equilibrium.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump maintained that we hollowed out our military assets and offered enemies global opportunities they did not have when U.S. military preeminence was unchallenged — hence, the desire for additional spending.
But defense spending makes sense only when it’s directly related to an estimate of international threats, taking into account the means to neutralize those threats and the cost of those measures. What is one to make of a reduced Marine Corps — 220,000 to 180,000, the total at the moment — if one cannot identify the Marine Corps mission? Similarly, how many planes would it take to challenge Russian dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean?
Much of defense spending applies to a Cold War apparatus that has limited application to terror-inspired enemies. Can appropriations be calibrated to mission needs? Or does politics inhibit appropriate action? Our politicians shy away from any conflict that hints at heavy casualties. This cautionary provision makes sense, but it also affects expenditures. Flag officers contend that if you want fewer casualties, then we must invest in more advanced technology. A philosophical position drives procurement policy.
If the defense goal is to dominate anywhere, any time, against any foe (Trump-like considerations), the costs have to be stated explicitly. And it may mean that our aspirations are inconsistent with global realities, or that a U.S. accustomed to “guns and butter” may, for a time, be more dependent on guns and national defense than entitlements. Try selling that proposition to those in the Democratic Party.
Change in Our Time
From Heraclitus to the present, historians and philosophers have addressed the issue of change. Is change built into the nature of society or is it a mirage that reflects a different side of sameness? It would appear that there are years in the so-called modern age that suggest a departure from the past: 1789 and The French Revolution; 1914, the Great War and the End of Innocence; 1939 and the onset of World War II. Although it is too early to argue with any certainty, 2016-2017 may be a flux of historic proportions, since the institutions and their philosophical underpinnings that accounted for relative global stability are in disarray. The world is turning and not necessarily on its axis. “The wheel keeps turning the sky’s rearranging.”
Alas, the rearrangement brings into focus an uncertain future in large part because the political and economic institutions, such as the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, and the European Union, have lost or are losing their legitimacy. In fact, liberal internationalism — a belief that nations can share “rules of the road” — is undergoing a challenge from a newly emergent nationalism. Not only is President Trump calling for America First, but a nationalist sentiment has gained traction across the European continent and into the Asian heartland. Rules are being renegotiated or dismissed and the pattern for going forward remains unclear.
Accelerating this percolation is technological innovation that has produced a social media of narcissism and personal fulfillment that virtually excludes any other pursuits. Secularization across the board has elevated “me” into the position of a transcendent force. How does one manage a society that does not recognize the limits of freedom? How can order be maintained without modesty and humility?
As Jacques Ellul once announced, “technology exists because technology exists.” Presumably it is a force of its own, resistant to the controls of manners, morals, or human welfare. If in a Schumpeterian equation there is as much destruction as creation, will employment be a privilege? How do you deal with those left behind? A guaranteed income? Rewards for the idle? The puzzle parts seek a framework.
If trade deals are filtered through the prism of job creation, will tariffs be imposed to equalize comparative advantage? And if so, would these tariffs be applied internationally — what is now called import taxes? National assertiveness, with its broad political appeal, could result in a diminished world order or even global depression. Admittedly Smoot Hawley has faded from public memory and it was not the actual cause of the Great Depression, as many have conceded, but it did exacerbate a declining world economy.
Artificial intelligence is already addressing these issues without the requisite policy constraints. Most manufacturing jobs will soon be obsolescent. Even higher-level positions in medicine will be rendered unnecessary. These are changes advancing incrementally. A person with cancer might consult an oncologist today, but in short order he will ask a computer bank for the best treatment based on all the empirical evidence of his disease. Of course, this example cannot be generalized to all jobs, for society will probably need some work. The question is who gets rewarded, and who doesn’t, and who is left out of the equation completely.
While the change in the past was largely political and economic, the change we are in is the tail wagging the cultural shifts. The loss of confidence in institutional foundations moves down a slope of cultural realignment. When President Trump denounces political correctness, he speaks to a portion of the population largely forgotten by elites and resentful at the adversarial dominance of the “chattering class.” President Trump is an unlikely voice of the disenfranchised, but there you have it. The confidence deficit fills the air as people come to question the leadership in their nations; change will be unhinged from notions of the past.
Revanchism and Crisis Management
Revanchism, from the French revanche or “revenge,” is the will to reverse territorial losses following war or social movement. The dismantling of the Soviet Union, to cite one example, has led to a Putinesque policy of irredentism, the reclamation of territory once within the Soviet orbit. In a strange way revanchism has become the 21st century foreign policy perspective.
Palestinians believe the land captured in the 1967 war against Israel is “occupied” territory, hence territory belonging to the Palestinians. Chinese government officials agree Siberia is a province of China — a territory the Chinese once controlled.
Persians believe the Tigris-Euphrates basin is within their empire, notwithstanding the states with a present claim on this territory.
Revanchism accompanies claims around the globe as statism retreats before disruptive politics. As a term, revanchism originated in the 1870s in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War among nationalists who wanted to avenge French defeat and reclaim the lost territories of Alsace-Lorraine. The movement draws its strength from patriotic and redistributionist thought. It is inextricably linked to irredentism — the conception that a part of the cultural and ethnic nation remains unredeemed outside the borders of the nation state.
Russian strategy relies on military intimidation and non-military means, such as the manipulation of perspectives. To offset those strategies the West requires a united front and the means to counter revanchist efforts through a variety of penalties.
The questions that always remain are what is fair and what is legitimate. Is it legitimate for Mexico to claim rights to the southwestern American states? Is it fair for Russia to say the sale of Alaska was inappropriate? When do the claims of revanchism end? Does history have limits or are the boundaries determined by the relative strength and power of the claimant? Recently the Hague International Court ruled the Philippine claim of the Spratly Islands was legitimate. The Chinese government, however, chose to ignore the judgment.
History is replete with examples where false claims were made backed by powerful armies. Japan invaded Manchuria prior to World War II, arguing it was once a Japanese province and should be united with Japan again. Absurd on its face, this claim was recognized until Japan was ultimately defeated.
China, based on its ancient history, contends that it is the Middle Kingdom and all nearby Asian states are peripheral and subject to the expanding concentric circle of Chinese influence.
Revanchism affects the law and is also hostage to extra-legal concerns. It is a plea for justice and a false justification for imperial aims. Unfortunately, global stability depends on the recommendations of competing interests. Where law is ignored, force prevails. If, for example, China decides to ignore decisions at the Hague, can one force China’s hand? Is it productive to do so over a few rocky islands in the middle of the China Sea? But if action isn’t taken, does that become a precedent in future controversies?
Putin’s portrayal of Russia besieged by implacable foes opposed to its irredentist position resonates with Russian memory and is popular domestically. Revanchism is a gift that keeps giving since a Russia suffering from economic hazards from within has claimed glories from without. Moreover, a Russia willing to fight has a distinct psychological advantage over European states in the grip of appeasement. Overt invasions may be a condition of the past, but revanchism provides a pretext for military operations and saber rattling that can be justified as crisis management. Imperial Russia resides in the mindset of revanchist thinking and the West had better get used to it.
What Social Epidemiology Means for Foreign Policy
If one relies on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the great strength of the U.S. in the 19th century was its mediating structures that maintained social equilibrium. By that, Tocqueville meant the family, the church, the schools, and the associations — institutions that created coherence and solidarity without reliance on government.
However, a different America has emerged. As books like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic indicate, America is facing disequilibrium due to a host of harmful social trends.
The family is in disarray with the percentage of children living at home with two married parents in their first marriage going from 73 percent in 1960 to 46 percent in 2014. Illegitimacy rates have skyrocketed among most groups with 72 percent of Afro-American children born without fathers in the home. Labor force participation rates have sunk to levels last seen during the Great Depression.
The garment of social bonds is gossamer thin. Community volunteer activity is in decline and organizations like Rotary and the Lions Club are filled with aging participants. Mainline Protestant churches are devoted to a left-wing social justice agenda, but lack a devotion to religious principles. Popular culture has been debased by vulgar and commonplace boorishness. Fewer Americans believe in God than ever before and manners and morals have been buried beneath the tide of tolerance.
While some of these trends are worldwide, the U.S. is still considered the “trendsetter.” As a consequence, nations view with interest the ability of the U.S. to overcome these new social contingencies in order to deal with the demands and expectations of foreign policy. For example, can the U.S. mobilize a fighting force large enough and committed to the sacrifice militaries in the past have exhibited? Or have Americans grown soft and uninterested in foreign commitments?
Chinese leaders are perplexed by conditions in the United States. There is the widespread belief that the cultural advantage the U.S. had is on the wane, but they are mystified by the rapidity of the change. Vladimir Putin believes — to the extent his beliefs are discernible — that the U.S. desire to withdraw from foreign commitments offers an opportunity for the enhancement of Russian interests, that is the restoration of empire. Iranian leaders were persuaded the U.S. under former president Obama’s guidance would do whatever it could to maintain the flawed and one-sided deal so that former President Obama could contend he avoided a war with the putative representative of the Shia people.
Hence, the apparent cultural evolution in the U.S. has had a relationship to foreign policy that is correlational if not causal. An America that turns inward is a nation unwilling to pay the price for the maintenance of global stability. Needless to say, this claim will seem exaggerated. However, President Trump has talked about “America First,” an America raising questions about the international obligations of the past. Foreign policy, notwithstanding the struggle against radical Islam, has been relegated to a backburner political matter.
From a simple accounting, the financing of a $20 trillion debt will soon be the equivalent of the defense budget. The U.S. maintains the largest and most effective military in the world, yet it should be noted that there is little political support to sustain that level of military preparation should entitlements be reduced for defense expenditures.
Sacrifice is not a condition millennials consider. Hip-hop doesn’t prepare the young for the vicissitudes of war against a foreign foe. And the implacable voice of narcissism in social media suggests you don’t do for our country, you do for yourself. The state of America is grim amidst the corrosion in the culture. Of course, one should never rule out redemption in a nation that often exhibits resilience. At the moment, however, a U.S. coming apart influences a world in disarray. The beasts of evil are watching with anticipation at this social epidemiology thinking this may be their moment to leap forward. *