A Global Role At What Price?

President Obama's big speech at West Point today on America's role in the world is getting lots of attention from foreign policy wonks, but anyone interested in domestic policy should also be paying keen attention. Why? Because how the U.S. defines its global responsibilities will have a huge impact on what resources are available to meet priorities here at home. 
 
As things now stand, the Obama administration proposes that the federal government spend just a bit more on defense over the next decade than on all domestic discretionary programs -- or around $6 trillion. That's pretty disturbing given that this same budget envisions cuts in a variety of areas crucial for national strength -- such as education and infrastructure. In order to retain a position of geopolitical strength, we're disinvesting in the foundations of geoeconomic power. That's not so smart.
 
But things could turn out even worse. The $6 trillion security tab assumes that no new wars or expensive crises will come along -- a big "if" when the U.S. plans on maintaining far-flung global security commitments into the foreseeable future.  
 
These commitments include treaties whereby the United States promises to defend a great many countries from armed aggression. Just how many countries? For starters, we're on the hook to defend the 28 member states of NATO, including several Baltic states with significant populations of ethnic Russians, and Turkey, which borders Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Meanwhile, the United States has pledged by treaty to defend several countries that are experiencing worsening tensions with China as it flexes its new muscles -- including the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan. Of course, also, we're committed to defending South Korea from its nutcase neighbor to the north.
 
Most of these security commitments were taken on during the Cold War as part of a strategy of containing Soviet power. But now we're in a very different situation, where we face the question of how much we want to contain China and Russia as they do the kinds of things that regional powers have traditionally done -- which is to push around weaker neighbors. 
 
If we really want to contain Russia and China, we'll probably end up spending a lot more than $6 trillion in the next decade on security, further undermining investments in things like education and infrastructure. 
 
For instance, what's going to happen if Latvia turns into another Ukraine, with the half million ethnic Russians there agitating to secede, and Putin threatening that tiny NATO country in some way? If Ukraine had been a member of NATO, which had been widely discussed, we might be at war right now. 
 
Things are even more dicey in Asia. There, China is now doing the exact same thing the United States did in the Western Hemisphere a century ago when we became an industrial power: Its claiming its sphere of influence. But, unfortunately, that sphere includes sea areas and island territories claimed by U.S. allies, too. How is that story going to end? 
 
The absence of discussion about all this is remarkable. The Obama administration just signed a new ten-year security pact with the Philippines even as that country is experiencing rising tensions with China over territorial disputes. 
 
Are the American people on board with the idea of ongoing domestic cuts to meet our worldwide security commitments -- with the possibility of big emergency outlays or even armed conflict at some point down the line? Maybe they are. But that debate needs to happen in a bigger way. And those advocates who care about domestic budget cuts need to be more attuned to this realm. 

 

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