Strategy as Ends and Means: An Update

I posted here earlier about the connection between economic reality and foreign and defence commitments.  Here is an update to that post.

The current issue of Foreign Affairs provides an even more cogent example of this phenomenon.  In their article ‘The Wisdom of Retrenchment’ Parent and MacDonald make the argument that in tough financial and economic times, scaling back foreign policy ambitions and commitments make sense, and not just budgetary sense at that:

In fact, far from auguring chaos abroad and division at home, a policy of prudent retrenchment would not only reduce the costs of U.S. foreign policy but also result in a more coherent and sustainable strategy. In the past, great powers that scaled back their goals in the face of their diminishing means were able to navigate the shoals of power politics better than those that clung to expensive and overly ambitious commitments. Today, a reduction in U.S. forward deployments could mollify U.S. adversaries, eliminate potential flashpoints, and encourage U.S. allies to contribute more to collective defense — all while easing the burden on the United States of maintaining geopolitical dominance. A policy of retrenchment need not invite international instability or fuel partisan rancor in Washington. If anything, it could help provide breathing room for reforms and recovery, increase strategic flexibility, and renew the legitimacy of U.S. leadership.

We can see economic considerations at play, not just in the work of observers.  Take, for instance that fact that in his speech to the Australian parliament, U.S. President Obama made sure that the E-word was not left unsaid.  He devoted a significant part of his speech to informing his audience (the one in Canberra and elsewhere in the region–particularly Beijing) that

As the United States puts our fiscal house in order, we are reducing our spending. And yes, after ‘a decade of extraordinary growth in our military budgets – and as we definitively end the war in Iraq, and begin to wind down the war in Afghanistan – we will make some reductions in defence spending.  As we consider the future of our armed forces, we have begun a review that will identify our most important strategic interests and guide our defence priorities and spending over the coming decade.  So here is what this region must know.  As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority. As a result, reductions in US defence spending will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.

It would be perhaps too strong to make the point that this is a codicil to US President Nixon’s 1969 Guam Doctrine.  But, again, my point is we are seeing strategy discussed here not just in terms of ends but also in terms of means.  This is a healthy and realistic debate. 

We might ask, though, not what the President said, but what he didn’t say.  Which capitals did not get such assurances and what can we read into that?  If this is truly an ‘cost-benefit’ calculation exercise, where in the world is going to be ‘last priority’?

Of course, we haven’t completely turned the corner from the kind of ‘toys for the boys’ economic arguments that usually predominate defence budget discussions.  The F-35 still sounds like the cure for the common cold, a necessary–nay, indespensible–addition to the ‘meagre’ arsenal of the US.  And, not for nothing, the F-35 means jobs, so–regardless of its defence utility–it is the kind of program to which politicians with constituents–and with campaign donors, like Lockheed and unions–pay attention.

But you have to like this kind of retort, from Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune:

Superhawks often pretend defense spending has dropped by citing outlays as a share of GDP, which have declined slightly. But that’s a misleading statistic. As a share of his income, Bill Gates spends a lot less on food now than when he was in college. But in real dollars, he spends a lot more.


3 thoughts on “Strategy as Ends and Means: An Update

  1. I have long argued for a major revamp of the U.S. military to rebuild it to respond to today’s real threats rather than maintaining forces to fight some high tech version of WWII. I believe that this will greatly reduce defense spending.

    However, I also believe that simply reducing defense spending while attempting to maintain a ghost of the current force structure broadcasts a message that we are vulnerable and now is the time to attack.

  2. Molon Lobe says:

    It is a joke to reduce defense spending without reviewing the mission goals of the armed forces. Worse as this reguime reduces our military to pre world war I force levels and eliminates procurement one must reflect on how our allies and opponents will respond. The zombie like response that the US spends more than x nations combined is a bad joke. The amount the PRC spends must be considered in light of what the US would have to spend to maintain 2.5 million men in the military while upgrading our forces at the same rate as the PRC is doing. This is something defense reduction hawks will not do.

    If our allies will not take up a greater share of the burden then we must reduce our commitments to NATO, etc. In the same fashion why do we need an army that is designed to fight the USSR when our navy and air forces are being reduced to absurd levels?

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