Monday, June 20, 2011

The Accidental Empire: The Cost and Why we can't let go

“Power is my mistress. I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me.”

-- Napoleon Bonaparte
The United States has become increasingly involved in securing a military presence across the world since the end of World War II. We maintain a military base and servicemen in dozens of countries, giving stability to regions that have been (or could be) considered 'flashpoints' for conflict.

Supporters of our continued presence in these nations argue that if America is to maintain power, prestige and national security, it must also provide global security.

While attempting to maintain peace and security around then world, the United States has become an 'accidental empire.' Americans had abandoned imperialistic tendencies by the time World War II ended. Military bases in Japan, Germany, South Korea, etc. were not an attempt to subjugate those people to our will. All three of these locations were significant as strategic points during the Cold War.

Those world hotspots, however, have strategic value even though the Cold War ended 20 years ago. America simply couldn't leave. And the cost of this policy is becoming more than the country can handle.

The cost of the American 'empire' is growing beyond control. The cost -- measured in human lives, damaged relationships, and dollars -- has a segment of Americans calling for a return to an isolationist policy not seen since the 1930s. 

What America sacrifices in lives and money isn't defense of just this nation, but is in defense of the entire world.  Other nations are perhaps doing better economically because they do not pay for their own defense.  Examining numbers about the spending habits of the world should be cause for concern.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the combined total for defense spending in 2010 totaled $1.6 trillion.  Even more astonshing, the United States spent approximately $698 billion, which is roughly 43% of the world's total.1

That figure becomes even more startling when contrasted with the defense spending of other nations.  The percentages for the next four top spenders are:  China, 7.3%; United Kingdom, 3.7%; Russia, 3.6%; and France, 3.6%.2 The only other 'superpower' in the world spends only 1/6th of what America spends and yet has a substantial military presence.  The UK spends only half of what China does.  Would we refer to them as a second rate military? 

Another interesting factor in this discussion is what percentage of a nation's gross domestic product (GDP) is spent on the military.  China and the UK spend 2.1% and 2.7% of their GDP on defense while the United States stands at 4.8%.3

Critics may suggest that the United States has always been a 'big spender' with respect to defense. That is most definitely true in the latter half of the 20th century. However, defense spending from 2001-2010 has increased by an astonishing 81%!  China, India, Saudi Arabia and Russia all experienced similiar increases in spending over that same time frame.

None of those nations, however, are being defended by the United States. The defense spending rates (2001-2010) for nations who are allies of the United States are: Japan, -1.7%; Italy, -5.8%; Germany, -2.7%.5 These three nations all have an American military presence that has afforded them a blanket of security.  Incidentally, all three of these nations are leading economies in the world.  According to World Bank figures from 2009, Japan ranks 2nd in overall GDP, Italy 7th, and Germany 4th.6

Those who are skeptical might ask why South Korea isn't among these nations that America is aiding by financing security.  South Korea has to maintain a strong military due to tensions with North Korea and they still need American assistance.

The UK, another key American ally, also has increased its defense spending, however the presence of the United States there is minimal.  They take care of themselves.

Additionally, the military spending as a percentage of GDP for the United States (4.8%) is in the top 10 highest in the world.  The only nations ahead of it are from the Middle East and the African nation of Chad.  In comparison, America's percentage of GDP spent on education stands at 5.7%, which is good for a tie ... in 37th place.7

Perhaps the United States should entertain the notion of revamping the amount of money we spend on defense.  Think of what could be done with the money saved from decreasing military spending.  Pay down the national debt, offer more protection of the border with Mexico, investment into scientific, medical and technological innovation, provide more educational opportunities, work out a means of providing affordable healthcare.  Any of these would be a noble application of money that is being unnecessarily spent.

So why won't the United States change this policy? Fear and history play into the global policy and these offer a powerful argument for continuing the current course. Critics of isolationist policy quickly point to the failures of the 1930s that could have prevented the rise of Nazism.  Could the United States have prevented World War II if our military bases in Germany had existed then?

According to interventionists, global security and our own national security depend on the ability to end potential problems before they become genuine threats.  I agree -- but to what extent do we need thousands of nuclear weapons?  Why do we need over 700 military installations worldwide?  I'm not suggesting abandoning these all these posts, but the time has come to change our military spending habits. 

America needs to let other nations contribute more to their own defense. We have contributed more than our fair share in dollars, and in blood.  How many thousands of Americans have died in defense of other nations?  What nations have made such a sacrifice?

As much as I would like to see some changes made in foreign policy, I believe America might have crossed the Rubicon.  The power in held by the United States in foreign affairs is too great. We are seduced by that power.  And that type of power ultimately fails due to the fear of losing it. 

The United States will only reprioritize once we realize we simply can't afford to spend at this rate.  The sheer size of the defense budget is a very real threat to our own national security.  Overspending has contributed to the exponential growth of the national debt and the false belief that we must outspend the rest of the world could be our undoing. Do we really want to be the first generation of Americans to ever default on a loan? Are we not concerned about what could happen to an already difficult economy if that occurs?

Rome fell, in part, due to their vast empire -- unable to maintain it, spread far too thin.  The Soviet Union dissolved when it continuously attempted to keep up with the United States in spending.  Ironic that two powerful nations met their end, being crushed under their own weight.


1"Recent trends in military spending," Stockholm International Peach Research Institution, 2010.

2Background paper on SIPRI military expenditure data, 2010, p. 1

3Ibid., p.2



6World Bank - Gross Domestic Produc 2009

7Education spending (as %of GDP) statistics

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