Leon Panetta's Austerity Speech

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Panetta Halifax Forum.jpg(photo credit:  Steve Clemons)

Yesterday at the 2011 Halifax International Security Forum -- basically the Davos for defense and foreign policy junkies at which 18 defense ministers from around the world are in attendance (about a 1:10 ratio with other conference guests and participants) -- US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gave a mostly compelling speech that has no title but should be called "Security Deliverables in an Age of Austerity?"

Panetta was upfront with the assembled defense ministers that the US and all of them would have to find ways to "sharpen the application of resources" to major security challenges, that the age of austerity was here -- and that the US needed others to pick up their game in bridging the gap between defense upgrades needed and their particular fiscal and political constraints.  This was a call for greater efficiency, greater pooling of resources, and innovation across the board.

Panetta did offer a line that Senator Jon Kyl or John McCain might have made which is used to distract rather than enlighten citizens about real economic and security choices they are facing today.  He said:

I refuse to believe that we have to choose between fiscal responsibility and national security.

In my view, juxtaposing these two choices is a red herring.  The US has a shifting scope of security concerns -- and has to face squarely the kind of shifts in resources Panetta admitted in his comments but then seemed to take back in the statement above.

In 1985, the US share of global GDP peaked near 33%.  Today, the US share of global GDP stands at about 23%.  However, the US share of global defense expenditures is about 50%.

America needs to reorient its security objectives, how it delivers security deliverables, in a manner consistent with the resources it has on hand.

I can easily imagine a set of generals in Moscow before the dissolution of the Soviet Union or even in China today making this same statement:

I refuse to believe that we have to choose between fiscal responsibility and national security.

Panetta sounded like pre-Iraq War Don Rumsfeld in calling for greater efficiencies in this line addressing NATO members:

We must commit to ensuring that NATO addresses key shortfalls in areas such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, precision strike munitions and aerial refueling and lift capabilities.  To fill these gaps, allied nations will need to pool their declining defense dollars to more efficiently and effectively.

Secretary Panetta did highlight al Qaeda and terrorism writ large, nuclear proliferation, cyber threats, and Iran as defining threats of this era -- and in contrast to Senator John McCain who seemed to suggest that the dynamics of the Arab Spring would eventually topple Moscow, Panetta embraced Russia's potential cooperation with the US and NATO stating:

We are also hoping that missile defense will provide NATO and Russia an avenue for its most meaningful cooperation yet, presenting an opportunity for former adversaries to firmly turn a page on the past and deal meaningfully and effectively with the real threats that emanate out of the Middle East.

Panetta's full speech is here.  It mostly interested me in the sense that it is the first time that I have heard any US defense secretary in recent years begin to struggle publicly with the reality of diminished budgets.

Panetta's comments overall seemed fair -- though one NATO member nation four star general here told me privately that Secretary Panetta was disingenuous calling for other nations to do much more with less -- while not talking at all about how the United States could do more with less.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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