Peter Beinart: NATO doesn’t need more defense spending
So long as the U.S. is committed to projecting military power at great distance from its own territory, its expeditionary forces will be at a disadvantage vis-a-vis rival powers operating closer to their home turf. Durable alliances are essential to addressing this disadvantage. If our goal is to prevent China or Russia from dominating their neighbors, it helps to have U.S. troops forward-based in potential flash points so they’re capable of blunting an enemy’s advance, giving war-winning forces time to gather over the horizon.
Since the end of the Cold War, many Americans have come to see the presence of U.S. forces in allied countries as a gesture of solidarity, which can itself deter foes and reassure friends. But forward-deployed forces are only reassuring if they have meaningful war-fighting capability, and as Elbridge Colby and Jonathan F. Solomon argue in their fittingly titled essay “Avoiding Becoming a Paper Tiger,” the U.S. and its allies have allowed the survivability and war-fighting capability of their forward-deployed forces to deteriorate. That, in turn, has made it more likely that rival powers might try their luck by launching limited attacks designed to shred the credibility of U.S. security guarantees, attacks that could prove enormously destabilizing. Dissuading mischief-making along these lines will—you guessed it—require increased investment.
There is another reason U.S. military spending is so high, one that will be exceptionally difficult for Democrats in particular to confront. According to the political scientist Lindsay Cohn, the U.S. military finds itself in a benefits trap. One of the chief ways the U.S. military attracts and retains high-quality personnel is by offering benefits that are more generous than those available elsewhere in the labor market. This recruitment strategy doesn’t work nearly as well in market democracies with more expansive welfare states, where the lure of health care, child care, education, and retirement benefits just isn’t the same. It is no coincidence that most European NATO allies stuck with conscription long after it was phased out in the U.S., and a dire shortage of military staffing has prompted Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s heir apparent, to muse about bringing it back.
Read: The tragedy of the American military
But in the U.S., where the idea of conscription has been anathema for decades, a relatively generous suite of in-kind benefits has been an essential part of the civil-military contract, and it has contributed to dramatic increases in personnel costs in recent years, which are set to accelerate further. Cut all the waste, fraud, and abuse you’d like (I’m with you), and you’ll still have to deal with rising health expenditures for U.S. service members and their dependents. Crack down on unscrupulous defense contractors (seriously, please do), and military pension benefits will still grow more difficult to sustain. To contain the Pentagon’s budget without drastically retrenching the U.S. role in the world would mean, at a minimum, sharply reducing future military benefits. Leaving aside the practical implications of doing so for maintaining an all-volunteer force, such a proposal would strike most Americans, who rightly celebrate military service as selfless, as offensive on its face.