The White House Is Getting Defense Wrong

The Biden administration’s latest budget request has overshot the target, in the wrong way.

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The Atlantic

About the author: Kori Schake is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Russia has invaded a country on NATO’s borders, its leader has repeatedly invoked the specter of nuclear war, and its military is mercilessly bombing civilian targets. China, meanwhile, is ramping up its defense spending, has overtaken the United States in some important areas of defense technology, and just signed a treaty of “friendship” with Russia. Elsewhere, North Korea is testing missiles that can reach the U.S., Iran continues to be a malign actor in the Middle East, and terrorist groups have not gone away.

Yet in its latest budget request for defense, the Biden administration has sought to downplay the U.S. military’s role in national security, and the resources it has asked for are insufficient for even that reduced role. In seeking to diminish the dominance of military elements in American strategy, the Biden administration has overshot the target: Defense is nowhere to be found in its thinking about strategy; defense serves merely as a supply depot for other militaries, and a cash cow for other priorities. In sum, the strategy is wrong, but even if it were right, the administration has not adequately paid for it.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin describes the strategy as “a new way of approaching deterrence,” a method known as “integrated deterrence.” Basically, it calls on all of America’s various resources—military, cyber, diplomatic, nuclear, and others—to work together to deter the country’s enemies from either waging all-out war or undertaking so-called gray-zone tactics. The notion itself isn’t a problem, and indeed it doesn’t actually break new ground—national-security experts have for more than 15 years argued for better integration of the country’s levers of power, and for stronger nonmilitary tools.

What is different—and mistaken—about the Biden strategy is the absence of defense. According to The Washington Post, “Senior Pentagon officials are brimming with newfound confidence in American power,” and believe that their response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine amounts to a successful example of integrated deterrence. Yet a central element of the Biden administration’s policy has been repeatedly and publicly assuring Russia that the U.S. military will not defend Ukraine. The president has ably organized allies into a creative and strong economic front, adroitly orchestrated intelligence and cyber elements of policy—but rushed American trainers out of Ukraine and limited the military’s role to weapons supplier. The administration claims that this approach has succeeded in preventing Vladimir Putin from attacking NATO, but this argument not only lacks supporting evidence that Putin planned to attack NATO; it also writes off the tragedy being experienced by Ukraine.

The White House budget claims, “As America leads with diplomacy, we are also investing in our military—the strongest fighting force the world has ever known. We are investing in our warfighting advantages, understanding that a combat-credible military is the foundation of deterrence and America’s ability to prevail in conflict.” But the president doesn’t even mention defense in his statement about the budget, and national security’s placement at the very end of the document indicates that it is the administration’s last priority. The money budgeted for defense reinforces that placement.

The president’s budget includes $773 billion for the Defense Department, an increase of $30 billion over what Congress enacted last year (which was itself $29 billion more than the president had asked for). That request is certainly a lot of money, equivalent to about 3.9 percent of the U.S. economy. There’s a reason most countries don’t have the ability to defend themselves and their interests: Defense is an expensive proposition. And 3.9 percent of GDP is roughly what the defense budget was in 1995, after the peace dividend and reduction in forces that followed the end of the Cold War, when international tensions were much lower than they are now. The budget for defense (excluding funding for the intelligence community and the Department of Energy, which is responsible for America’s nuclear weapons) also assumes that inflation for the coming fiscal year will be only 2.3 percent, but inflation is running at 7.5 percent. So the Department of Defense is losing ground to inflation.

The president’s budget also shifts money within the defense budget from procurement of equipment to potential future developments, and includes new priorities such as climate change and global health, which will have to compete for resources with actual military requirements.

Nor is the problem just about money. A well-ordered process would have the White House produce a national-security strategy from which a national-defense strategy can be derived, thereby narrowing the focus to how the Department of Defense plans to use its civilian and military resources to carry out the overall White House strategy. This national-defense strategy then gives direction to a national-military strategy that aligns military forces to the administration’s priorities. Those planning documents should inform the budget; none of them is yet completed, except for interim guidance for preparation of the national-security strategy.

All of which raises serious questions about whether the Biden administration’s strategy documents have much connection to its policies. For a presidency that is championing integrated deterrence, it is oddly bad at integrating the threat and use of military force into its strategy and policies.

A photograph from the meeting of the secretaries of state and defense and their Ukrainian counterparts perfectly captures the administration’s reflexes: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is at one end of the American delegation, with the Ukrainian delegation fixated on him, while Secretary Austin is at the tail end, looking intently at his notes, in the opposite direction of the conversation.

What the Biden administration has done with its policies, strategy, and budget is demonstrate that it doesn’t understand how to integrate all the elements of national power; it is so reluctant to use military force that both allies and adversaries will wonder whether there is anything the U.S. will actually fight for.