America Must Cut Back to Move Forward
Joseph M. Parent and Paul K. MacDonald
Foreign Affairs, November/December 2011
In the wake of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy underwent a profound transformation. Unrestrained by superpower competition,
Today, however, U.S. power has begun to wane. As other states rise in prominence,
But if U.S. policymakers have reduced the country's strategic commitments in response to a decline in its relative power, they have yet to fully embrace retrenchment as a policy and endorse deep spending cuts (especially to the military), redefine
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
DECLINE: DELUSION OR DESTINY?
Power is multifaceted and difficult to measure, but the metrics that matter most over the long term are a country's military capability and economic strength relative to rivals. Using those benchmarks, there is a strong case to be made that although U.S. decline is real, its rate is modest.
The trend of the last decade is disturbing: as military spending soared, U.S. success abroad sagged. To be clear,
Beyond these challenges to the country's military dominance, a weakened economic condition is contributing to the decline of U.S. power. The U.S. economy remains the largest in the world, yet its position is in jeopardy. Between 1999 and 2009, the U.S. share of global GDP (measured in terms of purchasing power parity) fell from 23 percent to 20 percent, whereas
The fiscal position of
The news is not all doom and gloom. Despite massive federal debt,
RESISTING THE MYTHS OF EMPIRE
Despite the erosion of U.S. military and economic dominance, many observers warn that a rapid departure from the current approach to foreign policy would be disastrous. The historian
A somewhat more compelling concern raised by opponents of retrenchment is that the policy might undermine deterrence. Reducing the defense budget or repositioning forces would make
There are many problems with this position. For starters, the policies that have gotten
More generally, U.S. forward deployments are no longer the main barrier to great-power land grabs. Taking and holding territory is more expensive than it once was, and great powers have little incentive or interest in expanding further.
Nor is there good evidence that reducing
Others warn that the U.S. political system is too fragmented to implement a coordinated policy of retrenchment. In this view, even if the foreign policy community unanimously subscribed to this strategy, it would be unable to outmaneuver lobbying groups and bureaucracies that favor a more activist approach. Electoral pressures reward lucrative defense contracts and chest-thumping stump speeches rather than sober appraisals of declining fortunes. Whatever leaders' preferences are, bureaucratic pressures promote conservative decisions, policy inertia, and big budgets -- none of which is likely to usher in an era of self-restraint.
Despite deep partisan divides, however, Republicans and Democrats have often put aside their differences when it comes to foreign policy. After World War II,
Today, electoral pressures support a more modest approach to foreign affairs. According to a 2009 study by the
Institutional barriers to reform do remain. Yet when presidents have led, the bureaucrats have largely followed. Three successive administrations, beginning with that of
Thus, claims that retrenchment is politically impractical or improbable are unfounded. Just as a more humble foreign policy will invite neither instability nor decline, domestic political factors will not inevitably prevent timely reform. To chart a new course, U.S. policymakers need only possess foresight and will.
THE VIRTUES OF RESTRAINT
Even if a policy of retrenchment were possible to implement, would it work? The historical record suggests it would. Since 1870, there have been 18 cases in which a great power slipped in the rankings, as measured by its GDP relative to those of other great powers. Fifteen of those declining powers implemented some form of retrenchment. Far from inviting aggression, this policy resulted in those states' being more likely to avoid militarized disputes and to recover their former rank than the three declining great powers that did not adopt retrenchment:
Retrenchment works in several ways. One is by shifting commitments and resources from peripheral to core interests and preserving investments in the most valuable geographic and functional areas. This can help pare back the number of potential flashpoints with emerging adversaries by decreasing the odds of accidental clashes, as well as reducing the incentives of regional powers to respond confrontationally. Whereas primacy forces a state to defend a vast and brittle perimeter, a policy of retrenchment allows it to respond to significant threats at the times and in the places of its choosing. Conflict does not become entirely elective, as threats to core interests still must be met. But for
It would also encourage U.S. allies to assume more responsibility for collective security. Such burden sharing would be more equitable for U.S. taxpayers, who today shoulder a disproportionate load in securing the world. Every year, according to
Despite spending far less on defense,
A MORE FRUGAL FUTURE
To implement a retrenchment policy,
In the event that
Reducing these overseas commitments would produce significant savings. A bipartisan task force report published in 2010 by the Project on Defense Alternatives estimated that the demobilization of 50,000 active-duty soldiers in
Retrenchment would also require
More broadly, the Pentagon should devote fewer resources to maintaining and developing its capabilities for engaging in peripheral conflicts, such as the war in
Disassociating itself from unsavory regimes in the
FROM PROFLIGACY TO PRUDENCE
The second necessary step for retrenchment would be to change the size and composition of U.S. military forces. Despite Gates' best efforts, the 2012 defense budget remains stuffed with allocations for weapons systems of debatable strategic value. For instance, despite delays, cost overruns, failed or deferred tests, and opposition from U.S. allies, the Obama administration has pledged more than
Deeper defense cuts would force the Pentagon to do what the rest of
The lack of a clear assessment of the costs and benefits of new weapons systems may also lead to expensive errors.
In contrast, a modest investment in proven capabilities would bolster U.S. defenses in core regions and give
Savings of that kind would be part of a retrenchment dividend that could be spent on reinvigorating the U.S. economy. Retrenchment begins with the curtailing of foreign policy resources, but it ends only when the resources saved are spent domestically. Although military expenditures are a productive investment, they are not infinitely or incomparably so. And
The modest decline of U.S. power, combined with a relatively benign international environment, has provided
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Copyright 2011, Foreign Affairs