Fresh Thinking on National Security

Everyone wants America to be safe and secure. And our government has a wide array of tools for accomplishing that.

We can use creative diplomacy to diffuse tensions. We can use foreign aid to tackle the problems of poverty and despair that make many people more vulnerable to criminal networks, from drug traffickers to the Taliban. We can use border security. And of course we use the military.

All of these tools are important. The problem is that one of them, the military option, receives the overwhelming bulk of taxpayer dollars, while the other areas are chronically underfunded. Every year we spend about $14 on our military forces for every dollar we spend to engage the world by non-military means. And military spending will total a whopping $750 billion in 2010.

One reason for that is that Congress has separate votes on the budgets for the Pentagon, the State Department, USAID, and other agencies that carry out different security functions. This makes it difficult to grasp the tradeoffs between different security tools.

For example, most experts believe it is far more likely that a nuclear device will approach our shores smuggled in a ship than delivered by a missile. And so it would make sense to be spending more on Coast Guard inspections of container ships than on missile defense.

But when legislators vote to approve billions for new missile systems, they aren’t required to weigh this decision against cuts to the Coast Guard. Likewise, when they approve new fighter jet programs, they don’t weigh that investment against the costs of expanding the diplomatic corps.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently proposed a solution–a unified national security budget. This would allow all spending on our security–including military forces, homeland security, and non-military foreign engagement–to be presented as a unified whole, so that the tradeoffs among them can be considered.

As Clinton pointed out, with a unified budget “it’s not us going and making our case to our appropriators and the Defense Department going and making their case to the appropriators”–a contest the State Department habitually loses. It’s a whole-of-government approach to security budgeting.

Her partners at the top of the national security team, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mike Mullen, are on board with the idea.

Gates has lamented that “America’s civilian institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and underfunded for far too long, relative to what we spend on the military.”

In a speech in early March, Mullen noted that “Secretaries Clinton and Gates have called for more funding and more emphasis on our soft power, and I could not agree with them more. My fear, quite frankly, is that we aren’t moving fast enough in this regard. U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military.”

But the budgets they draw up for the Pentagon keep on growing, and the cuts in military programs they support are almost exclusively designed to be plowed back in to other military programs.

As our nation continues to struggle with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it’s even more important that every penny of our tax dollars is spent wisely. It’s encouraging to hear Obama administration officials taking a fresh look at more balanced and efficient national security budgeting.

Now they just need to make it happen.

Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and, with Lawrence Korb, chairs the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget for the United States.