Sharing–and Reducing–the Military Burden

Key Points

  • The U.S., alone among its major allies, is planning substantial increases in military spending, despite its overwhelming worldwide military dominance.
  • The U.S. conception of military burden sharing is to pressure its allies, especially in NATO, to spend more. Mostly for economic reasons, European NATO members are resisting.
  • The U.S. needs to rework its notion of what military burden sharing might mean.

In February 1999, the House Banking Committee asked Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to explain why he thought the U.S. economy had been doing so well. Among the probable reasons, Greenspan listed “the freeing up of resources previously employed to produce military products that was brought about by the end of the cold war.” Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) then led the witness through a series of follow-up propositions: “I take it [that] what you are saying is that dollar for dollar, military products … are there as insurance … and to the extent [that] you could put those same dollars into other areas, maybe education and job training, maybe into transportation … that is going to have a good economic effect.” Greenspan affirmed all of this.

In other words, a government, like a family, should only buy as much insurance as it needs to protect its security, since other kinds of spending do more to improve its standard of living. Here are two indicators that the U.S. security insurance policy is more than adequate. First, U.S. military spending already dwarfs the combined spending of all conceivable adversaries, including Russia, China, and the U.S.-designated “states of concern” (formerly the “rogue states:” Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria). Second, the U.S. has unrivaled supremacy in most weapons technologies.

Yet there is bipartisan consensus that the U.S. needs to increase its security insurance coverage even more in both of these dimensions—spending and technological edge. The Clinton administration started the bidding for the twenty-first century by budgeting an 11% increase for 2001 on new, even higher-tech weapons systems; Congress responded by budgeting even more. In June 2000, the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed increasing spending by $30 billion per year through most of the decade—an amount equaling the entire U.S. education budget. Thus the Washington decisionmakers, who tend to listen to Chairman Greenspan as they might if the oracle at Delphi showed up to testify, have chosen to ignore him on this one.

Although excessive military spending does not currently rank high on the list of the American public’s concerns, polls do consistently show strong majorities favoring greater sharing of the military burden with our allies. The U.S. government is committed to one form of this burden sharing: pressuring these allies to follow U.S. plans to spend more on their militaries, in line with U.S.-approved strategic doctrines. This conception of burden sharing is not, however, what either the American public or our European allies have in mind.

U.S. pressure has focused mainly on the NATO alliance. At the spring 1999 NATO summit welcoming the three new inductees—Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary—Defense Secretary William Cohen exhorted his European NATO counterparts to increase spending to close the gap with U.S. capabilities. Under pressure, new and old European members agreed to a Defense Capabilities Initiative, officially committing them to increases in military spending.

But skepticism about these commitments is widespread. Since World War II, the western European NATO members have consistently spent a lower percentage of their GDP on defense than has the United States. According to NATO figures, in 1998, Germany allotted only 1.4% of GDP to its military, France allotted 2.6%, and the U.K. 2.8%. The U.S. spent 3.2%. After substantial post-cold war declines in military spending, moreover, these allies have announced plans to maintain military spending in real terms at roughly constant levels, on average, through 2002. Germany, which is focused on domestic spending to smooth reunification, has proposed cutting $10 billion from its military budget over four years.

A 1999 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) delineates the economic pressures on longstanding NATO members to reduce or hold the line on military spending, despite what they pledged to do at the NATO summit. The pressures on the new NATO members, the GAO report shows, are much greater. For all of these countries, the pressing needs of their own economies have made the idea of increasing military spending seem like getting on the phone to plus up the insurance policies when next week’s groceries are in doubt. In light of these realities, the U.S. needs to rethink its program of arm twisting for more military spending from its allies and rework the notion of what sharing the military burden might mean.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • U.S. policy regarding increased NATO spending for interoperability with U.S. weapons systems is motivated by a desire to dominate both NATO strategic doctrine and arms market share.
  • U.S. pressure on allies to increase military spending ignores both their pressing domestic needs and their search for sensible alternative security mechanisms.
  • Europe views U.S. plans for national missile defense as creating a separate U.S. security zone and undermining the cohesion of the U.S.-European alliance.

The issue of military burden sharing has gotten more complicated recently. Late in 1999, the European Union (EU) announced plans to launch a European Security Defense Initiative (ESDI) creating its own security force. This is not the mode of burden sharing the U.S. had in mind. The U.S. envisions European NATO members increasing their spending in strategic coordination with NATO objectives, including the defense of Europe, the Persian Gulf, and beyond. The ESDI is predicated on European coordination to address European problems, and it relies on restructured, rather than substantially expanded, military spending to achieve this coordination.

In March 2000, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson termed U.S. objections to the ESDI “a sort of schizophrenia. On one hand, the Americans say, ‘You Europeans have got to carry more of the burden.’ And then when Europeans say ‘Okay, we will carry more of the burden,’ the Americans say, ‘Well, wait a minute, are you trying to tell us to go home?’”

Robertson is right: Washington sees the ESDI as a plan that threatens America’s ability to call the shots in Europe. It also threatens U.S. control of the arms market. U.S. defense contractors continue trying to dominate sales of U.S. systems to NATO partners; European contractors want to keep their military dollars at home. The $1.5 billion worth of new U.S. grant and loan programs, appropriated since 1997 to support NATO interoperability, has as much to do with underwriting U.S. arms sales as with cohesion for the alliance. The fight is, of course, extremely costly for all parties involved, as this competition with allies—and not, remarkably, with any external adversary—starves other priorities, such as peace support operations, nonmilitary foreign aid, diplomacy, and domestic needs.

The debate over burden sharing has recently acquired another twist. The U.S. proposal to build a national missile defense system allowed Europeans to turn the tables on U.S. complaints about Europe’s insufficient commitment to NATO coordination and military spending. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said in May 2000 that such a system runs the risk of “decoupling” Europe and the U.S. by creating a separate U.S. security zone. And a May 2000 Washington Post article quoted a senior NATO diplomat as wondering, “How will you convince European voters to approve larger defense budgets when they see billions of dollars being frittered away on a threat that probably doesn’t exist and a system that probably won’t work?”

The evidence is plentiful that such increases in European defense budgets are not in the cards. Agreements underlying the adoption of the European Monetary Unit require EU countries to reduce their budget deficits to 3% of GDP. Germany is intent on increasing spending for education and youth unemployment programs, Britain for education and health, and Italy for social and regional development.

And the three new NATO members face even more severe problems balancing domestic needs with military commitments. These countries sharply increased their defense spending while they were trying to get into the NATO club, but they are now presenting more nuanced portraits of their budgetary intentions. Polish officials told the GAO that “they planned to spend more on defense in 1999 but could not, in part, due to numerous domestic reforms requiring increased funding.” Hungarian officials similarly cited the need to balance funding for defense “with social spending priorities to avoid creating social tensions and political instability.” In addition, each is currently trying to qualify for EU membership by meeting requirements for enhanced environmental standards and transportation infrastructure. Doing so will be costly.

Europe does face considerable challenges organizing and equipping itself to keep its own peace. Yet major defense reviews undertaken within the past three years by France and the U.K. have concluded that “modern, high-quality defense forces can be created without requiring large increases in defense spending by rigorously setting spending priorities and making difficult choices,” including cutting troops and getting rid of unnecessary procurement programs and bases. Within the alliance, only the U.S. is currently committed to a course of increased military spending, for itself and everybody else. The U.S. would be better off learning from its allies in this respect rather than lecturing them.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • The U.S. should cut its military spending by halving permanent overseas troop strength, closing unneeded military bases, canceling redundant weapons programs, and reducing the nuclear arsenal.
  • Washington should abandon the dream of a national missile defense system.
  • The U.S. should cooperate with its allies in investing in alternative security regimes like the OSCE.

Recent polls conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes show majorities of both European and U.S. citizens supporting NATO, particularly as a vehicle for burden sharing. Polls on U.S. defense spending also found general satisfaction with the status quo.

Unlike most polls, however, these probed slightly beneath the surface and found that what is meant by these views is rather different from what U.S. policymakers have in mind.

The NATO envisioned by a majority of respondents resembles less a military alliance bulwarked against threats, such as a resurgent Russia, than an inclusive apparatus of collective security to keep the peace in Europe. A majority favors inclusion of nearly all eastern European candidates for admission, including Russia.

Majorities also favored expanding NATO without spending more to upgrade weapons systems for interoperability. By a two-to-one margin, both Europeans and Americans opposed increased spending for this purpose. And it is clear that support for NATO does not come at the expense of support for other security institutions. The university program’s polls show strong sentiment for both strengthening and militarily acting through the United Nations—stronger, in fact, than the show of support for NATO.

Finally, these polls found Americans generally satisfied with the levels of U.S. defense spending—until they were given the specifics about these levels relative to worldwide spending. Only 7% of respondents saw the necessity of spending, as the U.S. does, three times as much as all potential enemies put together.

Thus the U.S. plan to share the military burden by increasing everyone’s load is resisted both by its allies and its own citizens. It is also, as Greenspan might say, economically unwise. The U.S. needs to craft a new plan, whose large outlines are not hard to see: share the military burden by lifting it. Lift it by: 1) reducing military spending levels in concert with our allies, and 2) investing in cheaper and more effective security institutions focused on preventive diplomacy.

The U.S. needs to follow its allies’ lead on scrutinizing its defense budget with hard choices in mind. A few of the best options include:

  • Reducing America’s large standing overseas army. The U.S. continues to permanently station 100,000 troops in Europe. In recent years Congress has perused legislation cutting this permanent European troop strength by three-fourths. It is time Congress took this proposal seriously.
  • Closing unneeded military bases. Even after all currently planned closures have occurred, the Defense Department estimates that it will have 23% more base capacity than it needs worldwide. European NATO members are scrutinizing their own military base excess capacity in an effort to save money; only in the U.S. has Congress put this effort off limits.
  • Saving on procurement. The Pentagon calculates that the largest and most ambitious of the new U.S. fighter programs, the joint strike fighter, will cost $153 billion. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the cost at $223 billion, and given the history of such estimates, the actual cost is likely to be substantially higher. Congress has begun to slow down the development of this program but continues to fund it while bankrolling two other new models. Instead the U.S. should focus on replacing worn-out planes with new purchases of existing models, upgraded with new technology. This would maintain U.S. superiority while saving billions.
  • Proceeding with commitments to cut the nuclear arsenal. Congress has put these commitments on hold. Instead, in each of the next ten years, the U.S. plans to spend on the Stockpile Stewardship Program (research, development, and testing of the U.S. nuclear arsenal) more than was spent in 1980, when the U.S. was maintaining ten times the number of warheads, as well as designing and building new ones. The 2001 budget adds $300 million more to this program. The U.S. should redirect its weapons labs to peaceful energy research, end subcritical testing at the Nevada Test Site, and cancel the costly and technically flawed National Ignition Facility megalaser program for studying nuclear explosions.
  • Abandoning the chimera of national missile defense. Clinton has delayed production and the next president should shut it down. The program threatens to scuttle the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, does not work (as the July 2000 test again demonstrated), and will cost, according to CBO estimates, up to $240 billion.

The U.S. and its European allies could also lift the military burden imposed by NATO-driven requirements, instead investing in existing nonmilitary security frameworks at a fraction of the cost. In addition to the United Nations, possible frameworks include the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This 55-member-state organization has a mandate to pursue conflict prevention, but it currently languishes without the money to fulfill this commitment. As analyst William Hartung points out, the OSCE’s entire annual budget of $112 million a year was consumed by a few days of bombing in Kosovo.

Finally, the U.S. should agree to suspend the requirements of the NATO Defense Capabilities Initiative for increased military spending. This would permit the weak economies of Eastern Europe to focus on the core economic needs of their own people rather than on the latest pitch by the U.S. military insurance salesman at the door.

Miriam Pemberton is the Military Affairs Editor for the Foreign Policy In Focus project and a Research Fellow and director of the Economic Conversion Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.