America, world’s top military forever?

By Bernd Debusmann
October 1, 2010

America’s defense establishment, from the Pentagon to think tanks, is trying to work out ways to cut military spending at a time of economic trouble. Proposals range from $100 billion to $1 trillion. None touches the underlying philosophy that led the United States to spend almost as much on military power as the rest of the world combined.

Of the many explanations of that philosophy American leaders have offered over the past few decades, one of the most succinct came from Madeleine Albright, when she was Secretary of State in the Clinton administration: “It is the threat of the use of force…if we have to use force, it is because we are America, we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other nations into the future…”

Since Albright made that remark, in 1998, the U.S. defense budget has grown every year, in real terms, and is now higher than at any time since the end of World War Two, according to the liberal Center for American Progress, one of the Washington think tanks to make savings suggestions. Even if the United States were to cut its spending in half, that would still be more than its current and potential adversaries.

The figures are remarkable: the United States accounts for five percent of the world’s population, around 23 percent of its economic output and 46.5 percent of its military spending. China comes a distant second, with 6.6 percent of the world share, followed by France (4.2 percent), Britain (3.8 percent) and Russia (3.5 percent).

How did the United States get there? Because every American president since Harry Truman has subscribed to four basic assertions: the world must be organized, lest chaos reigns; the U.S. is the only country capable of organizing the world; Washington’s writ includes articulating the principles of the international order; and the world actually wants America to lead, a few rogue nations and terrorists excepted.

This is the catechism of American statecraft to which mainstream Republicans and mainstream Democrats are equally devoted, writes Andrew Bacevich, a retired army colonel and prolific author on military matters, in his just-published book “Washington Rules – America’s Path to Permanent War.”

There’s little empirical evidence to demonstrate the catechism’s validity, says Bacevich, but that doesn’t matter. “When it comes to matters of faith, proof is unnecessary. In American politics, adherence to this creed qualifies as a matter of faith. Public … figures continually affirm and reinforce its validity.”

President Barack Obama is no exception and has shown no sign that he differs from his post-World War Two predecessors in believing it is essential for America to have a global military presence, global power projection and the right to global intervention.

Bacevich calls this the sacred trinity. It is a national security consensus that among other things keeps around 300,000 American soldiers stationed abroad and U.S. military bases in at least 39 countries. Even the most radical of recent proposals to cut military spending only envisions reducing rather than ending the global U.S. military presence.


The Cold War ended in 1989 and while the U.S. presence abroad has been thinned out, around 150,000 still remain in Asia and Europe alone, where they served as a high-profile deterrent to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That would be capped at 100,000 if a panel of experts commissioned by a bipartisan group in Congress, led by Barney Frank, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, had its way.

The commission found that about $1 trillion could be cut from defense budgets over the next decade without “compromising the essential security of the United States.” It’s a far-reaching proposal, unlikely to get traction, but it does not clash with the American credo of global leadership.

Neither does a determined attempt by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to find $100 billion in savings over the next five years by eliminating projects for futuristic weapons systems, cutting flab from the Pentagon’s bloated bureaucracy, eliminating duplication and reducing “overhead,” i.e. people and infrastructure not directly involved in fighting.

The $100 billion plan is modest — U.S. military spending over the next five years is likely to exceed $3.5 trillion — and does not affect the overwhelming military superiority enshrined in official policy. “America’s interests and role in the world require Armed Forces with unmatched capabilities,” according to the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a report required by Congress on the future of U.S. national security strategy.

Despite their relatively limited scope, Gates’s reform plans have run into fierce opposition from the heirs of what President Dwight Eisenhower, the World War Two general who led U.S. forces to victory in France and Germany, termed the “military-industrial complex” five decades ago.

That term, Bacevich writes, “no longer suffices to describe the congeries of interests profiting from and committed to preserving the national security consensus” and the money that lubricates American politics and fills campaign coffers.
The list of beneficiaries has lengthened since Eisenhower coined the phrase but their base of operations has not, which makes Washington “one of the most captivating, corrupt and corrupting places on the face of the earth.”


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“Despite their relatively limited scope, Gates’s reform plans have run into fierce opposition from the heirs of what President Dwight Eisenhower, the World War Two general who led U.S. forces to victory in France and Germany, termed the “military-industrial complex” five decades ago.”

I beg to disagree. While the U.S. HELPED to put an end to WWII, it was Russia (the Soviet Union) which finally put an end to that horrific war, at great cost in human lives and fatalities. ties

Posted by Warburton | Report as abusive

No mention by anyone about military spending as a percentage of GDP. In the US its only about 3.5% if my memory serves me. Or look at per capita defense spending, i.e. how much we spend to defend each citizen. There again, we’re nothing terribly unusual. We spend about $1600/head, Australia a few dollar more, Sweden and the UK a few dollars less (we’re 2nd among the top-30 defense spenders). Euro countries like the NL are less than $100/head, Poland about $600/head, China $342/head (if you believe their figures for GDP and defense spend), etc. Seen in this light, it’s quite remarkable that we manage to defend ourselves AND half the rest of the world with about the same spend/head as many other countries that have comparatively little internat’l commitments.
(data from a recent grad school statistics project)

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

Besides, I don’t think the author ever made a point or took a position. He made just enough insinuations to rile those who actually believe (whether through delusion or desire) that America is a colonial power bent on world domination and exploitation. It seems that such people take such positions either because they believe that others believe the same, i.e. the easy route intellectually, or because they enjoy perpetuating completely unfounded myths as a way to make themselves feel more important, like only they know the REAL truth. What rubbish.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

ginchinchili, you are a wise one…

American military needs to rethink and shrink.

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

The claim about the Soviets winning WWII and not the US is baseless.
To begin with, the US defeated Japanese imperialism almost single-handedly, since the British military had been severely hit in the beginning of the war. It was also the US who helped the Chinese fight the Japanese invasion. Remember, the Soviets joined the war effort against Japan after the US had already defeated it completely – a smart move indeed.
As for the European front, the Soviet military and state didn’t stand a chance against Germany without the massive US support they received.
The US and British took out of the game Germany’s main European ally, Italy, and opened a second front against Germany on European soil as early as 1943. That helped the Soviet state survive, after it had nearly collapsed.
The US and British crippled the German air force early in the war. If the Germans had kept their initial air superiority, the Soviets would have found it nearly impossible to reorganize their military effort, and defend what had remained of their industry.
True, the Soviets had huge casualties in the war – far more than the other allies, and the civil population had suffered more as well. They managed to stop the advance of the German army eastward with.
However, saying the Soviets won the war is factually wrong, because the US and British did, effectively.
As for France, I wouldn’t count it among the winners, since after 1940 French troops fought on both sides, and French authorities collaborated with the Nazis.

Posted by yr2009 | Report as abusive

The difference between the US and everyone else is that few others stick their nose into other people’s business. Well the US has a tradition of sticking its nose into the politics in foreign countries – like Iran and Chile, started with Hawai. This has later led to UN getting involved to clean up their mess.

No how about what if the Chinese did not believe that Obama was up to being US president, and replaced him with e.g. Newt Gingrich? He is a strong person. But no other country on earth has this eagerness to stick their nose into local political issue. The US had OBM on their payroll, Sadaam Hussein, and the Mujahedin (now known as the Taliban). The US has a track record of siding with the “wrong person”, the one that the locals does not brought to power. They have a record of plunging huge funds to make individuals wealthy, individuals that in any other context would be considered as heads of organised crime. If the US ended this aspect of the military – made ethical guidelines for its foreign engagement you could call this “policing” the world. As it is, the US is the “bully” of the society, that will not accept local voices the moment US corporations stands to loose from it – such as Opel in 1936. That made Eisenhower, because it enable Hitler to go to war. It laid the groundwork for IBM to supply equipment to erradicate the Jews. it was all sound US corporate policy – including the murder of the Jews. Is this a nation to be proud of?

Posted by knut | Report as abusive

So yr2009 – the US also fought the Japanese in China, out of Manchuria, and licked them in Burma.

Try to limit your vivid imagination. WW2 was another war made by the US, just as the invasion of Iraq was a US employment program. it was not “politically correct” to support the Britsh until Pearl Harbour – so no “thank you” for diligent effort to fight the Nazis. US politicians admired the Nazis, helped them, it was American individuals that convinced the politicians that they may have sided with the wrong people.
Have none of you read Hemmingway?

Posted by knut | Report as abusive

Debusmann delivers a great column here, and most of the reader responses (at least those selected for publication) are of correspondingly high quality.

Aside from arguments over which side made the greatest contribution to winning a war that ended 65 years ago, most of the pro-US comments are based on the hypothesis that the world would be in worse shape without the continuing influence of the US military. As after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is surely true that new international instabilities would appear in the aftermath of an imagined total US stand-down. But even a sharp decline in current US military spending would be unlikely to produce such an effect. My country could move toward a civilian economy without harming the rest of the world. What that civilian economy might look like, though, is still very much an open question. It would be a very different America.

Posted by dratman | Report as abusive

President Eisenhower had the great foresight to warn us of the military-industrial complex’s thirst for funding and to put military spending in perspective.

“Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”

All the Presidents since have ignored his wisdom and nutured military spending beyond all reason while radically increasing the National Debt. Republican Presidents since Nixon have added more to the National Debt as a percentage of all Goods and Services produced in the USA (GDP) than left by FDR and Truman (who completed his last term of office) in spite of the extraordinary costs of World War II.

We need to become less dependent on what happens overseas by being more economically independent and reducing the multiple number of times we can kill everyone in the world, including ourselves.

Posted by SeniorMoment | Report as abusive

Anyone who gets their history from Wikipedia needs to be put to sleep. In fact anyone who gets thier information only from the internet should try unplugging for awhile. But you wont and you will continue to think that America was behind 9/11 that JFK’s body is being held at hanger 18 and the U.S. goverment is controlled by Dr Victor Von Doom. Oh and Obama is secretly a muslim plotting with Iran.
I have not been in high school for 15 years but according to our history books America won World War II along with the allies Britain, China, Canada, Australia and The Soviet Union. In fact most history text books in America give wide credit to our allies with out downplaying our own contribution. Unlike the Soviets who gave credit to no one but themselves I remember the sections on the Russian front which described their suffering and their drive to victory and the liberation of Russia. I am not sure why you revisionist like to downplay or simply lie about America’s role. Thousands of American’s gave their lifes fighting to liberate Western Europe. It’s an insult to those men and their memories. It’s the same for the American forces who fought in the Pacific and faced a fanatical enemy who wanted victory or death.
But unlike the Soviets when we won we withdrew and those nations set up their own goverments and new vibrant democracy’s. Russia set up puppet regimes and oppressed the people and cultures of Eastern Europe for most of the 20th century. But again this is the internet so I don’t expect my comment to matter. But then again niether do any of yours;)!

Posted by Sat2112 | Report as abusive

“The country that doesn’t want to feed its own army shall be forced to feed a foreign army” – a saying almost as old as the warfare itself, but still holds true.
That said, if America had to fight WW2 now, it would lose. At least the Pacific theater – the European war was decided by the Red Army almost singlehandedly anyway. The war with Japan was not won on the seas of Pacific and in the air above; not even by nukes. It was won on assembly lines churning out Lightnings, Corsairs, and Wildcats. It was won by shipbuilders who quickly replaced lost carriers like USS Lexington and USS Yorktown, and then built many more, not counting smaller ships. They did what Japanese industry couldn’t because it was just not capable of. There was no replacement for Kaga, Akagi, and other sunk warships, and numerous Zero planes lost by the Imperial Navy.
If the war was fought today, America is not capable of mass producing the weaponry. The manufacturing has been outsourced to Mexico, China, wherever else. Shall we happen to fight, let’s say, China (quite a possibility if China tries to grab Taiwan – and they never tried to hide their intent to eventually do so) – we can only hope to win with one overwhelming blow. If China succeeds to drag it into a prolonged affair, America would lose because we already lost our manufacturing. A couple of years ago Business Week ran an article about sourcing of weapons components; it was quite a revelation that some of them come from China because we don’t make them anymore. No amount of freshly printed dollars would rectify this if a war happens; we must take concrete steps to resurrect our manufacturing now while it’s still hopefully not too late.

Posted by anonym0us | Report as abusive

Just suppose,
The Federal Reserve as we know it now was dissolved. Chinese products were taxed in this country enough to offset their currency value manipulation. Congress reclaimed it’s Constitutional responsibility to declare war. Propperty taxes were declared unconstitutional,and medical services were regulated like a utility company.

Posted by Vipers52 | Report as abusive

We NEED to cut defense spending.

But I also shudder at the effects it might have on the economy. I can only imagine the short term unemployment that would result from downsizing the military-industrial complex. I wonder if anyone has ever calculated up those theoretical numbers?

Posted by SpaceNinja | Report as abusive

20/20 hindsight decades later doesn’t win the war again, nor lose it for the first time. The world owes the U.S. nothing. We did what was best for U.S. In this instant gratification world we live in now, the WWs seem impossible to even get started. The glorious UN will step in and save the day when jihadist obliterate Washington. World peace will suddenly break out in Bejing and Damascus. Famine, floods and blight caused by global warming via U.S. pollution will all go away. People will like each other and the tooth fairy will select Santa as her next Pope.

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

The author does not have the future role of the USA in his compass. I am wathing with sadness the fall of the USA, the break down of their two party democracy, the almost collapse of the economy and the military failing strategy of loosing wars even against relatively small countries. Like the Chinese Premier recently said about his interest in reading history, I wish the American Presidents had some interest in history of previous empires, the last major one being the Roman empire. Let us project the future world in the next millenium and visualise the status of the USA? It is indeed very bleak!!
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

One reason that the United States spends so much on a military is that it pays enough to retain the all-volunteer military. By contrast, both Russia and China pay very low wages to their militaries

Posted by tmcc | Report as abusive