One of the greatest threats to global stability is US defence policy – but not for the reasons we usually hear. Typical allusions to sinister neo-cons or ‘American imperialism’ are both misleading and prejudiced. But current policy – specifically the cuts of January’s Defence Strategic Guidance – reflects a dangerous ignorance of history.
That this came about is no great surprise. Consider trends in US politics and discourse. The final US presidential debate saw a highly symbolic illustration of this. Mitt Romney’s remark on numerical decline in the US fleet was instantly met by Barack Obama’s scornful quip about “horses and bayonets.” Alternatively, observe the opening scene of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. The protagonist decries the idea of America as the world’s greatest nation, snapping that one of the few areas it leads in is defence spending – surpassing the next twenty-six countries combined. (The clear implication being ‘how pointless!’) Similar observations abound, sharing a similar theme: US military spending is bloated and useless; opponents of cuts are old-fashioned or dangerous.
A deeper investigation quickly highlights the problems. Obama’s quip emboldened liberal allies – but it also highlighted simplistic, worrying thinking about defence in the modern era. Equally, Sorkin’s piece in The Newsroom strikes me as childishly trite – reeling off numbers sounds convincing until you put them in context. Namely, US defence spending reigns supreme largely because so many have relied so long on America for cheap defence: the results are self-evident.
Note that Operation Ocean Shield, NATO’s anti-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia, rests primarily on American naval power. Even so, too few ships are committed to adequately patrol the area. Likewise, while France and Britain provided major impetus toward a NATO mission against Colonel Gadaffi, the US again bore the brunt of the effort. Conversely, many European states made risible contributions to that mission – or in Germany’s case, none at all. Britain’s recent Strategic Defence and Security Review neatly underlines this: the Royal Navy is now too small to properly patrol the Somalian coast. Accordingly, when UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond urged a stronger German approach to defence, it was hard to take him seriously, but his stance was valid. Europe has largely grown complacent behind an American shield that now threatens to disappear.
This takes us back to the contentious statement beginning this article. The risk to global stability comes from the fact that the cuts threaten to hamstring the most meaningful force behind its maintenance: American power. Already, US planners find it a “struggle to preserve the necessary forces in CENTCOM to address all the possible conflicts and crises.” In 2011, a bipartisan commission found the US Navy “would need 346 ships to meet its global commitments. But, as a result of budget cuts, the fleet is going to decline from 282 ships today to fewer than 250…”. Indeed, declining numbers “means longer cruises with less time… [for] maintenance and for sailors to recuperate” – a deceptively simple yet crucial point.
Suddenly, Obama’s scornful comment to Romney seems rather ill-considered.
History warns us against such a policy as that in January’s Strategic Guidance. When European war loomed due to a Middle East crisis in 1832, overwhelming British naval power underscored Palmerston’s effort to prevent it. Likewise, it was the Royal Navy’s strength that helped it overcome terrible attrition in suppressing the slave trade. It was a strategic reserve in both cases that allowed Britain to deliver on key policies – a crucial reserve that bolstered diplomacy in the former; that absorbed losses in the latter. And it is just such a military reserve that would be compromised by January’s outlines: a dangerous prospect in the face of a challenging international outlook.