A Leaner, Meaner Defense Strategy Can Reduce the Deficit

May 31, 2011Reese Neader

us-great-sealAs the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network releases its progressive, practical Budget for a Millennial America, those who helped craft it will explain their innovative ideas and tough choices in a series of posts. Reese Neader outlines five key changes to defense that would make us safer while saving us money.

To achieve our long-term fiscal sustainability goals and win the 21st century, we need to rethink our approach to national defense. Any serious plan to address our long-term debt will include cuts to defense spending, not just because we spend too much on defense, but also because our current spending priorities do not address the changing threats to US national security.

The Roosevelt Institute Campus Network has released its Budget for Millennial America, a plan for fiscal sustainability that reflects the long-term values and priorities of the next American generation. A key piece of our budget is a defense spending plan that outlines a ‘Millennial Grand Strategy,' which cuts wasteful defense spending and makes investments to ensure our future security.

During the Cold War, there was a clear overarching goal for US foreign policy: contain and defeat communism. But since its end, when the US became the world's only superpower, we have operated without a coherent long-term strategy that defines our position in the international system, outlines our goals for engagement with other countries, and provides a plan for ensuring that our foreign policy builds our national prosperity. We need a ‘Grand Strategy' to ensure that America wins the 21st century. Our plan includes five key components:

1. Confront New Threats
There are approximately 440,000 US troops stationed or deployed overseas, close to the number overseas at the close of the Cold War. The threats to US national security have changed dramatically since the fall of the Berlin Wall; rogue non-state actors, transnational criminal networks, and failing states that serve as safe havens for extremism are the new security threats. These new challenges demand a new strategic approach. By rebalancing the deployment of US forces overseas away from Cold War bases in Europe and East Asia, the US can be more responsive and agile in addressing global threats. And by ending costly wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, US forces can be redirected towards supporting small-scale counter-terrorism operations like the recent, successful campaign to eliminate Osama bin Laden.

2. Deploy New Tools
War is always the result of political failure. By investing in the infrastructure of developing countries and engaging in effective diplomacy with the international community, the US can save trillions of dollars by avoiding potential conflicts. There is strong bi-partisan consensus that 21st century threats need to be addressed with a mix of foreign policy tactics, placing a stronger emphasis on development and diplomacy as effective tools of statecraft, a concept commonly referred to as "smart power." The government needs to reform our foreign policy institutions to encourage cooperation and collaboration between networks. This approach will require rebalancing funding levels for the State Department and US foreign assistance programs. By mixing the use of defense, development, and diplomacy, the United States can reduce expenditures and work more effectively to ensure global stability.

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3. Share the Cost of Security
America can also fight more effectively by working closely with its partners to decrease the risk of polarization and militarization in the international system. Instead of always shouldering the burden to preserve global stability, the US can work as a "super-partner" with its allies, providing key assistance to regional powers. In effect, the U.S. will get more bang for its buck, reducing spending on intervention and increasing the impact of foreign aid by getting the same security results for less dollars spent.

4. Fix a Broken Procurement System
While the US military has made commendable strides towards modernizing its fighting force to address current threats to the international system, Congress has consistently refused to reform a broken weapons procurement system. Every year, billions of dollars are wasted in paying for weapons programs that the military doesn't want because defense contractors have close relationships with Congress. Instead of spending money in an efficient and transparent manner, Congress continues to support a system that operates like a corporate welfare giveaway. Our military needs the ability to more tightly control the arms procurement process and modernize its fighting forces to address 21st century threats.

5. Build Shared Prosperity on Renewable Energy
Our military also keeps our country safe by promoting American prosperity. Many major commercial innovations of the past 75 years have come, directly or indirectly, from military research: satellites, the microchip, the Internet. Right now, the innovations will need to come in building a new energy infrastructure. During the 20th century, American prosperity was ensured in large part by access to cheap and reliable oil. But in the 21st century, we will have to transition toward using renewable energy resources. Investing in renewable energy research now will help ensure America's global leadership, promote our continued prosperity, and save us money by diverting potential future conflicts over access to energy. The US military has correctly identified climate change and energy security as key threats to our national security. With increased funding channeled from other savings in our proposal, the Department of Defense can be positioned to lead our country's efforts towards achieving energy independence in the 21st century.

To achieve our long-term fiscal goals and win the 21st century, we need to rethink our approach to national defense. Not only does our ‘Millennial Grand Strategy,' part of the Budget for Millennial America, make sense given our budget and global resource constraints, but it also expresses sound policies that will save America money, restore our image abroad, and save American lives.

Reese Neader is the Roosevelt Campus Network’s Policy Director.

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