After promising bold new thinking on America’s defense policy, the Clinton administration’s “bottom up review” boldly calls for the status quo. Having spent six months devising a “new” U.S. national security strategy that is strikingly similar to the old strategy of the Bush administration, the Clinton defense establishment has shown that unless the U.S. fundamentally re-examines its role in the world, we will be forever wedded to the exhausting and perilous “Cold War” strategy of ordering the globe.
Supposedly, America spread its security umbrella worldwide to contain the Soviet “threat.” When the USSR disintegrated, many hoped that the U.S. defense budget could be reduced substantially, freeing America’s energies, attention and financial resources to meet long-neglected domestic needs.
But the Clinton defense plan-like the previous Bush defense plan-calls for a Cold War-sized military and a budget to match. It requires a $14 billion increase over 5 years in projected defense spending. (This year Americans will spend $274 billion to meet their supposed security needs, although no global rival threatens the country.) While the U.S. apparently committed military forces to East Asia and Europe to contain its superpower foe, the Clinton administration nevertheless now demands that 200,000 U.S. troops remain in those regions permanently.
America’s defense plans may seem like extravagance born of paranoia or of a defense establishment’s anxiety to protect its budget. In fact, however, given the way Washington has defined U.S. interests, these plans are quite prudent. And that is the problem.
America’s “Cold War” defense posture and its globe-girdling security commitments always had a more fundamental purpose than containing the USSR. Believing that the United States could not be prosperous and secure unless it created a stable international environment, America has since 1945 sought to inflict its “leadership” upon the world. In what could be termed history’s most ambitious babysitting job, the U.S. has dominated the international system, preventing the emergence of independent great powers-like Germany and Japan-that could destabilize that system.
This strategy of preponderance pacified relations among the states of East Asia and Western Europe, creating what the Pentagon calls “zones of peace and prosperity.” Such pacification, of course, came at a price: a costly extension of America’s overseas defense responsibilities.
And now those responsibilities may grow. President Clinton defends his high defense budgets by reciting the mantra, repeated throughout the national security community, that “the world remains a dangerous and uncertain place.” Of course it does. Indeed, with the Cold War’s end, the threat of international instability has in many ways increased, and hence America, many defense experts argue, must now “project democracy and stability” into areas formerly controlled by the Soviets, like Eastern Europe and Ukraine.
Such a view suggests that the U.S. cannot tolerate any uncertainty, instability or danger in the international environment and that, therefore, America must shape a world order that transcends the inevitable patterns of world politics: war, instability, great power rivalries and the formation of power balances.
But “shaping the strategic environment,” to use post-Cold War Pentagon jargon, requires today, as it has for the past 45 years, the maintenance and deployability of large and technologically advanced U.S. forces. Pentagon planners appreciate that to reassure and stabilize Europe and East Asia, the U.S. must convince others that it is capable of restraining political and economic rivalries among regional powers. Reassuring Western Europe, even absent a military threat to the continent, is costing the United States $100 billion this year. Stabilizing East Asia is taking another $40 billion.
In defense you get what you pay for, and a babysitting strategy means that-if you’re lucky-you must pay forever.
America’s security strategy, then, is a truly permanent burden. It amounts to taking the wolf by the ears: How could America ever let go? Arguing last year for the maintenance of our troops in Asia and Europe, a high-ranking Pentagon official asked, “If we pull out, who knows what nervousness will result?” The problem, of course, is that we can never know and, therefore, according to the assumptions underpinning our defense policy, we must always stay.
The failure of the “bottom up review” to fulfill its promise of a new defense strategy shows that if America continues to define its security interests as ensuring world order, then there can be no fundamental change in its defense spending and commitments. Such a lavish conception of America’s interests, however, condemns America to an enervating imperial role.