Recently, North Korea revealed that, unbeknownst to just about everyone, it had built an “ultra-modern uranium enrichment facility.” Victor Cha, a member of the National Security Council during the Bush administration, told Reuters that “from an intelligence perspective, it’s sort of your worst nightmare.”
Cha was referring to the fact that the facility was located at the “Yongbyon nuclear complex — a well-known site under close scrutiny by U.S. spy satellites.” Okay, that’s embarrassing but the real nightmare, for the U.S. at least, is what Pyongyang plans to do with the enriched uranium. North Korea is what you would call a “serial proliferator.” It will sell anything to anyone to finance Kim’s wine collection; it will even counterfeit $100 bills.
If Pyongyang’s nuclear enrichment program is the stuff of nightmares, our options on how to deal with it are the stuff of frustration. A military response is highly unlikely, not because we lack the capability — we have it in spades — but because North Korea would respond by destroying Seoul, which is within range of North Korean artillery, not to mention its missiles. North Korea’s recent attack on a South Korean island makes this danger clear.
If “war-war” is unlikely, that leaves, as Churchill once put it, “jaw-jaw.” Not only is Pyongyang an unreliable negotiating partner, but the other interested parties, especially South Korea and China, care less about proliferation issues than they do about stability on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang knows this, which makes North Korea the kind of nightmare you have to live with for a lack of viable options.
This is an example of what Andrew Bacevich would call The Limits of Power. The Pax Americana is long gone. (Actually, as Joseph Nye argues in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the United States never had the kind of power to control events that Americans believed it did.) Other nations have their own interests and priorities, and they don’t mind telling us so.
This has been true for a while. Unfortunately, our government, Democrats and Republicans alike, insist on acting — more to the point, they insist on appropriating — as if this weren’t true.
Some numbers: this budget year, we will spend $700 billion on defense. As Gregg Easterbrook points out in the December 2nd issue of the New Republic, “Adjusting for inflation, that’s more than America has spent on defense in any year since World War II — more than during the Korean war, the Vietnam war, or the Reagan military buildup.” Since 2001, “military and security expenditures have soared by 119 percent.”
In fact, the United States spends approximately the same on defense as the rest of the world combined. No one else is in the same solar system, never mind neighborhood. We have eleven super carriers, each “accompanied by guided-missile cruisers and destroyers, plus two nuclear submarines unseen beneath.” The rest of the world has none. No other country’s “warships could draw within firing distance before being sunk.”
By any reasonable, and virtually every unreasonable, standard, our military power is literally unchallengeable. Thing is, that was also true in 2001, when we spent $315 billion less. Yet, we are well on our way to spending $1 trillion on defense by 2030, if not a lot sooner.
Even if we weren’t already looking at some frightening piles of debt, this would be unsustainable: if you eliminated every last farthing of non-defense discretionary spending — Homeland Security, the FBI, FDA, national parks, agriculture subsidies, the whole lot — you would still add trillions to the national debt over the next decade.
That makes the recent recommendations for cuts weak sauce. For instance, the best the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform can do is freezing noncombat military pay, reducing the number of contractors, closing some overseas bases and cancelling procurement programs that Secretary Gates has already targeted for elimination.
Even these modest proposals “are not likely to be adopted by Congress wholesale.” As Easterbrook put it, “‘cancelled’ Pentagon projects are more enduring than brooding teen vampires.” What President Eisenhower famously called the “military industrial complex” — which Bacevich extends to include “elected and appointed officials, corporate executives and corporate lobbyists, admirals and generals, functionaries staffing the national security apparatus, media personalities and policy intellectuals from universities and research organizations” — make a return to 2001 levels, never mind pre-Cold War levels, of defense spending unlikely.
Of course, you could change the numbers but that would require re-thinking our relationship to the rest of the world and (here’s the hardest part) ridding ourselves of the messianic conceit that is part and parcel of American exceptionalism.
This is the kind of idea that gets the full-on distortion and demagoguery treatment so let’s be clear about what it doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean that the United States should not continue to be the richest and most powerful nation on earth — it doesn’t even forgo the possibility of being the richest and most powerful nation of all time. On the contrary, since the present dispensation is unsustainable, a new dispensation is necessary to ensure America’s continued place at the top of the charts.
Nor does it mean becoming “isolationist.” With the exception of a few years in the interwar period, the United States has never been isolationist. (Ask every other nation in the hemisphere.) Only someone who confuses engagement with being the guarantor of the global order, a.k.a., the global policeman, would call what Bacevich and others are calling for “isolationism.”
The bad news is that we can’t afford the role we assigned ourselves and the rest of the world, kvetching and resentments notwithstanding, expects us to play. The good news is we don’t need to.
A more multi-polar international order in which the United States tended its own garden would probably be less stable but not necessarily more dangerous, at least not to the U.S. Then, as now, the principal threats to our national security would come from non-state actors who are neither impressed nor deterred by V-22 tilt-rotor transports, F-35s, or our eleven carrier groups.
We don’t need to station troops in Europe; the “Carter Doctrine,” which states that “any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America,” is, in effect, a guarantee to protect other nation’s oil supplies, since less than 20 percent of our imports come from that region and the percentage is going down.
Our messianic self-conception, and not actual threats to the homeland, is why we spend $700 billion a year on a military that Easterbrook rightly characterizes as “almost entirely expeditionary.” It’s why after hundreds of billions of dollars and 4300-plus deaths, Thomas Friedman still urges readers “to finish our work in Iraq, which still has the potential to be a long-term game-changer in the Arab-Muslim world.”
He may think that we can change other peoples’ world while we change our own. Both history and the numbers say otherwise.