On December 15, 2021, the Senate passed the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, approving an annual defense budget of $786 billion – a 5% increase over the prior year’s budget. This hike in spending comes despite U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the country’s most expensive overseas conflict.
Some news outlets have been quick to point out that the 2022 defense budget is the largest it has been since WWII. But while the budget is large in nominal terms, that popularly cited statistic doesn’t tell the whole story, as it fails to account for the significant economic growth that has taken place in the U.S. since WWII. Comparing the annual military budget to national GDP reveals that the U.S. defense budget has been falling steadily since its post-WWII, Cold War era peak in 1953. In that year the budget made up 17.4% of U.S. GDP. Viewed from that perspective, the 2022 defense budget, though larger than last year’s budget, is projected to be only 4.77% of GDP. Nonetheless, while the budget is now relatively small compared to GDP, military spending will make up 49.5% of total government spending this year, an absurdly high cost for maintaining a peacetime military.
And even greater defense spending may be on the horizon. Washington politicians are increasingly perceiving U.S.-China relations as a “New Cold War”. If defense spending were to follow the same meteoric rise that occurred during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, we could see the defense budget triple within the decade. At 17.4% of current GDP, the annual defense budget would approach $2.6 trillion. While the 2022 budget is concerning in its own right, more concerning still is the drumbeat of Cold War rhetoric in Washington and the press, because if those words carry weight, then, in terms of defense spending, we haven’t seen anything yet.
An interesting aspect of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act was how easily it sailed through Congress, with the House roll call ending with a vote of 316 Yeas to 113 Neas. Despite Republican members’ vocal concern over government spending that has been a staple during the Biden administration, there was little hesitation among them in passing such an exorbitantly expensive bill. In fact, both “spending-cautious” House Republicans, and supposedly dove-like Democrats, added an unrequested $24 billion on top of what the Pentagon originally sought. It seems that bipartisanship isn’t dead after all.
But why do military spending proposals fly through Congress while proposals that seek to fund infrastructure improvement and climate solutions get mired in political debate and grandstanding? While the answer is multi-pronged, campaign finance plays an important role. Lockheed Martin, the leading U.S. defense contractor, donated money to the campaigns of more than half of sitting congressmen. To vote against this bill, the majority of congress would be voting against the interest of their financial backers. This undoubtedly risks losing Lockheed’s backing in the next campaign season. Losing campaign funding can be a death sentence for a Congressman in a system in which the candidate with the most financial backing won 87.7% of congressional elections in the 2020 election cycle. This is especially true as campaign contributions from the defense sector can be significant in size. Take, for instance, the case of Joyce Beatty (D), the congressional representative for Ohio’s 3rd district, which encompasses Columbus. In her last campaign she received $4,000 directly from Lockheed Martin and an additional $4,000 from General Dynamics, another large defense contractor. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Rep. Beatty voted in favor of the 2022 Defense Authorization Act.
Another incentive for Congressmen to vote in favor of higher defense spending is that often it is politically expedient for them to show support for the military, appeal to patriotism, and avoid looking weak. Voting to raise the military budget can signal to a Congressmen’s base that they “Support Our Troops”. Equally influential in Congress is the jobs argument. It is a simple claim, espoused by defense contractors and echoed by Congressmen. A claim which has run through defense spending debates like a refrain: defense programs create jobs. The F-35 aircraft program, for example, employed more than 100,000 workers during production of the aircraft. While it is understandable that congressmen would seek to support their base economically, the numbers show that defense spending is actually economically harmful. While many Americans may owe their livelihoods to defense contracts, study after study has found that, when viewed through a broader lens, defense spending is a net negative on the economy. Economist Giorgio d’Agostino postulates that, on average, a 1% increase in a country’s military spending leads to a 9% decrease in economic growth over a twenty-year period. The economic consequences are, therefore, not trivial.
Defense spending not only weighs heavily on the economy, but limits spending on other government programs. Historically, increases in military spending have resulted in cuts to education, housing, transportation, and other public benefits. In the end, the costs of military spending fall on the population. It is in the people’s best interest to be discerning about whether the expenditure is justified.
If American safety is truly threatened, then some sacrifices to domestic wellbeing are warranted. In 1945 the American government spent over 41% of GDP on maintaining a military capable of defeating the Axis in WWII. Domestically, this level of spending necessitated food, metal, and oil rationing for all Americans. This burden they bore largely without protest given the stakes of the conflict. It is the civilian costs of this balance of guns and butter that should be at the forefront of military spending debates.
So is the government fighting hard to defend the quality of life of the people, or are they acting on the personal interests that push them towards a larger budget? To properly answer that, there is one more essential factor that needs to be addressed. In 2022, does the U.S. truly face a degree of danger that legitimizes the increase in spending? While we may be in a “New Cold War” with China, how much of a threat does the CCP actually pose to U.S. security? While the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is legitimate, “This whole idea that China and Russia are military threats to the United States has primarily been manufactured to jump up the military budget,” claims William Hartung, Director for the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. While there is certainly increased militarism to Chinese foreign policy, it is important to be wary of claims of “the threat,” as Sen. Rubio ominously called it, “that is posed by the Communist Party.” Whether trying to please their constituencies or their campaign donors, members of Congress have personal incentives to exaggerate the threat China poses to U.S. security.
Many Washington politicians abide by President H.W. Bush’s foreign policy doctrine of “no peer rival”, an idea that the U.S. should always be the geopolitically dominant nation and should fight to maintain this imbalance of power. Viewed in this light, China is certainly a threat to the U.S., as its rapid ascent to power threatens U.S. global dominance. But in more practical terms, China does not pose a significant threat to the safety of the average U.S. citizen.
It is ironic that the budget increase, implemented to counter China’s rising power, may pose a greater risk to the safety and wellbeing of U.S. citizens than does the threat from China itself. Deliberately increasing military tensions with China may be an effective strategy to curb Chinese military expansion and generate support for defense spending, but if that risky game leads to war, it isn’t the Congressmen who fight. And with $43.2 billion allotted to nuclear weapons in the 2022 budget, it’s difficult to see how a “New Cold War” and its attendant budget increase are making the U.S. population safer.
Fear is an effective tool in manufacturing public consent on issues like increasing the defense budget. Knowledge of the underlying incentives of Washington spokesmen can be an effective way to see through potential fear-mongering. The interests of Washington’s power brokers don’t always align with civilian interests. U.S. citizens need to be aware of both the real threats to American security that do exist and the perceived threats that Washington touts as these may be exaggerated. Discerning between the real and the exaggerated is an important responsibility for a citizen because when irrational fear guides the defense budget, it is the people who pay for it.
This article was written prior to the invasion of Ukraine, which has brought many of the issues described to bear. It seems the Cold War has been revived almost overnight. Rather than the supposed China threat being the drive of military expansion, it is now clear that it will again be antagonism with Russia that will be the driving force for the foreseeable future. Biden has already allotted $800 million to the defense of Ukraine. This spending is, I believe, justified, as it reflects the desire to support Ukraine expressed by the majority of the American people. Aiding a just conflict that has public support, and the looming threat of a greater NATO-Russia conflict are fair reasons for military spending.
However, it is important to be aware that this upwelling of public support and specter of a greater war can be quickly abused by the military-industrial complex, turned into a political tool to garner support for unjustified levels of spending. It is important now to reflect on Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. A great international injustice that elicited a desire for response among the American people. A desire that was quickly warped by special interests within the government to justify an expansion of military spending, and an illegal, profit-driven invasion. Germany has ramped up its military spending in response to the invasion of Ukraine. A larger role for Germany in NATO may free up American military dollars to focus more heavily on China. Ukraine may also be used as an excuse for greater spending in the Pacific. Washington hawks may make statements like, “We’ve seen what dictators do. Their unpredictability requires the US to be constantly on its guard,” extrapolating upon the Ukraine situation to justify military buildup. They won’t be wrong. Dictators are unpredictable and violent. However, balancing security and well-being is important. Expanding the U.S. role as the “world’s policeman,” mirroring the “containment” style policies of the Cold War days, would come at enormous costs to the citizens of the United States. Now that a passionate desire to right an international injustice has set in with Ukraine, it is important for citizens to remember the fallouts of past good intentions in the past, and that Washington may see this crisis as an opportunity to further goals that will harm the well-being of American citizens directly. ⬩