U.S. Defense Spending and the Free Rider Problem

My New Atlanticist essay “Australia Prepares for U.S. Decline” discusses a recent Aussie white paper that is generating much discussion in the foreign policy wonkosphere.  Basically, they see a rapidly rising China and a United States that’s overstretched with other commitments and could therefore reduce our commitments to the Asia-Pacific region.  Hence, they’re planning for major defense upgrades.

Andrew Shearer sees this as a wake-up call for the Obama adminstration, while Christian Brose figures it’s about time our allies started taking defense seriously.  Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, figures we’re wasting so much on defense that others won’t even notice if we cut back.  Matt Eckel thinks his namesake is understating how much America contributes to global stability.

I consider the history of American spending and the impossibility of knowing what portion it is “wasteful” until after the fact — and even then.   I conclude,

Yglesias is right that marginal cuts in American military spending don’t necessarily impact other countries. The combination of the sheer volume of American military spending and global conception of our interests creates a free rider problem that we have complained about but accepted for decades.  Even our great power allies have much more limited interests than we do and we’ve got enough excess capacity that they would be reasonably confident that we would meet our treaty obligations even with a somewhat smaller force.

How much would we have to cut back to change that equation?  Again, it’s unknowable.  Clearly, just the hint that we might be recalibrating in Asia seems to have woken up the Aussies.  Then again, they’re arguably our most enthusiastic military ally, having demonstrated an uncommon willingness to join in any fight.  We would likely have to trim our military to levels currently unimaginable to shake most Western European countries out of their comfort zones and into picking up a significantly larger share of the overall defense burden.

More at the link.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    How much would we have to cut back to change that equation? Again, it’s unknowable.

    By definition, then, if it’s unknowable, does not stand to reason that we may have damaged ourselves already without knowing it? Example;

    Clearly, just the hint that we might be recalibrating in Asia seems to have woken up the Aussies.

    More correctly, I think what is upsetting the Australians into action is the notion that they can no longer depend on the United States as they once did. That may well suited the military budget cutter that is Brock Obama. But in terms of our standing in the world, it has damaged us.

    Here again is yet another example of the United States for a nagging on its long held international commitments, for the sake of being seen as a “a peaceful people ” and instead being seen as undependable .

    We would likely have to trim our military to levels currently unimaginable to shake most Western European countries out of their comfort zones and into picking up a significantly larger share of the overall defense burden.

    That’s true, absent any world situation requiring military intervention. However, we both know that vision is at best fantasy. Spain for example, given another 3/11 or worse, would a potluck igniting the horse is already out of the barn would scramble in desperation to reassemble a reasonable military. Thing is, it would take a couple of generations for them to get to the point where they actually had one. In the meantime they would blame these United States for leaving the damned barn door open.

    I suggest to you that’s the way of it; Assuming that we have enough of the military to make a dent in whatever world situation requires a military response, we will be seen as warmongers, chastised as such by the leftists of the world, until such time a war making capability is desirable. at that point it’s down to whether not we had the testicular mass to maintain that level of military , or we gave into the cries of the world wide left and dismantled it, piecemeal.

    We’ve never quite gotten used to the idea that people and countries that are not in world leadership positions are as a matter of course going to bitch about those who are, regardless of the actions of those world leaders. Like it or not, we are in the position of being not a world leader but the world leader. The ever hopeful left, trying to push that responsibility off onto world organizations such as the United Nations for example, have forever held on to that folly, in the face of the failures of such organizations.

    And in terms of freedom, you’d better thank your lucky stars that they have, in fact, failed. The United Nations, after all, has served as nothing more than a legitimacy provider for those seeking the destruction of the west.

    No, if we want to hang on to the freedom that we have as Americans, we’d better start accepting the role the providence has provided us. Act like we are the ones running the show, because we are. One of the requirements of that role is having the strength militarily to support that role. If we are overstretched, as a military, then perhaps we better start investing in our military. Military cutting, regardless of how meager Yglesias considers it to be, is going in exactly the wrong direction.

  2. Bithead says:

    My apologies for the errors in the above. Apparently, my new microphone makes the voice unit a little more prone to contextual errors. Perhaps I should try retraining it. Meanwhile, the point stance; the fact of the matter is Obama has already damaged our standing in the world and the reaction of the Australians is not the first example.

  3. sam says:

    @JJ:

    [The Aussies] see a rapidly rising China and a United States that’s overstretched with other commitments…

    Query Bithead: What part of the overextension that JJ mentions above do you attribute to this president who’s been in office less than six months? Overextension de novo, that is.

  4. Bithead says:

    I think you’re going to have to re-read what I wrote, Sam.

    The over-extension is due to a long-term underinvestment in our military. Obama’s simply the latest in line… and currently the one trying to push military cuts.

    That said, the Aussies only started moving in this direction within the last six months… so obviously something has changed. What?

    The answer is that we now have a leftist congress and president, the entire party of which ran on an anti-war platform. Apparently doesn’t strike the Aussies as helpful to their security interests. And I can’t say I blame them.

  5. sam says:

    The over-extension is due to a long-term underinvestment in our military. Obama’s simply the latest in line… and currently the one trying to push military cuts.

    I’m curious, what percent of our GDP do you think we should be spending on defense?

    the entire party of which ran on an anti-war platform

    That’s false, if not silly. Obama specifically said that he wanted to concentrate our efforts in Afghanistan, which, with the new deployments in train and planned, he is doing. How is that anti-war? And as for something happening in the last six months, uh, the financial crisis?

  6. Bithead says:

    I’m curious, what percent of our GDP do you think we should be spending on defense?

    Using the GDP is a measurement assumes a reasonably steady GDP to military- need ratio. Clearly, recent conditions suggest that whatever that ratio is it hasn’t been enough. And certainly, cutting the budget at this point, with all of the various hotspots that have been mentioned, including Afghanistan, by the way, is irresponsible to the point of absurdity.

    Obama specifically said…

    ….a great many things. Not a one of which I trust.

    And why would a worldwide economic crisis caused the us trillions to look to its own for its defense? That would seem to imply an increase in military expenditures, which arguably they don’t have. That would be particularly true of any military in a rebuilding mode. Such rebuilding always takes more money than maintenance does. What then would cause them to take that extraordinary step?

    The answer’s fairly simple; they don’t trust him either.

  7. An Interested Party says:

    What then would cause them to take that extraordinary step?

    Umm, that might have something to do with the fact that our military has so much tied up in Iraq rather than the silly projection of your own bias…

  8. anjin-san says:

    The over-extension is due to a long-term underinvestment in our military.

    Sounds like you are calling for an increase in your taxes bit. Good for you, pitching in and all.

  9. anjin-san says:

    Perhaps since the GOP is so eager for the US to be the world cop, they will stop whining about how are corporate tax rate is higher than in other countries. After all, we are pretty much paying for the defense of these countries. Sort of stands to reason that our taxes are higher.

  10. anjin-san says:

    the entire party of which ran on an anti-war platform anti-Iraq war platform

    There, fixed it for you.

  11. sam says:

    Obama specifically said…

    ….a great many things. Not a one of which I trust.

    Which is, of course, quite, quite different from your bald assertion that he ran on an antiwar platform. And, as anjin pointed out, if there was any antiwar talk, it was anti-Iraq war talk.

    As for the percentage of GDP, this paper from the Heritage Foundation, Defense FY 2008 Budget Analysis: Four Percent for Freedom, advocates 4% of GDP (or at least they did in 2007 commenting on the 2008 military budget) as sufficient. I know that folks on your side of the aisle are concerned that, over the next 10 years, that percentage will be reduced to 3%, but we’re still talking big bucks.

    Is 3% sufficient? I don’t know, nor do you. But what we both do know is that it is still a lot of money.

    If we are overstretched, as a military, then perhaps we better start investing in our military. Military cutting, regardless of how meager Yglesias considers it to be, is going in exactly the wrong direction.

    Or we maybe could just be wiser in our commitments. And if our allies have to pick up some of the slack, well, you can always look upon that as welfare reform.

  12. Bithead says:

    Sounds like you are calling for an increase in your taxes bit. Good for you, pitching in and all.

    No.

    I’m calling for dramatic cuts in social(ist) spending, to pay for what we should have been supporting instead all along; the Military… it being the one of the two that has the advantage of actually being constitutionally mandated. Which brings me to the other point:

    Which is, of course, quite, quite different from your bald assertion that he ran on an antiwar platform

    DURHAM, N.H. — Senator Barack Obama of Illinois brought a strong antiwar message yesterday to New Hampshire, winning enthusiastic applause from audiences in Nashua and Durham who said they were tired of the unpopular war and eager to find a candidate who would get the country out of it.

    “We are now in the midst of a war that never should have been authorized, never should have been waged,” Obama told a crowd of close to 3,000 packed into the gymnasium at the University of New Hampshire. “Unless we bring that war to a close, we cannot deal with those other problems I just mentioned,” such as education and healthcare, Obama added, his words nearly drowned out by the wild applause that followed his denouncement of the war.

    Obama also cautioned against a US intervention in Iran, saying he was skeptical of reports by the Bush administration that Iran is helping to supply weapons to insurgents in Iraq.

    “I don’t doubt that there are some weapons coming over from Iran into Iraq. I have no doubt Iran has a history of sponsoring terrorism and doing mischief,” Obama said. But “I am less persuaded by what we’re seeing over the last couple of weeks, and that is that the intervention of Iran into Iraq somehow justifies what seems to be a mounting case for intervention or even forays into Iran,” he said, drawing applause.

    Not anti-Iraq war.
    Anti-war. Period.

    And this statement from Obama also shows us the priorities he has in mind… socialist spending over Defense. Totally out of line of course with what the Constitution dictates, but beyond even that, a reckless abandonment of defense.

    Is 3% sufficient? I don’t know, nor do you. But what we both do know is that it is still a lot of money.

    I’ve already rejected the GDP as a measurement, given our current situation, sam, as well as historical ones. I’ll give you another example… We came off a depression going into WWII. Leaving aside for the moment the argument about the war itself being the reason the depression ended, I daresay incidental to te depression the GDP was far lower than average. Would the GDP have been a fair measurement, under those conditions? Obviously not.

    So, the argument of 3 or 4 or 10% of a variable is arguing over shadows.

    Or we maybe could just be wiser in our commitments.

    OK, I’ll bite. Suggest specifics.
    Be aware, they will be challenged.

  13. An Interested Party says:

    re: Bithead | May 10, 2009 | 09:32 am

    Oh boy, were to begin…

    I’m calling for dramatic cuts in social(ist) spending…

    Oh, you mean like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid? Good luck with that…even though someone like you might think of these things as “socialist” programs that need to cut, that view is in the minority and no Congress and President will do that anytime soon…

    Not anti-Iraq war.
    Anti-war. Period.

    That is a lie…Obama has always talked about the need to finish what we started in Afghanistan, because that war is directly related to what happened to us on 9/11, unlike the disaster in Iraq…

    OK, I’ll bite. Suggest specifics.

    Why do we need over 30,000 troops in Japan, almost 60,000 troops in Germany, and almost 10,000 each in Italy and the UK…

  14. anjin-san says:

    Obama also cautioned against a US intervention in Iran,

    Hmmm. Well that would make him…. smart. Imagine that, a President who is cautious about the idea of action that could touch off a general war in the middle east possibly starting WW3. Obama is cautious about starting wars? What a bastard!

    Lets hear the words of Eisenhower on the subject of “preventative war”:
    “I don’t believe there is such a thing; and, frankly, I wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing…. It seems to me that when, by definition, a term is just ridiculous in itself, there is no use in going any further.”

    But I am sure you know far more about war and national security that Gen. Eisenhower did.

    I’m calling for dramatic cuts in social(ist) spending, to pay for what we should have been supporting instead all along; the Military

    Yes, because America is all about war, and nothing else.

    You are pretty hot for war dude. Joining up soon to lead the fight? Or will you just follow the chickenhawk road?

    Not anti-Iraq war.
    Anti-war. Period.

    Flat out BS. You might buy into Hannity’s crap about Obama “gutting the military” but then you have always been gullible.

    Be aware, they will be challenged. frothing rants may ensue

    Fixed that for you.

  15. anjin-san says:

    it’s down to whether not we had the testicular mass to maintain that level of military

    There is a certain type of man who feels that the more aggressive the US is militarily, the more they can somehow compensate for a lack of the above mentioned type of mass that nature just seems to have shorted them on. Most of these types have never been within a country mile of the messy and dangerous business of actual combat, but lord, they do talk a good game…

  16. Bithead says:

    Oh, you mean like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid?

    Well, that would be a start. Then again, I call the money being spent keeping the UAW afloat social spending, as well.

    That is a lie…

    Nope.
    And even if it was, shall we examine what the Democrat party as a whole has been saying for forever?

    That is a lie…Obama has always talked about the need to finish what we started in Afghanistan, because that war is directly related to what happened to us on 9/11, unlike the disaster in Iraq…

    Iraq had much to do with terrorism. Nor did Afghanistan go wanting. You will perhaps not have heard that AQ is no longer operating in Afghanistan. How do you suppose that happened so quickly, eh?

    For all the sweat Obama was on about with Afghanistan, he neglected Pakistan… the ones with the Nukes. Great planner, this Obama. Foresees all eventualities.

    Why do we need over 30,000 troops in Japan, almost 60,000 troops in Germany, and almost 10,000 each in Italy and the UK…

    Several reasons. Most of which are apparently above you. Logistics, mostly. Consider that for example it’s a far shorter hop to Germany from the middle east, and anywhere near the EU for that matter, than it is from stateside.

    Consider also, that we’re still dealing with China, and Russia… both of which will undoubtedly get ideas of expansion absent our presence there.

    And again, Military expenditures are constitutionally mandated. Social spending is not.

  17. Bithead says:

    There is a certain type of man who feels that the more aggressive the US is militarily, the more they can somehow compensate for a lack of the above mentioned type of mass that nature just seems to have shorted them on.

    I’ve noticed you seem to have a great interest in my penis. Why is that?

  18. anjin-san says:

    I’ve noticed you seem to have a great interest in my penis. Why is that?

    Bit, you are the one talking about nads here, so please.

    It is very clear that you are into having OTHER men (and women) risking their lives because you like the idea that America is a badass. Have you every put your life on the line for freedom? Or are you just going to keep talking up war and let others do the dirty work while you take the boat to the lake?

  19. anjin-san says:

    You will perhaps not have heard that AQ is no longer operating in Afghanistan

    Yea, we also heard that the Taliban had been destroyed. Guess that was a bit premature…

    2003: “In the battle of Afghanistan, we destroyed the Taliban.” GW Bush

    2004: “As a result of the United States military, the Taliban is no longer in existence.” GW Bush

    Yea, maybe getting Bin Laden and Mullah Omar would have been a good thing after all…

  20. steve says:

    “Iraq had much to do with terrorism. Nor did Afghanistan go wanting. You will perhaps not have heard that AQ is no longer operating in Afghanistan. How do you suppose that happened so quickly, eh?

    For all the sweat Obama was on about with Afghanistan, he neglected Pakistan… the ones with the Nukes. Great planner, this Obama. Foresees all eventualities.”

    What do you read? Almost none of this squares with what is written in mainline foreign policy journals. Saddam mostly financed local terrorists, if you want t call them that. A lot of it was directed towards Iran. Maybe some towards Israel. It was not a focus of his, more like protection money. In particular, he had no real connections with AQ.

    Afghanistan did go wanting. Essentially everyone who writes on Afghanistan notes that we did not provide enough attention. The Taliban has reasserted itself in much of the country. AQ? It was not really a local actor per se in Afghanistan. It will work with the Taliban to meet its own needs. They are safer in Pakistan. Speaking of which, Pakistan has been at the top of the agenda for quite a while now in case you have not noticed. I thought it was one of the reasons he picked Jones for the NSA. Heck, he just had Karzai and Zardari over for talks.

    On Australia, since I follow them a bit, my sense is that they are very aware of China’s growth. China is increasing military expenditures. It made sense for Australia to rely upon the US when China had essentially no Navy. That is changing. The US is committed all over the world. They have seen how much of a commitment it takes to conduct COIN operations. Our military is stretched thin. Given those realities, they are rationally deciding to increase their capabilities.

    Steve

  21. An Interested Party says:

    re: Bithead | May 10, 2009 | 09:34 pm

    “Nope” my ass…you originally stated that Obama was “anti-war”…when it pointed out to you that he isn’t anti-war, but rather, anti-Iraq war, you move the goalposts and claim that he is incompetent becuase he didn’t do enough in Pakistan…as for anything being above my head, you will forgive me if I am not the keen armchair military strategist that you apparently think youself to be…

  22. GM says:

    Regarding Pakistan, this was a great article in The New Republic: (talks about the history of selling f16s to them)

    http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=2008ecb3-3d16-4240-86e0-5516f7e0caed

    Interested Party… you forget about our troops in South Korea too. All those troops are just balance of power and defining western spheres of influence. I see nothing wrong with stationing troops around the world. The problems I see with the issues surrounding the original article have nothing to do with this president for sure. I would put the blame behind George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld for a terrible hand in putting forth goals and investing in manpower and technology in a very hamfisted way. We have further consolidated the defense industry, bounced around mission requirements, and funded many programs in an unnecessarily socialist way (cost+). Under Gates and Obama there appears to be some semblance of sense in regards to military funding and focus, but I don’t see Obama backing down from being anti-defense or anti-military. I’m not seeing suicidally aggressive tendencies also, which is fine by me.

    Australia just wants some new toys, lets not get too much in a huff here. They’ve been having a lot of internal discussion and been putting pressure on the US (like Israel) about whether or not to ‘settle’ with the F-35 instead of trying to get the export restrictions on the F-22 lifted. They also, rightly so, see their limitations in controlling their own part of the world or being active in any other conflicts they deem necessary. The defense paper is just using the US as one of the reasons to NOT skimp on military expenditures. I think this is a positive development. This attitude has NOTHING to do with Obama and has been in gestation long before he took office.

  23. Bithead says:

    Yea, we also heard that the Taliban had been destroyed. Guess that was a bit premature…

    I’m sure you’ve seen by now James’ posting on the subject. And Anjin, you’ve gotta stop trying to be an idiot. You’re messing up your natural talent in the area. I have several people in my immidiate family who are military and thereby any losses incurred would be quite personal indeed.

    If you’re arguing that only those who have served should have the right to speak an opinion, fine, let’s try that. Oh, wait.. isn’t it Democrats who keep trying to silence the Military and void their votes?

    “Nope” my ass…you originally stated that Obama was “anti-war”…when it pointed out to you that he isn’t anti-war, but rather, anti-Iraq war, you move the goalposts and claim that he is incompetent becuase he didn’t do enough in Pakistan…as for anything being above my head, you will forgive me if I am not the keen armchair military strategist that you apparently think youself to be…

    Pakistan is an examle of Obama being anti-war, and a rather interesting example, particularly of what happens under such command.

    And isn’t it interesting how a bunch of anti-war leftists are now suddenly experts in military tactics?

  24. anjin-san says:

    I have several people in my immidiate family who are military and thereby any losses incurred would be quite personal indeed.

    So the heavy lifting will be done by your relatives while your ass is safe at home. Got it. Don’t let me stop you dude, grab your pom poms and cheer for war.

    The troubling thing is that you really seem to be itching for a fight while reasonable people want that to be the absolute last option, when all other avenues have been exhausted.

    Oh, wait.. isn’t it Democrats who keep trying to silence the Military and void their votes?

    You might want to show a bit more respect for those who have actually served. Oh, enjoy your next trip to the lake.

    * Richard Gephardt: Air National Guard, 1965-71.
    * David Bonior: Staff Sgt., Air Force 1968-72.
    * Tom Daschle: 1st Lt., Air Force SAC 1969-72.
    * Al Gore: enlisted Aug. 1969; sent to Vietnam Jan.
    1971 as an army journalist in 20th Engineer Brigade.
    * Bob Kerrey: Lt. j.g. Navy 1966-69; Medal of Honor, Vietnam.
    * Daniel Inouye: Army 1943-47; Medal of Honor, WWII.
    * John Kerry: Lt., Navy 1966-70; Silver Star, Bronze Star with Combat V, Purple Hearts.
    * Charles Rangel: Staff Sgt., Army 1948-52; Bronze Star, Korea.
    * Max Cleland: Captain, Army 1965-68; Silver Star & Bronze Star, Vietnam.
    * Ted Kennedy: Army, 1951-53.
    * Tom Harkin: Lt., Navy, 1962-67; Naval Reserve, 1968-74.
    * Jack Reed: Army Ranger, 1971-1979; Captain, Army Reserve 1979-91.
    * Fritz Hollings: Army officer in WWII; Bronze Star and seven campaign ribbons.
    * Leonard Boswell: Lt. Col., Army 1956-76; Vietnam, DFCs, Bronze Stars, and Soldier’s Medal.
    * Pete Peterson: Air Force Captain, POW. Purple Heart, Silver Star and Legion of Merit.
    * Mike Thompson: Staff sergeant, 173rd Airborne, Purple Heart.
    * Bill McBride: Candidate for Fla. Governor. Marine in Vietnam; Bronze Star with Combat V.
    * Gray Davis: Army Captain in Vietnam, Bronze Star.
    * Pete Stark: Air Force 1955-57
    * Chuck Robb: Vietnam
    * Howell Heflin: Silver Star
    * George McGovern: Silver Star & DFC during WWII.
    * Jimmy Carter: Seven years in the Navy.
    * Walter Mondale: Army 1951-1953
    * John Glenn: WWII and Korea; six DFCs and Air Medal with 18 Clusters.
    * Tom Lantos: Served in Hungarian underground in WWII.

  25. An Interested Party says:

    re: Bithead | May 11, 2009 | 10:12 am

    I’m not sure who in particular you are referring to, but you have no evidence that proves that I am either “anti-war” or a “leftist”…that being said, exactly what qualifications do you possess to discuss military tactics…

  26. anjin-san says:

    And isn’t it interesting how a bunch of anti-war leftists are now suddenly experts in military tactics?

    Let’s set aside your rather childish attempt to pigeonhole people who disagree with you into an ideological box. Where would you like to start with our discussion of military strategy? The Peloponnesian War? The Battle Of Thermopylae? (I have been reading Herodotus, so I have Greece very much on my mind). The Punic wars? Julian’s campaigns in Gaul and Parthia? Let’s have at it.

    Take you time and do some Googling so you can sound informed when you get back to us…