Defense on a Diet

How Budget Crises Have Improved U.S. Strategy

No country for old planes: decommissioned U.S. aircraft in Arizona (Flickr / Leonard Witzel)

The United States is now in a period of austerity, and after years of huge increases, the defense budget is set to be scaled back. Even those supporting the cuts stress the need to avoid the supposedly awful consequences of past retrenchments. “We have to remember the lessons of history,” President Barack Obama said in January 2012. “We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past -- after World War II, after Vietnam -- when our military policy was left ill prepared for the future. As commander in chief, I will not let that happen again.” Similarly, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Congress in October 2011, “After every major conflict -- World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the fall of the Soviet Union -- what happened was that we ultimately hollowed out the force. Whatever we do in confronting the challenges we face now on the fiscal side, we must not make that mistake.”

Contrary to such conventional wisdom, the consequences of past U.S. defense cuts were not bad. In fact, a look at five such periods over the past century -- following World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War -- shows that austerity can be useful in forcing Washington to think strategically, something it rarely does when times are flush.

THE WORLD WARS

After World War I, the United States pared back its military spending from over 17 percent of GDP in 1919 to less than two percent in 1922. The army was cut from roughly 3.5 million soldiers to about 146,000. And in 1922, the Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty capped the navy’s tonnage in key categories and linked the United States’ construction of capital ships to those of the United Kingdom and Japan according to a 5:5:3 ratio (which changed to 10:10:7 after the London Naval Conference of 1930). The Great Depression then forced Washington to build even fewer ships than it was permitted.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis