Courtesy Reuters

Against Activism

By Benjamin H. Friedman and Justin Logan

In making the case for an activist U.S. grand strategy, Stephen Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth (“Lean Forward,” January/ February 2013) cite an article we wrote in Orbis as evidence that the budgetary savings of a strategy they pejoratively call “retrenchment” would be small. Because the “radical reduction” in defense expenditures that we proposed would reduce spending by only $900 billion over a decade, they reason, more mainstream versions of retrenchment would save an economically irrelevant pittance.

But as we mentioned in our article, that figure was a floor, not a ceiling, and deeper cuts would be possible. Moreover, our recommendations look radical only when compared with the current military, which has swelled as a result of overwrought ambitions. Our proposal would still leave the United States with roughly 230 ships; about 1,400 fighter and bomber aircraft; the bulk of the current army, Marines, and special operations forces; and at least 500 nuclear warheads.

Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth also argue that “most studies by economists find no clear relationship between military expenditures and economic decline.” But that uncertainty does not mean that, as they write, “there is no reason to believe that the pursuit of global leadership saps economic growth.” Regardless, what really matters is not growth but welfare. Current U.S. military spending is economically sustainable, but that does not necessarily mean it is wise. The Pentagon’s bloated budget diverts resources from other uses that would better serve Americans.

Finally, the authors seek to distinguish their views from those that support foolish U.S. wars, starting with Iraq. But the stationing of troops in trouble spots—and the notion that those troops would prevent regional competition and nuclear proliferation—actually facilitates such wars. If policymakers think that foreign security competition threatens the United States, then they will find it harder to resist wars fought to pacify remote regions.

BENJAMIN H. FRIEDMAN
Research Fellow in Defense and Homeland Security Studies, Cato Institute

JUSTIN LOGAN
Director of Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute

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