Phase one of the great debate on post-Cold War American foreign policy is over. The Clinton administration's proposed fiscal 1994 defense budget makes it clear that, although the president may continue to affirm America's position as a superpower, he has denied the nation the military resources that role requires, even in a world with no Soviet rival. In other words, the "declinists" have won.

The Clinton budget presents recommendations for defense spending levels through 1998 and would leave the nation with military capabilities that in effect accept the declinists' fundamental argument: that the country's best strategy for long-term security and prosperity is to scale back an overextended foreign policy. That means defending fewer countries, doling out less foreign assistance and focusing more on consolidating national power than on shaping the international environment. Equally important, the president's budget reflects the post-Cold War national priorities revealed in the 1992 presidential vote. The electorate's message was clear: in a time of fiscal austerity, when the nation's preeminent goals are domestic economic and social revival, significant resources must be shifted from foreign policy programs.

But the country has yet to face the challenge of adjusting to a shrinking defense budget. Clinton's proposals have allowed that debate to begin. Some demand that the gap between America's bloated international commitments and dwindling resources be closed by restoring defense spending to pre-Clinton levels. Others, the president included, insist that no means-ends gap in fact exists. Still others believe that the nation should simply be prepared to live with one.

The best course on the merits, as well as the most expedient in terms of domestic politics, is to narrow the gap by seeking more modest foreign policy objectives. The superpower role that America has played since 1945 is now not only too expensive and risky for the public taste, but it is also unnecessary. Even in an increasingly turbulent world, a geopolitically secure, militarily powerful and economically competitive country like the United States can attain safety and prosperity by carrying a significantly lower international profile.

Still, retrenchment alone will not produce foreign policy success. If the American public has indeed decided that spearheading the creation of a new world order is not worth the candle, it will eventually need a wholly new strategy for pursuing security and prosperity. Otherwise the nation will find itself in the dangerous position of hinging its fate on objectives that have become unattainable, because the assets that it expects can achieve them no longer exist.


A strong consensus for reordering national priorities and downgrading foreign policy crystallized early in the 1992 presidential campaign. Despite the fact that both George Bush and Bill Clinton defeated less internationalist rivals in party primaries, polls found that foreign policy continued to rank low among voter concerns. Not only did Clinton's internationalist positions attract little voter attention but fully 19 percent of the electorate opted for Ross Perot, the one candidate who made assailing traditional free trade policies, foreign lobbyists and free-riding allies central to his campaign.

Clinton continues to speak, as he did during his campaign, of the need to maintain America's global leadership-to "build a world of security, freedom, democracy, free markets and growth"-but his first defense budget submission is inadequate to such a grand task. His foreign aid budget-notably the portion dedicated to ensuring the success of reform in the former Soviet empire-also falls far short of the resources required for its still ambitious goals. Nonetheless, the most worrisome means-ends gap is opening with respect to defense spending, which represents the vast bulk of national security resources.

During the campaign, Clinton promised to cut Pentagon spending by fiscal year 1997 by $60 billion more than President Bush. The new Clinton defense plan proposes cutting yet another $67 billion. Consequently, in the unlikely event that Congress leaves the administration's request intact, 1998 defense budget outlays will have shrunk to $252.5 billion, a more than 34 percent drop in real terms from their 1989 Reagan-era peak. Military spending, which accounted for 27 percent of federal spending in 1987, would be cut to 13.5 percent. As a share of gnp, defense spending would fall from 6.5 percent in the mid-1980s to 3 percent, a level not seen since before World War II.

These cuts will come despite the administration's decision to increase taxes substantially. Although most major categories of domestic spending are scheduled to remain level or increase only slightly, in fiscal year 1994 alone real defense budget outlays will fall by 6.6 percent, or $12.7 billion, and the pace of the cuts is scheduled to accelerate. None of the new revenue, in other words, is going to the military.

The spending cuts proposed by the Bush administration had already resulted in real reductions in American conventional forces. Between fiscal years 1992 and 1994, the number of active Army divisions was scheduled to decline to 12 from 14, Navy ships to 413 from 443, active deployable aircraft carriers to 12 from 14, and active Air Force fighter wings to 13.3 from 16.3. Although the Marine Corps remained relatively untouched, reserve units from all services were scheduled to undergo comparable shrinkage. American nuclear forces, of course, are scheduled to be reduced according to the terms of the Strategic Arms Reduction treaties and President Bush's 1991 decision to denuclearize America's forward deployed forces.

Because the Clinton administration had so little time to prepare its first budget, the military force structure through 1994 will essentially remain that proposed by Bush. President Clinton will await a comprehensive defense review before announcing his intentions for later years. Clinton has already stated, however, that the Bush administration's target of 1.6 million regular troops will be cut by an additional 200,000 personnel. Another clue to the administration's intentions is the defense plan endorsed in February 1992 by then-Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Les Aspin, now Clinton's defense secretary. That blueprint would, by 1997, have left the military with nine active Army divisions, two active Marine Corps divisions, 340 Navy ships, 12 aircraft carriers and ten active Air Force wings. Budget Director Leon Panetta has publicly stated that the administration's current budget closely follows that 1992 plan.

Secretary Aspin has provided the most comprehensive explanation of what these resources are expected to accomplish. In presenting the administration's budget request, he stated that the resulting forces were expected to counter threats to U.S. interests from regional aggressors such as Iraq, from the global spread of weapons of mass destruction and from the consequences of failed democratic transitions, including possibly those in the former Soviet Union. Defense spending, Secretary Aspin also stated, would be used to enhance the economic strength central to America's national security. Plainly, however, that responsibility will fall most heavily on domestic programs and international economic policy. Yet not only is the administration's defense spending unlikely to produce a force capable of meeting its stated objectives, but those objectives themselves fall short of the superpower capabilities to which, unfortunately, Americans have grown accustomed.


The Clinton administration claims that, despite making larger cuts than under Bush, its budgets will bring just as many benefits to America. Most defense savings, Secretary Aspin insists, result from the pay freeze and pension payment limits imposed on federal employees and from an improved inflation forecast, which means that defense goods should cost less than previously expected. Aspin argues that Bush's defense blueprint was drawn up at a time when the Soviet Union, however weakened, still existed. The Soviet breakup is irreversible, he contends, and although Russia's nuclear arsenal remains potent, the United States can rule out the return of anything approaching the old Soviet conventional threat. In fact, for the foreseeable future, Aspin sees no single military challenger stronger than pre-Desert Storm Iraq and no prospect that a more powerful coalition will form.

Secretary Aspin's position is that the U.S. military should simultaneously be capable of meeting the following challenges: fighting a Persian Gulf War-sized regional conflict; participating in a similar conflict where U.S. allies are using their own considerable ground forces (say, in Korea); undertaking naval air action in America's own hemisphere or an operation comparable to that which ousted Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega in 1989; carrying out a humanitarian relief operation the size of the Kurdish rescue; maintaining enough land and air forces for a "rotation base" able to sustain the initial Desert Storm-sized deployment; maintaining a "foundation block" consisting of everything from strategic nuclear forces to forces for defending U.S. territory to research and development to procurement to operations and training.

His confidence that U.S. forces under the proposed budget can carry out these missions hinges largely on two considerations: the new budget's higher funding for air and sea lift to increase America's actual, rapidly deliverable military punch; and a separate budget line for peacekeeping to enable U.S. forces to participate in such actions without cannibalizing regular operations and maintenance accounts.

But Secretary Aspin's analysis contains too many wild cards to serve as a sound basis for prudent defense planning. Even congressional Democrats have warned that a big spending (or big investing) administration could quickly change the inflation outlook. Military pay and benefits frozen for too long would cripple long-term recruiting, and shortchanging operations and maintenance spending would lower levels of readiness. Much savings therefore will depend on making significant cuts in weapons programs, and these are jealously guarded by many in Congress for generating valuable jobs for constituents. Moreover, there is nearly unanimous agreement that Bush projections may have underestimated the costs of weapons programs and overestimated, by at least $10 billion annually, the savings achievable through management reform. Most revealing, Clinton's projected 1997 funding levels are very close to those that Secretary Aspin, in his 1992 analysis, calculated would buy a force considerably smaller and less capable (column four, table) than the one he endorsed that year (column three).

Secretary Aspin himself has conceded numerous problems with the Clinton plan. The five-year defense spending totals in Clinton's economic blueprint were "essentially built upon a macroeconomic basis, not on a threat analysis basis," he told the House Armed Services Committee. They were "just kind of pulled out of the air, or very close to being pulled out of the air," he added. While insisting that "the '94 number is doable," he acknowledged that "we're worried about where we're going beyond." Even for 1994, Secretary Aspin conceded that the new $300 million peacekeeping budget "probably is not enough." The defense secretary has promised to seek new funds if the inflation and efficiency savings fall short or if the strategic review reveals the need for larger forces. But in the current political and fiscal environment, simply holding the line on defense will be difficult enough.


It is tempting to dismiss criticism of the Clinton defense budget as the latest and least excusable outburst of hawkish alarmism. Secretary Aspin counters critics neatly: "You can get a $50 billion cut out of the defense budget when the Warsaw Pact disappears (as the Bush administration concluded); you can at least do a $60-80 billion cut when the whole Soviet Union disappeared. After all, the whole defense budget of the United States was geared to the Soviet Union." Moreover, as he and many others have observed, the United States tolerated a wide means-ends gap throughout the Cold War, and survived handsomely. Indeed, at the height of the Cold War, Washington even sent half its Europe-based combat forces to fight a regional war in Southeast Asia.

Yet today these Cold War realities are less comforting than they initially appear. If America's Cold War forces were indeed incapable of carrying out all of their assigned missions, then Clinton-style cuts could simply produce another means-ends gap, but this time at lower force levels. Moreover, there are ample reasons to think that such gaps are less tolerable in the post-Cold War world. Even if the administration's projected budgets could buy the larger force structure that Secretary Aspin endorsed in 1992, it is doubtful that those forces would suffice for creating a pax Americana out of the disorderly world of the future. American military capabilities were already strained in recent years, despite larger Bush administration budgets.

For example, although Desert Storm won a quick victory against Iraq, the war revealed important causes for concern. Aspin himself noted that a relatively small percentage of America's major air and naval combat units were used in the Persian Gulf, but the war nonetheless required roughly half the Army's combat forces and much of the services' support capabilities. Moreover, a strategy that relies on building a "Desert Storm equivalent" largely from America's forward deployed forces in Europe (which were on the whole four days closer to the gulf) will become far more difficult. By late 1996 total U.S. troop strength in Europe is to be cut to 100,000, which is less than half the number of U.S. ground troops that fought in Desert Storm.

John Collins of the Congressional Research Service has provided evidence that the crunch will be more severe under Clinton's proposed budgets. Using Bush budgets, he estimated that a future Desert Storm-sized war would require 66 percent of Army divisions, 50 percent of carrier battle groups, 66 percent of Air Force fighter-attack wings, and 66 percent of Marine divisions and air wings. Much of America's reserve force would be needed as well. Even assuming that Clinton's budget can support all the military capability promised, the ratios under the proposed force structure would almost surely be higher-if only because Secretary Aspin's definition of a "Desert Storm equivalent" leaves out numerous U.S. forces actually deployed to the Persian Gulf, as well as all of the allied units that saw action.

In fact, under the Clinton defense plan reserve forces would be used at even higher, and historically unprecedented, levels. A sweeping and rapid call-up would be needed even in the early stages of a conflict. And Secretary Aspin's own 1992 calculations indicate that in order to mobilize an equivalent amount of air power for a simultaneous modern Korea-style conflict the United States would have to deploy a substantial portion of its total air resources.

The Pentagon's 1992 Joint Military Net Assessment tends to support this analysis. It stated that even Bush's budgets would enable America to handle Persian Gulf- and Korea-style contingencies simultaneously only by calling on most of the nation's reserves. In addition, the Pentagon maintained that handling two such contingencies simultaneously even in quick, low-risk conditions might still require economically disruptive steps such as partial mobilization or "a priority call on resources and industrial production."

Such heavy reliance on reserves of uneven quality is difficult to square with the doctrinal and domestic political imperatives of fighting short wars, which have only grown stronger in the post-Cold War era, for two reasons. First, by the mid-1990s American forces simply will not be able to fight long, intense Desert Storm- and Korea-style wars at the same time. Because reserves would need to play such a decisive role so early, adequate numbers of fresh units would not be available to relieve forces that had become depleted or fatigued. Supplies of smart bombs, other weapons and spare parts, moreover, would soon dwindle. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell gave one indication of just how thin U.S. forces are already spread telling Congress that an operation as small as the Somalia intervention had forced a reduced tempo for the Navy's Pacific operations.

Second, the American people appear in no mood for protracted conflicts. Presidents will apparently continue to face strong pressures to win fast victories with overwhelming force, rather than entering protracted and messy wars. But the reserve-heavy U.S. military of the near future will be hard-pressed to land two early knockout blows at once. Moreover, achieving these objectives while also waging a large air or ground campaign or major peacekeeping operation in a region such as the Balkans would be out of the question. At least one of these goals would have to be sacrificed.

It is true that President Clinton is counting on help from other industrialized countries for peacekeeping operations. Yet it is also true that these countries are seeking their own peace dividends. Declining military budgets abroad reveal much about not only the resources America's allies will make available for maintaining peacekeeping operations, but also their enthusiasm for participating in such actions at all.


Unless the objectives of American foreign policy change dramatically, the means-ends gap is likely to widen throughout the 1990s for several reasons. First, the end of the Cold War means the emergence of more independent actors in world politics. The Soviet Union not only financed and armed anti-American states such as Iraq, North Korea and Libya, but it also exercised some control over them. This restraint is now gone. In this regard, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic may not be the last disturbers of peace unleashed by the collapse of the Soviet empire. Indeed, Secretary Aspin's "enemies list" scarcely mentions China and Iran, states possessing far greater military-industrial potential than any Iraq or Serbia. In addition, America's West European allies may be uncomfortable to learn of the defense secretary's stated conviction that Russian conventional forces will never threaten them again.

Second, even if the United States retained Cold War-level military capabilities, these newly independent international actors would have considerable reason to doubt America's willingness to counter every transgression they may contemplate. Because the end of the Soviet threat has deprived many countries of their strategic significance to the United States, the likelihood of America actually risking lives and resources to protect them from local thugs has plainly diminished. It was one thing to believe that the United States would respond to a Soviet attempt to overrun a major industrial region like Western Europe or to aggression in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. It is something else entirely to assume that post-Cold War aggressors eyeing strategically marginal targets, even in Bosnia, could expect major and sustained American opposition. The projected Clinton defense cuts can only bolster the confidence of these countries. America will probably remain able to deter or defeat challenges to its own security in priority regions, especially if they are not simultaneous. But major U.S. contributions to the broader cause of world order on top of that will not be possible.

Third, just as the number of potential regional aggressors has increased, so has the appetite of American politicians and opinion leaders for peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations. The U.S. military currently has 20,000 personnel in the Persian Gulf to enforce two no-fly zones over Iraq and a U.N. economic embargo. U.S. naval aircraft are enforcing a no-fly zone over Bosnia as well. Several thousand members of a U.S. force that once numbered 28,000 still remain in Somalia. In recent months, American military personnel have handled relief operations from Bangladesh to south Florida. And peacekeeping operations or military intervention are being considered, officially and unofficially, for Bosnia, Haiti, Cambodia and even the Golan Heights. Individually, most of these operations could probably be handled by a few thousand soldiers. But as the Somalia intervention has shown, these operations tend to drag on, and several at once could easily overwhelm a force of 1.4 million that will already be heavily reliant on reserves to handle whatever challenges emerge elsewhere. Further, as Secretary Aspin has observed, political pressure is likely to increase to use peacekeeping forces for "nation-building" once a minimum degree of order is restored, a challenge, as Vietnam proved, that can be excruciatingly difficult.

The Clinton administration's heavy reliance on reserve forces might also widen the means-ends gap by affecting America's own politics of intervention. In this way, it conforms to and reinforces the "Total Force" concept developed by the Army and Air Force after Vietnam. The idea was to reduce the odds that Washington could fight a war without first mobilizing strong public support or popular sacrifice. For that reason the Total Force concept presents a strong break on foreign policy interventionism. All else being equal, it can only limit the number of American foreign military involvements and the nation's role in preserving international order.

Finally, the very ease of Desert Storm may have a similar effect. America's three-month, 600-casualty victory could engender a popular revolution of rising military expectations, creating broad public support for the use of force abroad-but only with minimal casualties. Conversely, any intervention that might require higher tolls could turn out to be a political nonstarter.

Worse still, a means-ends gap may pose greater problems for America's stated "new world order" objectives than it did for its Cold War aims. The Cold War gap in theory could be bridged by nuclear weapons, but these will be of little use against the Serbias of the world, either militarily or for deterrence. In Desert Storm- or Korea-like contingencies, nuclear weapons could conceivably come into play principally to deter the adversary from using the same. If American and allied forces in the Persian Gulf or Korea were on the brink of disaster, first use of nuclear weapons is also conceivable, with no real prospect of retaliation from Moscow. American nuclear weapons, moreover, might still be a credible deterrent to a Chinese move against treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea. But their credibility is much lower if China or any other regional aggressor moves against strategically less important targets, such as the Spratly Islands or even Taiwan.

Perhaps even more important, Clinton's defense plan takes a surprisingly narrow view of a superpower's global military requirements. First, it makes little allowance for deterrence by intimidation, which has always been critical to America's status. If America is determined to stave off international chaos, let alone to help build a stable international system, it will need, among other things, the sheer power to deter challenges from being mounted in the first place and not merely, as is Secretary Aspin's focus, to react to specific threats once they have materialized. A clear preponderance of force is necessary to create the psychological conditions needed abroad for America to play a superpower role. And even at home, the public is likeliest to support the costs and risks of world leadership if America is strong enough that those costs and risks appear slight.

Nor does the Clinton defense plan take into account how military preponderance has enabled the United States to achieve a broad array of more specific foreign policy aims, which the Clinton administration apparently still values highly. During the Cold War, America's superpower status enabled it-at staggering costs, to be sure-not only to contain the Soviets, but to smother the diplomatic independence of Germany and Japan, to pressure them to follow America's economic policy leads, to provide the security environment needed to sustain an open world economy, to stem the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and to exert influence in the United Nations and other international organizations.

Significantly smaller defense budgets may well make many of these goals impossible to achieve. Being obvious to friend and foe alike, these slimmer budgets will inevitably weaken the credibility of American defense guarantees, especially in Western Europe and the Far East, where the administration is both reducing forward deployed forces and wishing away Russian and Chinese threats. Moreover, they will significantly reduce the leverage that the Clinton administration and its predecessors have depended upon for pursuing a host of economic and other goals on its international agenda.


Even if America's leaders persist in ignoring the implications of declining national security resources, the rest of the world will not. Moreover, the means-ends gap will eventually influence American foreign policymaking, as is already the case. The declining availability of troops and money, reflecting the wishes and common sense of the American people, will increasingly narrow America's foreign policy options or, quite simply, rule many of them out.

The danger is that an administration and a loyal opposition still addicted to globalism and leadership on the cheap may yet bloody the country's nose or warp its economy by pursuing world order in Bosnia or elsewhere. Worse still, America's leaders could become so bent on stabilizing an irremediably unstable world that they will fail to strengthen the nation's ability to survive and flourish amid considerable instability. That is to say, they will fail to adjust to the lower national security spending the public desires.

In an increasingly turbulent world in which challenges are inherently less predictable, a consolidated military, strong economy and healthy society are essential for creating the multiplicity of options and the freedom of action that are the keys to foreign policy success. Domestic renewal also represents the nation's best hope of achieving favorable outcomes at the various international political, economic and environmental bargaining tables at which America will surely sit.

The new approach would generate dramatic changes in U.S. foreign and economic policy.€ For example, America's leaders would recognize, as their constituents already have, that in the post-Soviet era, few international conflicts will directly threaten the nation's territorial integrity, political independence or material welfare. America can now afford to steer clear of various regional conflicts-unless the public agrees to support those interventions through tax increases, domestic spending cuts or perhaps even popular military conscription. For adequate access to foreign markets, America would rely not on its diminishing alliance-leader clout, but on making internationally competitive products. That goal requires productivity-enhancing domestic policies and reciprocity-based trade and investment policies. Rather than fielding expensive Desert Storm equivalents to fight periodic wars in the Persian Gulf, the nation would finally focus on its energy problems by sharply reducing its reliance on oil.

An approach to national security that uses America's limited resources not to raise a new world order but to protect and complement domestic vitality would also shape military priorities that contrast markedly with those of the 1992 Aspin blueprint. American forces would focus primarily on deterring old and new nuclear powers, protecting against small-scale nuclear strikes with a thin missile defense system, defending its territory against conventional attack largely with the strategic nuclear deterrent, and maintaining the flow of reasonably priced Persian Gulf oil until a serious national energy plan is put in place. Under this approach, with the right deployment strategies, the United States would even have adequate resources for a force, supplemented by modest reserves, that could provide token hand-holding units to bolster stability in Europe and East Asia, as well as the beginnings of units capable of using conventional precision-strike weapons launched from air and naval standoff platforms to destroy weapons of mass destruction owned by rogue states. Also desirable, and attainable, would be a small fire-fighting unit to handle evacuations, hostage rescues, etc.

This new strategy suggests a much different role for the nation's foreign policy analysts. Rather than dreaming up new missions for forces and resources that soon will no longer be available, rather than railing against the supposed parochialism and irresponsibility of the American people, and rather than trying to bridge the means-ends gap with gimmicks such as "soft power" and collective security, they might consider accepting political reality and strategic common sense, and help flesh out this new approach. This more modest role may be less appealing than grand strategizing with nonexistent assets, but it beats being ignored, as any declinist can tell you.

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