William Hartung / Forbes
(September 29, 2021) — In an astonishing move given how much money US taxpayers already throw at the Pentagon year in and year out, the House of Representatives recently voted to increase the Biden administration’s request for the department by $24 billion. A similar measure will almost certainly be considered by the Senate when it debates the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
These moves to increase Pentagon spending need to be seen in perspective. The administration’s initial proposal of $753 billion for the Pentagon and related work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy was already one of the highest levels since World War II — substantially higher than the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam Wars or the Reagan buildup of the 1980s.
When asked how the United States could be increasing Pentagon spending even as it ends a 20-year war in Afghanistan, proponents of boosting resources for the Department of Defense leaned on official Washington’s current threat of choice — a rising China.
The focus on China as the primary challenge to the United States in the years to come is misguided for several reasons. First and foremost, the greatest risks to human lives and livelihoods are not military in nature. Climate change, pandemics, racial and economic injustice, and a frightening growth in anti-democratic beliefs and practices are far more likely to do harm to the average American than anything China might or might not do with its military.
The one exception with respect to possible military threats emanating from China is nuclear weapons. But given that the active US nuclear stockpile is 13 times as large as China’s, and will remain larger even if current concerns that China may be developing and deploying new intercontinental ballistic missiles prove to be accurate, the likelihood that China would launch a nuclear attack on the United States is near zero.
China has no incentive to attack the United States just so its society can be destroyed by a US nuclear response. And research by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) has shown that even an exchange of as few as a hundred of the thousands of nuclear weapons currently in global arsenals would have such a devastating effect on global climate and agricultural production that it could spark a famine that could put 2 billion people at risk of starvation.
As former secretary of defense William Perry and Tom Collina of the Ploughshares Fund have pointed out in their book The Button, the greatest threat of nuclear war is likely to be due to an accident or miscalculation, not an intentional attack. Or as they put it, “the risk of a surprise attack is significantly smaller than the risk of stumbling into a nuclear war.”
This risk can be dealt with through changes in policy, including adoption of a no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons and limits on the president’s sole authority to launch a nuclear attack, not through a new nuclear arms race with China.
· Nor does China pose a conventional military threat to the United States. The US outspends China on its military by a three-to-one margin, has a superior Navy and Air Force and a more extensive nuclear arsenal (noted above), and has major allies in China’s neighborhood of a kind that Beijing does not. China’s emerging capabilities for hypersonic weapons have been exaggerated, and overall it is decades behind the US in military technology across the board.
The issue of Taiwan should be dealt with through careful diplomacy, as it has for decades, not by military threats or far-flung war-fighting scenarios for a conflict between nuclear-armed powers that would be an unprecedented catastrophe should it occur.
What does the public think about all of this? A timely new report by the Eurasia Group Foundation has found that more than twice as many Americans support decreasing Pentagon spending as those who support increasing it, with major reasons including the need to attend to domestic needs and the belief that there are no threats significant enough to justify current levels of spending.
Attitudes are mixed on how to address the challenge from China, with a split over whether to increase or reduce US troop deployments in Asia and only a plurality supporting going to war in defense of Taiwan. These attitudes need to be weighed against another finding of the EGF report, with 70 percent of respondents believing that “the US should negotiate directly with adversaries to try to avoid military confrontation, even if those adversaries are human rights abusers, dictators, or home to terrorist organizations.”
Given determined leadership, a policy of cooperation rather than confrontation with China — particularly on issues like pandemics and climate change — could shift public attitudes further in the direction of a diplomacy-first approach to Beijing. Such an approach should not give Beijing a free pass on issues like the destruction of the democracy movement in Hong Kong or the repression of its Uyghur population, but it should understand that military threats and more submarines and aircraft carriers are unlikely to change those policies.
Cutting the Pentagon budget is not only good policy, but it may also be good politics, as the new Eurasia Group Foundation report suggests. It’s time for Congress to change course and rein in runaway military spending.
William Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. He is the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books, 2011) and the co-editor, with Miriam Pemberton, of Lessons from Iraq: Avoiding the Next War (Paradigm Press, 2008). Previous books include And Weapons for All (HarperCollins, 1995), a critique of US arms sales policies from the Nixon through Clinton administrations.
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