Democracies Like Military Cuts

by Bruce S. Thorton // FrontPage Magazine

Photo via FrontPage Magazine
Photo via FrontPage Magazine

President Obama has been rightly chastised for his proposed cuts to our military budget. Critics have gone after his Quadrennial Defense Review and its plan to shrink the armed forces, not to mention the clumsy optics of issuing pink slips to thousands of officers still serving in Afghanistan. More troublesome is the reduction of the military’s global mission from its traditional purpose of being able to fight and defeat two enemies at once, to only defeating one while keeping a second from “achieving its objectives,” a conveniently fuzzy criterion.

Worse yet, these cuts are coming just as China and Russia are flexing their geopolitical muscles, the Middle East is exploding in sectarian violence, and Iran is creeping ever closer to nuclear weaponry. As a bipartisan panel created by the Pentagon and Congress concludes of these latest reductions, “Not only have they caused significant investment shortfalls in U.S. military readiness and both present and future capabilities, they have prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve. Unless reversed, these shortfalls will lead to a high-risk force in the near future. That in turn will lead to an America that is not only less secure but also far less prosperous. In this sense, these cuts are ultimately self-defeating.”

As the national leader and Commander in Chief, Obama deserves much of the blame for this strategic blunder. But let’s not forget the role of us voters in these decisions. Historically democracies have had a bad habit of preferring butter to guns, privileging shortsighted interests over long-term security.

Consider ancient Athens, the first democracy. In the 4th century BC, the Athenians created a public fund to pay poorer citizens to attend the theater and religious festivals, which were celebrated on over 130 days a year. Soon a law was passed to divert surplus money into that fund instead of the military fund, and a bit later another law made transference of surpluses to the military fund a capital crime. Unfortunately, during this same period Philip II of Macedon embarked upon a program of aggression against the southern Greek city-states. With his defeat of Athens and Thebes at Chaeronea in 338 BC, Philip achieved his aim, and the Athenians lost their political freedom. Ancient critics linked Athens’ defeat to the decision to starve the military in order to finance “entitlement spending.” Three centuries after Chaeronea, the historian Pompeius Trogus wrote of the Athenians, “The state revenues they had once spent on the army and the fleet were devoted instead to holidays and festivals,” and public money “began to be divided among the people in the city. In this way it happened that in a Greece preoccupied with entertainment the previously lowly and obscure name of Macedon was able to emerge.”

We see a similar dynamic at work in England after the Great War. Just between 1919 and 1921 the defense budget was cut by four-fifths, and continued to decline until 1933. By 1934 the shortfall in funding was such that the whole defense budget for a year would have been needed just to make up for the deficiencies in spending on the army. By 1938, when Hitler began his rampage of aggression, Germany was spending 5 times more on its military than England was. These decades of cuts, moreover, were justified after the Great War by a defense policy, renewed in 1928, based on the “Ten Year Rule,” which assumed that the British Empire would not have to fight a major war during that period, and so did not need an expeditionary force. Germany had other plans, and the folly of scanting the army became obvious in June 1940 with the collapse of the British army in France, and its hairsbreadth escape from annihilation at Dunkirk.

During this period, of course, money was tight in England. The war-debt, much of it owed to the U.S., had to be serviced. At the same time, voters were demanding increased spending on social-welfare programs. From 1.38% of GDP at the beginning of the Great War, welfare spending reached 3.36% in 1933, while spending on health services went from 1.14% of GDP in 1921, to 1.91% of GDP at the outbreak of World War II, despite occasional cutbacks. During this period, despite the growing evidence of German rearmament, disarmament was an explicit Labor Party policy, partly as a way to acquire revenues for increased social welfare spending. In 1934, Labor leader George Lansbury said he would “close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world ‘do your worst.’” That year and the next saw a string of Labor electoral victories, suggesting that the English people were sympathetic to a program of more butter, less guns.

Our current reductions in military spending also have support from the electorate. The cuts today are a consequence of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which called for $1 trillion in reduced spending over the following decade. Half of this amount is to come from defense, while the primary drivers of debt and deficits, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, have been left untouched. At the time, no great mass of voters protested this unbalanced and shortsighted ratio, reserving their displeasure for the Republicans and their demands for serious deficit reductions during the debt-ceiling crisis, and suggestions that entitlements needed to be reformed. So too today, when the military cuts have not generated any widespread voter interest, let alone protests. Indeed, 37% of Americans say the government spends too much on defense, and 32% say it spend about the right amount­­––­­the latter despite the 31% decline since 2010.

We can fault our leaders for not better explaining that America’s role as the keeper of global order requires it to maintain a military force big enough and lethal enough to deter would-be aggressors. We can see right now the wages of American retreat from that global role, with our rivals and enemies emboldened, and our allies disgusted. And we have our own history to caution us against such shortsighted thinking. Who thought after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when during the 90’s defense spending was reduced 36%, that a new enemy holed up in the badlands of Afghanistan would strike the homeland with such devastation, and trigger two wars? No one knows what new dangers will arise from the current disorder, but we need to be prepared for them. But it’s hard to believe our president agrees with this obvious common sense when he dismisses the metastasizing jihad statelet ISIS by saying, “the rockets aren’t being fired into the United States.” Not yet they aren’t.

But the fault does not lie just with our leaders. Unfortunately, democracies have a hard time seeing past the next election cycle and today’s interests and passions. As usual, Tocqueville said it best:

“A clear perception of the future, founded upon judgment and experience . . . is frequently wanting in democracies. The people are more apt to feel than to reason; and if their present sufferings are great, it is to be feared that the still greater sufferings attendant upon defeat will be forgotten.”

The “present sufferings” that are driving military reductions come from the mere thought of trimming social welfare spending and reforming entitlements to keep them from devouring the whole budget. One can only imagine what the “greater sufferings” will be like if we continue to reduce our military and turn our backs on our global responsibilities just to protect our government dole.

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8 thoughts on “Democracies Like Military Cuts”

  1. Karl Horst (Germany)

    Dear Mr. Hanson – can you please tell me who decided America is ” …the keeper of global order?” Has American not learned from it’s failures in Southeast Asia and the Middle East that the rest of world does not want America’s form of democracy, its hypocritical moral standards and corrupt, corporate sponsored politics? Your allies become your enemies overnight and you wonder why Europe, and Israel, no longer take America seriously anymore?

    As any policeman can confirm, the most dangerous confrontation is a domestic dispute where a husband and wife often turn on the responding officer. It’s time the US learned to stay out of the worlds problems given its historically poor track record of backing the “right” side or standing by it’s commitments as it failed to do for South Viet-Nam or the Kurds. I won’t bother to list the number of CIA covert operations that have inadvertently resulted in disaster wherever they occurred due mostly to shortsightedness, incompetence or simply not understanding the cultures or values of the people involved.

    We Europeans, after a millennia of slaughtering ourselves, finally learned our lesson following WW2 and have been quite happy not involving ourselves in the matters of others to the extent the US feels somehow morally obliged. We’ve learned to solve our differences in the confinement of our respective Parliaments, not the battlefields as we once did. We may raise our voices in anger, but we no longer raise our fists.

    Does America seriously expect Chinese and Russian fleets to somehow land troops and tanks on your shores or as in the fiction “Red Dawn” parachute troops into Texas and the south west? Is not nuclear deterrent sufficiently capable of exterminating all life on the planet 30-times over enough? Besides, who would China sell to if your country wasn’t there to buy it’s goods?

    To most of us in Europe, there’s a culture of self propagated American paranoia. For over 70-years you rallied against and even fought against Communism and yet you now owe how many trillions to the communist Chinese while your corporations continue to export jobs and support their economic growth at the expense of your own? Now you fear global terrorism which has no geographical boundary, government or country yet you funded, trained and supported Bin Laden? And yet somehow anyone who’s not with you is against you?

    I agree that as the light of liberty and reason in the world, America must have a strong and well trained professional military. To any rational and critical thinking person this is an obvious fact and necessary to protect freedom which can not be disputed. But as with all things, there must be a balance; in this case a balance of guns and butter. Given America’s worsening economic situation and declining world view, it seems more butter, served with a little humility, would be the better choice.

    1. I find it fascinating how Germans are telling Americans how to behave! If America gave up on being keeper of global order, Europe would be a German Reich. Is that what pisses you off? Or are you longing for being a Soviet republic? It may still happen…
      Europeans are so superior till it turns out they are just bunch of cowards crying for American help.

    2. Hey Karl, did you read the article? No you did not or just completely ignored what he wrote. No One takes us Seriously, because we elected A big government socialist. Barak Obama is cut from the same cloth Europeans and Germans have elected since after America, and the Allies got rid of your boy Hitler. Really????? does anyone take you or Germany seriously. Oh yes, when people around the world think Germany, they automatically think respect, Fear, help in time of need. NINE, Germany makes really good products, Produce Great Engineers, but it takes more than that. I pray and hope you do not speak for the German People.

      You Liberals, Socialists/Statist pride yourselves on your intellect, brilliance and observation skills. Again it takes a keen conservative and freedom loving mind to point out and fix the train wrecks your kind produces on a daily basis. This article was written by Bruce Thorton not Victor Davis Hanson. Why should we Believe your claimed facts are Facts at all. I would need two or three days to respond to the ridiculous assertions throughout your entire article. Americas school system are horribly lacking, in all areas Including grammar and critical thinking, but Germany must be more so that you did not pick up on who wrote the article. America paid for your defense and rebuilding Germany/ Europe for 70+ years so you could build your socialist, utopian, girly playground in Germany. I would expect you to be grateful, oh wait you Socialists/statists are never grateful, happy or satisfied with anything.

      Americans sacrificed their lives to rid Germany and Europe of one of the one of the biggest mass murderers in history. Americans have saved countless millions of lives across the globe. Conservatives and Americans do make mistakes, See there, humility, but of course, you as a Liberal European/ German will never admit to your Colossal failures or failed policies you and your kind supported over the last decades/Millennia. By the Way Victor Davis Hanson is very humble, you obviously do not read his articles very often. Liberals and Socialists by definition are the ones without Humility, they think they know everything and of course insert themselves in matters and policy they are ill equipped to handle. Liberal, Socialist, Statist have a success rate of producing 100% disastrous results. Hubris and arrogance is your calling card not not mine. The lIberal Statist insulate themselves in government positions, and wrap themselves in laws so that they never experience the consequences of their failed policies. Do they know anything about Healthcare or Medicine? No, Government run healthcare everywhere that it exists is a failure, adding to a list of failures that could circle the Globe.

      In addition do not try to make the accusation I do not know the way you think and I cannot pigeon hole you into a category of Liberal, Statist/Socialist because I can. Disasters like Vietnam the Great Society, Iran building Nukes, the Murder Spree by ISIS can be dropped on the front door of these Claimed Smartest people to walk the Earth: Graduation from the right Schools, being born in the right family, joining the Political Class, Etc. (i.e.Liberal Statist/Socialist) weather in Germany, United States or around the world. From what I know of German History, the Smartest people in Germany Claimed that Hitler could be controlled, your intellectual elite of the time. How did that work out? I leave you to do the research on that since you conveniently forgot.

      May I point out that your own problems in Germany and Europe. The Muslims are out producing the people of Europe and Germany and will result in the eventual conversion of Germany and Europe into a Muslim state. Then there is the Russian and Putin Problem. Do you think He wants to stop at the Ukraine? No, He wants Europe and Germany. You and your kind risk being remembered a Quislings, {Quisling, I also leave you to do research on{Hint: European, World War II, Not German)} so let me state you have learned Nothing European/German. Oh, your English is pretty good, I do not believe you are Karl From Germany, I think you are Karl From Queens.

    3. Christian Speicher

      After World War II Russia involved herself quite a bit in the matters of Ukraine, the Baltics, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, Greece, Italy, Germany, France … It put half of Europe behind an Iron Wall of totalitarism and oppression. Those Europeans that wanted to stay or tried to become free begged the United States to intervene on their behalf. Unfortunatly the evil Soviet empire lasted for decades. Since the end of that sad European period, Serbs, Croatians, Kosovars and Bosnians were killing each other while Europe watched helplessly and then cried for the US to do something. Now Russia is again rampant seizing on the indifference of the current US administration (be careful what you wish for) and cutting Ukraine apart. No ships needed, we already pay ransom to Zsar Vladimir.
      In Asia South Korea as well as Western Germany before is only free and prosperous because of the Americans that gave their lives again for the freedom of others thousands of miles away. Germans have not anything comparable to show for. In China dissidents are incarcerated, murdered and harvested for their organs. Germany kisses the asses of the Chinese oppressors whenever possible.
      Israel on the other hand is pretty much able to defend itselves, it is not sick and tired of the United States but only of the dangerous incompetence and malingence of the current administration.
      Germany turned from being evil and dangerous into being cowardly and morally stupid, but feeling superior is still much en vogue beetween the Rhine and the Oder.
      My country and all the Horsts in it make me sick.

  2. There seems to be a feeling among Americans that the US is shouldering more than its fair share of the burden of maintaining the global order. Over the last century that has not been true (the US entered WWI in 1917, whereas Canada entered on 4 August 1914; with the casualties to show for it; the US entered WWII in 1941, whereas Canada entered in Sept of 1939; and never mind the UK, which bled and bled and bled); but holds strongly for the second Iraq war, and to a lesser extent for the first Iraq war. However, it is the US that the Islamists hate. It is the US that is the Great Sathan that whispers in the hearts of men, the Great Corruptor. No doubt the Islamists would like to rule in or to destroy Toronto or Montreal, and even more in Paris and Rome. But it is NYC and Washington DC that they lust for. It took them 7 centuries to capture Constantinople, the Red Apple. How long will it take for them to conquer the Big Apple?

    1. Well, since Canada entered the fray, US was no longer needed, eh? Funny, the first commenter complain that America is to aggressive, you complain it is too isolationist.

  3. Democracies can and are short sighted as are monarchies and oligarchies and every form of government. Staying in power is more important than the longer term outlook. However, in my view, the current reduction in military spending is not as foolish and short sighted as you believe.

    First, there is the fact that states are not simple, homogenous entities. While the majority of those who fight America’s wars in the 21st Century the wars are poor and working class and middle class, those who declare the wars are members of the elite. Ancient Athens and 1930’s Britain were located in close proximity to either superior or rapidly rising powers. Their armies and fleets protected everyone from those powerful and nearby enemies. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the continued occupations were elective and in some ways they were used to transfer wealth from American middle class tax payers to American contractors and local elites in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a big difference between foregoing private and public sector consumption for the sake of keeping Hitler out and making similar sacrifices for the sake of keeping Halliburton stocks up and an Afghan warlord’s account full.

    Second, there is not a particularly clear link between our Iraq and Afghanistan wars and 9/11. It bears repeating that the attack on 9/11 were done by citizens of American allies in the Middle East. The same countries and citizens that benefited from our protection and global order, want to kill us the most. They prepared and planned for the 9/11 attacks in Germany and Florida and New jersey and Saudi Arabia. It was helpful for the hijackers to have some space in Afghanistan but they could have found that space in a number of failing or failed States with Islamic populations. If military invasion and occupation are the only way to prevent another 9/11 style attack, we would have to put the entire planet under occupation and declare martial law indefinitely all throughout the US. Reinforced cockpit doors and passengers who are willing to fight hijackers have done far more to prevent another 9/11 and they are cheaper than going to War with the entire World and our own people.

    That brings me to the third point, many Americans see the NSA and the DEA and militarized police and sheriff departments as a greater and more immediate threat to their lives and their freedoms. I am not just talking about violent gang bangers or even nonviolent criminals. Botched SWAT team raids have killed more Americans than ISIS and local police chiefs now boldly tell citizens and journalists that the Constitution does not apply to them and their department. Furthermore, military gear and protocols seem to be in Iraq one day and on our streets the next day. Many Americans do not like to see their own streets packed APCs which are themselves packed with “peace officers,” who wear body armor, who carry assault rifles and grenades and who are all on a mission to raid an informal poker party. We especially do not like the fact that those peace officers are trained to see their fellow citizens as nothing but potential “hostiles.” Training that allows a man to survive the streets of Fallujah is getting our people killed stateside.

    Considering that our militarized law enforcement agencies are supplied with surplus military gear and considering the fact that these soldiers on our streets are more likely to kill you if you are poor, it is a master stroke of security for main street when we reduce military spending and increase spending on anti-poverty programs. Add in the fact that poverty causes a shorter life span due to reduced access to routine medical care and we are getting a three for one deal on increased personal security when we buy fewer guns and more butter. The English were, for centuries, freer than their counterparts on the Continent and it is due, in no small part, to their desire to not fund standing armies in peacetime. They knew that weapons that can defeat foreign threats can very easily become domestic threats to life and limb and liberty.

    The forth and final point to consider is a subject about which Dr. Hanson may know a bit. There is the theme of the West versus the rest. China, ISIS and even Russia are not Western and that makes them different from Hitler’s Germany or Philips’s Macedon. Distant and non Western powers are just not as great of a threat as proximate and Western powers. I know that China, Russia and ISIS can and do threaten our allies and other Western Countries but maybe our reduced defense spending will send a message to an affluent South Korea, Japan and Germany and others that they should not free ride off of US tax payers. Israel is currently the only Western, US ally that is truly serious about pulling its own weight.

    Pay soldiers well, take care of veterans, maintain a very strong fleet and air force and special forces and Marines but we should refrain from costly and elective ground wars. We are at the point that tax cuts, infrastructure spending, funding for education, funding for antipoverty programs and some remedial civics lessons for law enforcement are all more valuable investments than an additional aircraft carrier group or a third protracted, blood and treasure swallowing Middle Eastern slough.

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