National Defense

American military strength (an important aspect of our national security) depends on the size, training, and equipment (weapons) of our military, which is very much dependent on the size and efficiency of our economy, which pays for it.  Devoting more of our productive capacity to the military reduces our economic capacity. Getting the balance right between military and nonmilitary uses of our resources is very important.  Knowing what military capacity we need to insure our defense requires assessing the sources of threats to our national security and what motivates their deployment.

The cold war was a confrontation with international communism, most heavily concentrated in the Soviet Union. This was an ideological enemy of free market, capitalist countries, whose goal was to spread its ideology to the entire world. There is no such ideological enemy today. The Chinese government wants to be strong and prosperous and doesn’t care whether anyone else follows their model or not. They do want the rules for global trade and interactions to permit their own domestic model. We need to engage China fairly in establishing international rules that serve everone.

Historically wars were generally about territory and political control, usually about moving boarders a bit this way or that.  The Mogul, Roman, Persian, British, Ottoman and other empires existed largely to extract economic gain from the territories they ruled, something more peacefully enjoyed today via free (or freer) trade.  The mere threat of war and the creation and maintenance of potential enemies is also a useful device for rallying countries around their leaders and for keeping the money flowing to their “defense” industries–think of Mr. Putin, Xi Jinping and the U.S. military/industrial complex.

American defense today requires military strength sufficient to deter any country from successfully attacking the United States. It does not require the 800 military bases that we maintain around the world.  It did not require and was not enhanced by our many wars that followed the infamous and very damaging Viet Nam war (Lebanon 1982-4, Grenada 1983, Panama 1989-90, Gulf War 1990-91, Somali 1992-5, Bosnia 1992-5, Haiti 1994-5, Kosovo 1998-9, Afghanistan 2001-date, Iraq 2003-11, 2014-date, Somali 2007-21, Libya 2011, 2015-20, Syria 2014-date, War on Terror in various places). War with China would be quite a different matter. “The delusions of high tech warfare”

Fareed Zakaria unloaded on our war industry last month: “Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin outlined his key concern. ‘China is our pacing threat,’ he said. He explained that for the past 20 years, the United States had been focused on the Middle East while China had been modernizing its military. ‘We still maintain the edge,’ he noted, ‘and we’re going to increase the edge going forward.’ Welcome to the new age of bloated Pentagon budgets, all to be justified by the great Chinese threat.

“What Austin calls America’s ‘edge’ over China is more like a chasm. The United States has about 20 times the number of nuclear warheads as China. It has twice the tonnage of warships at sea, including 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers compared with China’s two carriers (which are much less advanced). Washington has more than 2,000 modern fighter jets compared with Beijing’s roughly 600, according to national security analyst Sebastien Roblin. And the United States deploys this power using a vast network of some 800 overseas bases. China has three. China spends around $250 billion on its military, a third as much as the United States.”  “The Pentagon is using China as an excuse for huge new budgets”  As noted above, over-investing in the military results in a smaller economy overall.

The latest debate is whether we should make our commitment to go to war with China to defend the independence of Taiwan explicit or leave it implied and ambiguous. In 1979 the U.S. recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China and acknowledged that Taiwan was part of China (slightly fuzzy diplomatic language). So would American national security be enhanced by an explicit credible commitment to go to war with China, if necessary, to preserve the independence of Taiwan? China is a nuclear power. Going to war with China (World War III if we could get anyone else to join us) would inflect enormous damage on the U.S. whether it became nuclear or not, even if we won. In my opinion it would be simply insane to take such risks.

Would the U.S. deter China by being tough enough?  As Doug Bandow put it: “America’s antagonists saw something very different than weakness…. Stupidity and arrogance. Poor judgment. Refusal to admit mistakes. An almost demented willingness to sacrifice America’s future in a desperate attempt to redeem the nation’s tragic past. A better way not to show weakness would be to stop doing ‘stupid shit,’ as Obama suggested.

“China’s Xi Jinping and his colleagues in Zhongnanhai likely have a far more objective and practical take on U.S. policy: Endless wars by Washington are good for Beijing. The Chinese would love to see the US pour trillions more dollars and thousands more lives into new conflicts. Invade Iran? Please! Maybe occupy Syria too? Lebanon also needs fixing. Don’t forget the need to redeem Afghanistan. Then there is the problem of Russia in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere: go for it!”  https://original.antiwar.com/doug-bandow/2021/03/23/the-failure-of-huff-and-puff-foreign-policy/

But China (and Russia in Ukraine) has been behaving badly–claiming this little island in the China Sea and that one as its own, not to mention the ever-present risk of invading Taiwan. Even if the forced takeover of Taiwan by the PRC would not threaten our national defense, shouldn’t we care? Shouldn’t we care about the abhorrent genocide by the Chinese government against its Uighur Muslim minority in its western province of Xinjiang? Of course, we should, but we should reject the presumption of our neocon friends and the military/industrial complex we keep fat and rich that these and other interests can only be addressed militarily. See my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan: “My Travels to Baghdad”

The creation of the United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions and other international cooperative agreements and institutions after World War II were meant to provide dispute resolution mechanisms other than wars. President Biden is committed to rebuilding these neglected institutions and strengthening and reenergizing our diplomatic institutions and initiatives. We can confront China more effectively and more realistically together with most of the rest of the world using the tools of diplomacy rather than of war. If the people of Taiwan chose to integrate their governance more fully with that of the PRC, that is their choice and their business. But if China invades Taiwan or otherwise forces such an integration, China should know the economic and political price they would pay. In my opinion, such a declaration would be far more effective in deterring such behavior by China than a fuzzy uncertain threat of war. It is encouraging that Congress seems on the verge of reclaiming its War Powers provided by the Constitution.

It is worth remembering the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against our war in Vietnam delivered April 4, 1967. https://kingandbreakingsilence.org/

Author: wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.

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