Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, just arrived in Taiwan. Why is this a big deal? Shouldn’t anyone be able to visit any country that has opened their doors to them? It depends on the context and purpose.

The civil war for control of China was won by the Chinese Communists lead by Mao Zedong in 1949. The opposition, led by General Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan and reestablished the Republic of China (POC) there. The civil war was fought on and off between 1927 and 1949 when the victorious Mao established the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and designated Taiwan as its 23rd province. Both the PRC and POC claimed to be the legitimate governments of all of China.

Following President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, “the United States moved to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and de-recognize the Republic of China (ROC) in 1979, [and] the United States stated that the government of the People’s Republic of China was ‘the sole legal Government of China.’ Sole, meaning the PRC was and is the only China, with no consideration of the ROC as a separate sovereign entity.

“The United States did not, however, give in to Chinese demands that it recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan (which is the name preferred by the United States since it opted to de-recognize the ROC). Instead, Washington acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan was part of China. To this day, the U.S. ‘one China’ position stands: the United States recognizes the PRC as the sole legal government of China but only acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China.

“Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 to protect the significant U.S. security and commercial interest in Taiwan. The TRA provided a framework for continued relations in the absence of official diplomatic ties….  The TRA sets forth the American Institute in Taiwan as the corporate entity dealing with U.S. relations with the island; makes clear that the U.S. decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means;… mandates that the United States make available defensive arms to Taiwan; and requires that the United States maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

“What is US one China policy and why does it matter?”

All American Presidents have affirmed this one China commitment while maintaining its “strategic ambiguity”. “U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said [that] the Trump administration is committed to the long-standing ‘One China’ policy as it reviews U.S. policy toward China, but also intends to keep all of its commitments to Taiwan.” June 13, 2017. “USA China-Tillerson committed to one China policy”

More recently: “Joe Biden made a potentially dangerous statement on Monday. In Tokyo, he gave a flat ‘yes’ to a reporter’s question of whether he was willing to ‘get involved militarily to defend Taiwan’. ‘That’s the commitment we made,’ the president claimed. In fact, the United States scrapped its formal commitment to defend Taiwan in 1979…. This is the third time in less than a year that Biden has publicly declared that the United States would use force to keep Beijing from seizing the island.  “Biden defend Taiwan-China invasion”

Pat Buchanan asks: “But if the U.S. went to war to defend Taiwan, what would it mean? We would be risking our own security and possible survival to prevent from being imposed on the island of Taiwan the same regime lately imposed on Hong Kong without any U.S. military resistance.”  “Is Taiwan’s independence worth war?”

What is Pelosi’s objective in going to Taiwan? What does she hope to accomplish with her poke in the Chinese eye? Our interest should be to promote the integration of Taiwan with the rest of China “by peaceful means.” Our diplomacy should be deployed to that end. President Biden’s repeated slips and Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit do not provide the tone nor context for such diplomacy. I believe that her visit to Taiwan is a dangerous mistake. While we would be hard pressed from thousands of miles away to win a war with China, China would suffer enormously as well and probably has better sense than to start such a war. But what is the purpose of such a challenge?

Ukraine’s and Russia’s War

Russia’s attack on Ukraine is horrifying, unjustified and illegal. We can’t help admiring the courage of the Ukrainian people in attempting to defend their country nor being enraged at Russia’s brutality.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Alexander Vindman argued that: “America Must Embrace the Goal of Ukrainian Victory  It’s Time to Move Past Washington’s Cautious Approach” “Will America embrace Ukraine victory goal?”  Vindman, best known to us as Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, was born in Ukraine. It is understandable, but not excusable, that Vindman puts Ukraine’s interests above those of the United States.

As a naturalized American, Vindman proved his patriotism by testifying on October 29, 2019, before the U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, for whom he worked as a member of the White House’s National Security Council. But when determining our role in Ukraine’s war with Russia, we should give primacy to America’s best interests in both the short and long term.

Historian and military expert Edward Luttwak tweeted recently that “Friends complain that my suggested war aim of restoring the Feb 23, 2022, status quo ante is too modest; some want the expulsion of all Russian forces from all parts of Ukraine incl Crimea, with others emphasizing the need to drive Putin from office. But both mean much more war…”  “Luttwak on war in Ukraine”

It is hard not to sympathize with the desire to punish Russia for what Putin has done and is doing—i.e., to demand justice. Many aspects of the world are not to our liking or of our making, even here at home. But we must deal rationally with the world that exists in the hopes of moving it bit by bit toward a better place.

In today’s Washington Post Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Catlin Talmadge wrote an oped titled: “The U.S. is expanding its goals in Ukraine. That’s dangerous. Comments by political and military leaders suggest the goal is no longer to drive Russia to the negotiating table but to seek a total defeat of Russian forces. That increases the odds of catastrophe.”

 “Talk of total victory aligns well with another recently floated objective: an extended bloodletting of the Russian army. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asserted on April 25 that the United States wants ‘to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.’ Yet crippling Russia’s military or expelling Russia from Ukraine are significantly more dangerous aims than preventing the further loss of Ukrainian territory or, through limited offensive operations, gaining some of it back. Unfortunately, if Russian President Vladimir Putin begins to think that his back is against the wall, he may lash out by directly confronting NATO, intensifying the conventional war in the east, or even using nuclear weapons.” “Ukraine war expansion risks nuclear”

Mr. Vindman wants us to make Russia a permanent enemy. That is never a good objective. Over the last half year both Presidents Zelenskyy and Putin have offered peace conditions that represented reasonable starting points for serious negotiations. Why haven’t we pressed them both to the negotiating table?

Vindman stated that: “A Ukrainian victory against Russia will be defined, first and foremost, by the Ukrainians themselves.” But then he also says that the US should give Ukraine more and better weapons. I am not sure that he sees the disconnect here. We should not push Putin into feeling he must escalate or lose. We should exert maximum pressure to bring this war to an end that is acceptable to both Ukrainian and Russian people and in a way that opens the door to a more peaceful Russia in the future. “Ukraine-France playing good cop with Putin”

Aside from the strong emotional desire to punish Russia for what it is doing, several of the usual suspects are dangerously prolonging this war. Billions of dollars are pouring into our defense industries, which, as always, have a profit incentive to keep things going. Though we are confronted with horrifying pictures of mangled buildings and bodies, they are “over there” somewhere. For most Americans the assumed horrors of war are academic, while in fact they are all too real for those involved. The huge cost of war in lives lost, human suffering, and economic and property damage are rarely given the weight they deserve as we cheer on the brave Ukrainians fighting to the last Ukrainian. Those very well-meaning Americans thanking our soldiers for their service rarely have any idea what we have asked of them to go and fight in other people’s wars.

So our emotions cry out to smash and punish the Russians. But how it ends will have a large impact on conditions in the world ten or twenty years from now. Our standard of living and the degree of security and cooperation in the world—particularly with Russia—will depend on when and how this war ends. We need to temper our emotions and engage our minds.

Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, looked quite different at the end than they did as we undertook them. Ukraine is ranked only slightly less corrupt than Russia. “Transparency International” It is much more difficult doing business there than in Russia (Ease of doing business ranking lists New Zealand at the top, Russia 29 and Ukraine 64). “World Bank Ease of Doing Business index”  Thus it is a small wonder that John Hudson wrote in today’s Washington Post that: “Flood of weapons to Ukraine raises fear of arms smuggling Vague U.S. assurances spark concern about lost military equipment in Ukraine, a longtime hub of arms trafficking.” “Ukraine weapons trafficking”

It is too late to point fingers and ask why we did not press Ukraine and Russia to the bargaining table six months ago or four months ago. It is in our self-interest and the interest of Europe and the world to do so now.

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/

Trump’s Foreign Policy and Mexico

“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First. America first!” Video of Trump’s inaugural address. Or was it “Trump First?”

If President Trump’s plea for others, such as Mexico, to treat the U.S. fairly were merely an embarrassing gesture, we might overlook it having grown used to Trump’s need for approval. But this is the status and fate of my country at stake. In a hysterical satire made by Dutch television, they ask whether if America is First, they might be second: Dutch youtube satire

There is little disagreement that American foreign policy should serve America’s interests. Even the neocons see the promotion of democracy as ultimately good for America, if we can survive the wars they want us to fight to impose it on the rest of the world. We have and should continue to see our interests in long-run terms—enlightened self interest. As he has shortsightedly done with trade, “Trump outlined a world in which foreign relations are collapsed into a zero-sum game. They gain, we lose.” Charles Krauthammer on Trump’s foreign policy revolution /2017/01/26/.

The real issue is which policies actually serve our interests. These policies should keep us safe and prosperous.

Military: Obviously we need a military capability sufficient to protect our shores from attack, but we need to avoid devoting more of our resources to our military than necessary for that purpose (with a reasonable margin for error) because every dollar spent on the military is a dollar taken away from building our economic strength, which is equally important for our defense and well being.

Diplomacy: We also need to invest in building good relations with other countries, especially our immediate neighbors, in part to minimize the prospect of ever needing to use our military. Thus we must devote the resources, including training, needed by our State Department to build our effective soft power. In an article in Time magazine January 26, 2017, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union said:   “No problem is more urgent today than the militarization of politics and the new arms race. Stopping and reversing this ruinous race must be our top priority.” Gorbachev on Putin – Trump

Treaties: But here is the part least appreciated by the American public and least understood by Trump (I don’t know about the rest of his team yet and eagerly await his appointment to the Undersecretary of State position). Just as the rule of law has been critical to development and vitality of our economy and the protection of our liberties at home, it remains as important when we cross the border. This extends far beyond the critically important agreements on trade, the international monetary system, and the rules of war, to the more mundane aspects of every day life as well.

According to The Washington Post: “Trump proposes internal high-level committees to examine multilateral treaties, with a view toward leaving them….

“John B. Bellinger III, who served as legal counsel to both the National Security Council and the State Department in the George W. Bush administration, said the treaty examination was based on a ‘false premise . . . that the United States has become party to numerous multi­lateral treaties that are not in the United States’ interest.’

“’There are “many hundreds of multi­lateral treaties that help Americans every day in concrete ways,’ he said. Without them, ‘Americans could not have our letters delivered in foreign countries; could not fly over foreign countries or drive on foreign roads using our state driver’s licenses; could not have access to a foreign consular official if we are arrested abroad; could not have our children returned if abducted by a parent; and could not prevent foreign ships from polluting our waters.’” Trump-lays-groundwork-to-change-US-role-in-the-world/2017/01/26/

The Bretton Woods institutions created after World War II (the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization) established the institutional arrangements for cooperation in developing the rules of international trade and finance. American leadership in creating the international institutions through which we interact with others abroad, i.e., through which the rule of law is established and enforced internationally, has ensured that the international order has remained true to the liberal values on which America was founded. We would be wise to keep China as strong and active a member of these institutions and the rules they oversee as possible. US global leadership and the AIIB. It would be tragically misguided to undermine these institutions and our leadership of them. But this is the direction President Trump seems to be headed.

Mexico: Close to home, Mexico provides a tragic example of Trump’s failing approach to foreign policy. Our relationship with Mexico is one of our most important in the world. We share a 2,000 mile border with Mexico and it is our second largest export market earning $235 billion in 2016 while importing $296 billion worth of goods and services. The difference of $61 billion, the so-called trade deficit, reflects net Mexican investments in the U.S. Though Mexicans have been leaving the U.S. on net for the last few years, illegal immigration across our shared border has been a big campaign issue for Trump, and the Mexican border is the gateway for many non-Mexican Central American illegal immigrants. The flow of drugs across that border is also an issue.

Close cooperation with Mexico in dealing with these issues has been a critical aspect of managing them. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been an enormous benefit. Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas told G.H.W. Bush that “goods bought by American consumers will be produced by Mexican workers, it is only a question of where those Mexican workers live!” He also indicated that in addition to jobs that keep Mexicans in Mexico, NAFTA also helped bring the rule of law to Mexico. Jerry Jordon

Illegal immigration reflects and responds to the incentives faced by potential immigrants. These include the quality of life, including jobs, in their home country, the demand for workers in the U.S., and the option of legal immigration. The problem of illegal immigration to the U.S. would be helped by a better legal immigration law, such as proposed by George W Bush in 2007 or later as contained in the Senate law drafted by the Gang of Eight in 2013. Better enforcement of work permit requirements with American employers could help a great deal.

President Trump’s approach has been grossly adversarial rather than cooperative. He has threatened to tear up (or at least renegotiate) NAFTA and build a wall on the U.S. –Mexican border that he would force Mexico to pay for. His approach is disastrously wrong. “President Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, John F. Kelly, has been clear about his views on a border wall with Mexico: It won’t work.” Homeland Security John Kelly on border wall – NYT. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim stated that: “The best wall is investment, which generates employment in Mexico…. Mexico is the best partner the U.S. has.” Mexico digs in and Trump lashes back as border wall standoff deepens /2017/01/27/

The Mayor of Berlin Michael Mueller urged US President Donald Trump “not to go down the road of isolation.” He warned that such division causes “slavery and pain” and would “destroy the lives of millions.” BBC 1/27/2017. This doesn’t seem fully applicable to the Mexican wall, but still the Berliners know a lot about walls. John Oliver provides a hilarious but informative commentary on The Wall on Last Week Tonight. John Oliver video on The Wall

President Trump’s continued insistence on building the wall and his insulting claim that Mexico will pay for it has damaged the cooperative relationship that we badly need to maintain with Mexico. Trump’s tweet that Mexico should pay for the wall or Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto should cancel his planned visit to Washington and stay home is an insult beneath the dignity of an American President as well as stupid. That President Trump is surely ignorant of these and other seriously damaging knock on effects of his mishandling of our relations with Mexico is no excuse for his insane behavior. Trump’s ruinous stance on Mexico-deportation-border-wall-tariff-trade.

“For 70 years, we sustained an international system of open commerce and democratic alliances that has enabled America and the West to grow and thrive. Global leadership is what made America great. We abandon it at our peril.” [Krauthammer]

The Liberal International Order

A monopolist enjoys a bigger profit than would a competitive supplier of the same items by restricting the supply in order to charge a higher price. This assumes that he can increase the price by more than the reduction in his sales, but I will skip these economic details in order to get to my point.

Monopoly is good for the producer and bad for the consumer. Monopoly is generally impossible without help from government to restrict competition. The United States has flourished economically, in part, because we have chosen the competitive model—the level playing field of commerce—as the social and economic model we aim for domestically and promote internationally. Many other nations have also embraced this model and our leadership in promoting it. We extend and promote the rule of law on which a level playing field is built through the Bretton Woods Institutions created after World War II (the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization) and other international bodies and agreements. Our leadership in promoting these values is now in jeopardy for a variety of reasons that include our aggressive use (and misuse) of our military power and our unilateralism.

Chas Freedman is the most articulate champion I know of, of the wise use of American diplomacy to promote the above and other values that have characterized our country’s governance. Chas was Nixon’s interpreter during the President’s first trip to China in 1972. His three decades as a U.S. diplomat included Ambassadorship to Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and a term as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. The following challenge to the United States is taken from his latest book American’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East and was contained in his August 29, 2012 address to the American Foreign Service Association’s Adair Memorial Lecture at the American University School of International Service, Washington D. C. He enumerates the conditions for our continued (or restored) leadership of the liberal international order that has served us and the world so well. Chas concentrates more wisdom into fewer words than anyone I know:

“Americans believe that societies that respect the rule of law and rely upon democratic debate to make decisions are more prosperous, successful, and stable than those that do not. Recent efforts to impose our freedoms on others by force have reminded us that they can be spread only by our setting an example that others see as worthy of emulation. Freedom cannot be sustained if we ourselves violate its principles. This means that we must respect the right of others to make their own choices as long as these do not harm us. It also presupposes a contest of ideas. Our ideas will not prosper unless we maintain solidarity with others who value and also practice them.

“That is why a first priority of American diplomacy must now be to re-forge the unity of the Atlantic community behind the concept of the rule of law. This cannot be done unless we confront and correct our own lapses from the great traditions of our republic. To re-empower our diplomacy by inspiring others to look to our leadership, we much restore our respect for our Bill of Rights as well as our deference to the dignity of the individual both at home and abroad. Let me be specific.

“We must revive the Fourth Amendment’s ban of search and seizures of persons, houses, papers, and other personal effects without probable cause. No more ‘extraordinary rendition.’ No more universal electronic eavesdropping, warrantless seizure of paper and electronic records at the border, and intrusive inspection of anything and everything in the possession of passengers using public transportation.

“We must reinstate the Fifth Amendment’s protections against deprivation ‘of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.’ No more suspension of habeas corpus or executive branch assertions of a right to detain or even kill people, including American citizens, without charge or trail.

“We must return to respect for the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right of anyone accused of a crime to be informed of the charges and confronted with the witnesses against him and to be represented by a lawyer. No more ‘secret evidence.’

“We must reinstate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishments,’ including torture, and we must reaffirm our adherence to the several Geneva Conventions. We Americans can have no credibility as advocates for human rights if we do not practice what we preach.

“In short, the path to renewed effectiveness in American diplomacy lies not just in wise and dexterous statecraft and the professionalization of those who implement it abroad. It rests on the rebuilding of credibility through the rediscovery of the values that made our country great.”

Our Unsupportable Empire

Most of you are grudgingly aware that the U.S. government has promised us more than we want to or can easily pay for.  China is no longer willing to fill the gap knowing that we will not be capable of repaying it.  This is on top of the existing national debt from past borrowing to cover the government’s current and past spending in excess of its revenue of $16 trillion, about the same as the United States’ total annual output.  These numbers pale in comparison with the government’s unfunded commitments (those not covered by the revenue expected from existing tax laws and user charges) to future retirees and recipients of medical care (social security, medicare and Medicaid). The present value of the revenue short fall to pay for these future commitments (the government’s unfunded liabilities) is currently around $50 trillion for an astonishing total debt of around $66 trillion, which is larger than the total annual output of the world per year.

Naturally, these promises must be pared back because they can’t be paid for. To some extent a healthy, growing economy will also increase our capacity (lighten the burden) to pay for them but by itself growth will not be enough. This is one, but only one, of the reasons that we also need to reconsider our military promises around the world, while reducing and reorienting our military budget and modestly increasing our diplomatic (State Department) expenditures.

Our promise to provide security to most of the world suffers from the same moral hazard as does an overly generous welfare state.  Incentives matter. When access to welfare is easy and the level of support is generous, more people will choose it over taking a job that doesn’t interest them much.  When President Bill Clinton signed “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996” (PRWORA) on August 22, 1996 (with strong Republican support), he fulfilled his campaign pledge to “end welfare as we have come to know it.” The law ended welfare as an entitlement by introducing tighter conditions for receiving it. Welfare costs dropped following adoption of the law. “A broad consensus now holds that welfare reform was certainly not a disaster–and that it may, in fact, have worked much as its designers had hoped.”[1] While some people remain skeptical, Sweden’s welfare reforms of the last two decades have demonstrated very similar results.[2]

The United States spends more on its military than the next 14 largest military spenders combined (China, Russia, UK, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and Turkey). We are policing/protecting most of the world. This has two negative effects. The first, similar to chronic welfare recipients, is that other nations spend less on their own defense, taking a free ride on the United States’ ability to keep the world safe for everyone else. The second is that by diverting so much of our productive resources into the military, we reduce the resources available for developing and strengthening our economy. It is our powerful economy that underlies our influence in the world as much, if not more, than our military power. Moreover, our military might is made possible by our economic power. So we need to get the balance right. I urge you to read David Ignatius’ recent discussion of this issue in The Washington Post, (“The foreign policy debate we should be having”, Oct 21, 2012, page A15)

But there are more reasons that our military adventurism and spending should be reduced and more resources given to diplomacy. Our national security and the freedoms America was founded to establish and protect will be strengthened as a result.

American hegemony rests largely on our economic and military power, but also on widespread respect for the American way of life (our respect for human freedom and dignity and our prosperity). Our efforts to promote democracy via military interventions have generally not gone well.  The talents and spirit of enterprise that have served us so well at home have not generally contributed to success in building new democratic nations where we have militarily intervened. Books like Joseph Heller’s, Catch 22 (about WWII) and movies like Robert Altman’s Mash (about Viet Nam) entertainingly introduced us to the bureaucratic problems of fighting and/or governing in foreign lands. We have the best trained and most well equipped military history has ever known, but it has failed for the last ten years to win in Afghanistan, which is now the longest war in American history. Our powerful military is not good at nation building, nor should we expect it to be. The military is not the right tool for promoting the values we believe in around the world. That is a job for diplomacy (with our powerful military well in the background).

We have been more successful at promoting our values and our economic interests through our promotion of and participation in international organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization and a wide range of international agreements and cooperation that facilitate free trade, and capital movements, and that extend the protection of property and human rights internationally. These organizations and agreements have developed the international legal frameworks for telecommunications, patents, financial and product standards, etc. that underlie the explosion of globalization that has dramatically raised the standard of living for much of the world’s population.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, has written an excellent exposition of our military efforts in Afghanistan, which I urge you to read “Afghan security forces rapid expansion comes at a cost as readiness lags” (The Washington Post, Oct 21, 2012, page 1). Every few years America’s military strategy has changed: from counter terrorism, to counter insurgency, to building and training (and equipping) an Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. As each approach fails, the Joint Chief’s extract the lessons learned and try a new one until it fails. In recent years, our military commanders have correctly emphasized the fact that “success” cannot be achieved by the military alone (it amazes me that anyone could have thought so – no wonder they are so eager to start wars).

But those are far from the only reasons for reducing our military footprint and budget. I believe in keeping government relatively small and encumbered with the organizational and political checks and balances meant to replace the role of competition in the private sector in bending self-interest to the public good. People are influenced by their self-interest whether they are in government or the private sector. However, in the private sector success comes from serving the needs of others in the market. This exerts a strong incentive on individual behavior. (Dishonesty can exist in either sector and can only be addressed by embracing appropriate moral standards and consistent punishment of breaches of those standards) In place of market discipline (acceptance or rejection), government must rely more on checks and balances to ensure that government officials behave as intended and they can only go so far to keep government honest and impartial in serving the public. The power of the government to coerce, and the expenditure of large sums of money by the government create enormous temptations for personal gain by those in positions of power in the government. The bigger government gets the more difficult it is to prevent some in government from yielding to the temptations to direct its power and money to their own good rather than the general good.

The firms in our large and important military support industry (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Halliburton, United Technologies, Computer Sciences, BAE Systems, General Electric, Bechtel, and Honeywell International, to name a few), do not have a disinterested view about the most appropriate and cost-effective military technology the defense budget should provide for. The millions of dollars they spend attempting to influence the choices of the services and congress are, in a sense, “honest” efforts to promote their self-interested view of what best serves our national security. The growing behemoth of the industrial military complex of which Eisenhower warned us over fifty years ago now both defends and threatens our liberties. See my earlier comments on Ike’s famous farewell address: http://dailycaller.com/2011/01/17/ikes-farewell-address-fifty-years-on/

The risks of the misallocation of our resources and waste are directly related to the size of our military (and government more generally). The boundary between honest differences of opinion over the best military equipment and systems and simple cronyism is fuzzy.  Consider, for example, the recent award of a large contract to build 100,000 homes in war-torn Iraq to HillStone International, a newcomer in the business of home building. When its president David Richter was asked how the newcomer swung such a big deal, he replied that it really helps to have “the brother of the vice president as a partner” (James Biden).[3] It would not be fair to disqualify bidders because they are friends or relatives of high government officials (As Afghan President Karzai’s brother Mahmoud said to us with regard to the shares of Kabul Bank given to him by its founders. The Bank is now in receivership as the result of the bank lending 95% of its deposits to its shareholders), but how can you tell what is merit and what is cronyism?

My point is that the defense budget needs to be on the table when our elected officials finally confront the cuts that must be made to the government’s expenditures to save the country. Defense spending needs to be cut not just because we can’t afford it, but also because our oversized military is weakening our economic base on which both our military and our political power in the world rest. And perhaps most important of all, over reliance on military power to the exclusion of diplomacy has actually weakened our security and standing in the world.


[1] The New Republic, editorial September 4, 2006, page 7.

[2] The Economist, “Sweden: The New Model” October 13, 2012.