Martin Feldstein, the George F. Baker Professor of Economics at Harvard University and President Emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research, made a surprising case for maintaining a large U.S. defense budget, despite a huge federal budget deficit, at the annual Irving Kristol lecture Thursday night at the American Enterprise Institute.On the one hand, he was absolutely right—we can afford it. “There is no danger of bankrupting ourselves by so-called ‘imperial overreach’ when we spend less than 5 percent of GDP on defense.” However, he did not make a convincing case that we should spend this much for defense, especially given the dire outlook for current federal deficits and the national debt.
Just what conditions, what national objectives, might justify continued U.S. defense spending of this magnitude?
He argued the case for the importance of a global American military presence, stating that “We have to make it clear by our budgets and by our actions that we are the global force now and will continue to be that in the future.”
And he went on, “we have to ask ourselves whether we have a moral obligation to defend our allies. …There are those who say the United States should not be the global policeman. But if not us, who? As the only democratic superpower with the ability to defend and punish, do we not have a moral obligation to be willing to use that power?”
These arguments assume that it is important for the world to have a global policeman and that it is a moral obligation for the United States to serve in this role.
It is my belief that should be the role of the United Nations if there is a need for a global policeman. Indeed, Chapter One, Article One of the United Nations Charter states its purpose is:
To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.
How can anyone argue in support of a view that the United States has a comparative advantage as the global policeman.
Most of our allies can afford higher defense spending if our support is reduced. The total GDP of the European Union is higher than the GDP of the U.S. The GDP of South Korea is many times that of North Korea. There is no obvious calamity that would result if the U.S. contribution to the collective defense with our allies were reduced. Indeed, most of our major allies are actually reducing their own military spending.
Yes, we can afford a large defense budget, and national security is one of the few federal programs for which there is clear constitutional authority. But like the budgets for most other federal programs, the defense budget should be on the table in any serious effort to avoid a fiscal collapse, which is a threat more serious and more urgent than any that might be effectively countered by trying to maintain the role of a global policeman.