By Dayan Reynolds
On February 25th, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, the leading gazette on Capitol Hill frantically announced that the “Russian threat is rewriting US defense plans” and spending preferences.
Citing experts and congressional leadership, the article provided the blueprints of a bright future for the American military-industrial complex. In the days since, similar headlines have predictably proliferated while the voice of war hawks in Congress has substantially grown.
In the evening hours of March 1st, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called on Biden to implement a 5% increase in defense spending. Twenty senators, including ranking GOP member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Jim Risch (R-ID), signed a similar letter to President Biden on the same day.
Despite the fact that the loudest calls are coming from the GOP side of the aisle, members of both parties are seeking retribution on Russia. The war took up the entire first portion of President Biden’s State of the Union address. Markets responded in kind, with American defense and security contractors seeing significant gains.
America is not alone in the desire to boost military expenditures. Germany has been the most prominent case, moving to dramatically reshape its security policy with an increase to more than 2% of GDP on defense spending (the minimum threshold required by NATO but still unmet by several members). Other countries are debating following Germany’s lead.
Unlike most, however, the U.S. is hardly in a position to say it underfunds its military. Washington is currently spending more on defense than at almost any point in the modern age, and that amount is growing constantly.
Last year, Congress voted for the largest ever annual defense spending bill at $778 billion, more than the Department of Defense asked for (and more than any other year since World War II outside of 2011, when adjusted for inflation). The biggest winners continue to be the contractors and military manufacturers – and congressional campaign coffers.
Without a doubt, the current crisis in Eastern Europe demands a meaningful response from the West, one which goes far beyond what was even considered in the wake of Crimea’s annexation in 2014.
However, two things can be true at the same time. Yes, Putin’s Russia poses a significant security threat to the free world. No, America is not in need of more funding for its military-industrial complex.
American military buildups have been attempted in the past as either deterrents or simply in response to aggression, to mixed results at best.
Americans can recall vividly the huge troop numbers and large quantities of high-tech American weaponry brought to the Middle East in the wake of 9/11, all to supposedly defend American interests in the region.
The military budget reached its highest ever amount in real dollars during the War on Terror period, and constituted 5% of American GDP (today, the amount is 3.5%).
What did America gain from the huge wartime increases? Last year, the U.S. pulled its troops out of Afghanistan in a humiliating defeat. The Obama administration’s “red line in the sand” for Syria’s use of chemical weapons was repeatedly trampled upon.
Against great powers, American defensive military advancements have likewise failed to change rivals’ minds.
Historically, while the United States and the Soviet Union never went to war, even during times with high military spending the two sides still engaged one another through bloody, costly proxy wars. The most radical build-up in American troops, the draft during the Vietnam War, didn’t turn the tide of the war and did little to curb Soviet interventionism around the world.
America’s present “Pivot to Asia” military strategy has thus far similarly struggled to prevent Chinese assertions for hegemony. If anything, in recent times Beijing has only grown more emboldened.
While share of GDP might be lower than before, today’s military budget in real dollar count is already larger than during the Cold War and on par with the height of the War on Terror. That’s compared to just around $40 billion, or 0.2% of GDP, for foreign aid.
It’s no secret that military spending is one of the few things to bring the two parties together.
Indeed, somewhat ironically given the criticism from both sides of America’s endless Middle Eastern wars and wasteful spending, defense budgetary bills have passed with bipartisan support every year for the past 60 years.
Coinciding with broad congressional approval are large and consistent sums of money flowing from corporate pocketbooks. In the past two decades, defense contractors spent more than $2.5 billion on lobbying, including $285 million in campaign contributions. In 2020, just five of the leading companies in the industry accounted for more than half of lobbying efforts, contributing roughly $60 million to swaying politicians’ minds.
Justification for spending follows the biggest threats, from the Soviets to terrorists to China. Now, as the world turns its eyes back toward Moscow, the use of Russia as an excuse to spend even more is on the rise.
The United States spends more on its military than the next 11 highest spenders combined (according to 2020 data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). Surely, there already exist substantial resources that can be intelligently redeployed rather than adding more money onto the pile.
In his State of the Union address, President Biden declared that the world’s democracies are “rising to the moment” in response to authoritarianism. In an invasion day press release, Senate Minority Leader McConnell called for America to lead the world’s “freedom-loving countries” by example.
Shiny new planes or new NATO technologies won’t help the Ukrainian people recover in the wake of war. At the same time, democracies everywhere face backsliding internally on human rights, electoral legitimacy, and the rule of law. This is arguably most noticeable in the very countries in Eastern Europe where America currently seeks to expand its military presence.
If America’s goal is the defense of democratic principles around the world, handing more funds to the Department of Defense and American defense contractors will prove of little use.
Perhaps Washington could shore up alliances with a 5% increase in spending toward foreign aid and diplomacy, instead of military industry. Even a few more billion, against the existing paltry amount, would be revolutionary.
Dayan Reynolds is a regular contributor for the Review and a Master’s student at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. He was born and raised in rural southwest Missouri.