The Case for a Post-Ukraine Peace Dividend

The US Pentagon
Image: Flickr/Wiyre Media

By Noah Schwartz

In one of the most predictable events of the Biden presidency, analysts expect the military budget to grow 4.3 percent per year for the last two years. Our congressmen and women are so eager to shovel more money toward the Pentagon that they are proposing a budget of $45 billion more than President Biden initially asked. This increase is a boon for Raytheon executives and other various northern Virginia-dwelling war profiteers; the rest of us, not so much. 

The Russian war on Ukraine has largely stopped any serious discussion of defense cuts. Susan Glasser, a New Yorker writer and Russia expert, perfectly captured the beltway mood. In a tweet that would have made Joe Mccarthy jealous, she accused house Republicans who proposed a $75 billion defense cut of being part of a “small but growing pro-Russia caucus.” 

An increase in the defense budget based on the renewed Russian irredentist threat is puzzling. Although the Russian military has demonstrated it is more than capable of pulling off horrifying atrocities, battlefield success has largely proved elusive. Compared to Georgia and the second war in Chechnya, Russia’s failure in Ukraine is profoundly embarrassing for a great power that has marketed itself as the last holdout of a masculinist warrior culture. 

We can understandably celebrate the collapse of an imperial power trying to assert sovereignty over its smaller neighbors. However, it is foolish to justify an increased military budget based on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia’s lack of success in Ukraine has forever shattered the pre-war vision of the Russian military that could effectively contend with NATO and sweep through large swathes of Eastern Europe. So, where is the Russian threat? In Ukraine, its military is floundering, and in Russia, its young men are fleeing.

Support of a ballooning defense budget based on Russia must explain how the Russians can be so menacing that the United States must spend billions of dollars defending against them and simultaneously so weak that they cannot conquer their smaller neighbor.

President Biden has sold ever-increasing Ukrainian military aid to the American people on the basis that the war in Ukraine is at the frontlines of a Manichean global struggle of autocracy against democracy. Putting aside the merits of this dubious claim for a moment. It is worth considering how damaging the ever-increasing American military budget is actually for democracy.

In the American democratic tradition, a standing army, let alone a globe-spanning trillion-dollar military budget, was seen as antithetical to the Enlightenment conception of republican government. Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, considered the prospects of a standing army “the bane of liberty.”

The fear of a standing army isn’t simply some old-timey paranoid fear of the state. It is a legitimate reaction to a time in which aristocratic officer corps often made up the social base of reactionary movements opposed to bourgeois democracy.

As Alexis De Tocqueville outlined in Democracy in America, the founding fathers had a legitimate basis for concern that an overly hierarchical privileged military class would be detrimental to the social cohesion needed in Republican societies.

The reverse happens amongst aristocratic nations, where the soldiery eventually have nothing in common with their fellow citizens and where they live amongst them as strangers and often as enemies. In aristocratic armies, the officers are the conservative element because they alone have retained a strict connection with civil society and never forego their purpose of resuming their place in it sooner or later. In democratic armies, the private soldiers stand in this position and from the same cause.

Since adopting the all-volunteer force, the military has dropped the slightest connection to the idea of the citizen soldier and the democratic army. It is increasing toward professionalization and an informal poverty draft.

In the modern era, the military-industrial complex has played a prominent role in taking power out of the voter’s hands and funneling massive amounts of capital into elections. Defense contractors poured $10 million into the campaigns of members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee in the 2022 election cycle and were rewarded with budget increases that amounted to a 450,000 percent return on investment.

However, the problems extend beyond the legalized bribery opened by citizens united. Rather our bloated military budget has contributed to a system where unelected officials make foreign policy decisions. 

The United States has primarily run its post-World War II foreign policy through the combatant command system that divides the world into eleven geographic regions, each run by a four-star general or admiral directly reporting to the secretary of defense and subsequently to the president. Dividing the world up into regions to be run by unelected bureaucrats seems to be more closely aligned with the autocratic imperial military described by De Tocqueville than the military of a truly democratic society.

If we accept that our massive military presence is more of a threat to US democratic norms than Russia, the only option is a peace dividend of mass defense cuts. The United States briefly instituted a peace dividend following the collapse of the Soviet “threat” to America, and it should do it again following the hollowness of the present-day Russian “threat” to America that has gotten exposed in Ukraine.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviet system crumbled into gerontocracy and was drawn into a protracted war with its neighbor where it couldn’t defeat a well-equipped Western-backed resistance movement (Sound familiar?). A group of intelligence analysts, many of whom would later serve in the George W. Bush administration, formed a Team B of intelligence gathering that worked under the assumption that the United States was systematically underestimating Soviet military power. Team B proved to be the source of many wildly inaccurate reports of Soviet military and economic power. Today, the United States public needs to guard itself against a similar overestimation of Russian military power. Russia is clearly losing, and our military budget should reflect that. 

The bipartisan hysterics over the possibility of a mere $75 billion defense cut reflects the grim truth that Team B never really died and that the world will always be as dangerous as defense contractors need it to be for the government checks to clear.

The truly terrifying prospect for the American ruling defense contractor and military elite is not that the United States will lose to Russia or China; it is that Americans will democratically create a world where they are no longer needed. Creating this world, not competition with Russia or China, should be the goal of any serious pro-democracy movement in America for the next decade.

– Noah Schwartz

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