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Defense budgets and cavemen

Posted Jan. 09, 2012, at 4:36 p.m.

If you’re not allowed to enslave people anymore or even loot their resources, then what is the point of being a traditional great power?

The United States kept an army of over 100,000 soldiers in Iraq for eight years, at a cost that will probably end up around a trillion dollars. Yet it didn’t enslave a single Iraqi (though it killed quite a lot), and throughout the occupation it paid full market price for Iraqi oil. So what American purpose did the entire enterprise serve?

Oh, silly me. I forgot. It was about “security.” And here it comes again, on an even bigger scale.

Last Friday, at the Pentagon, President Barack Obama unveiled America’s new “defense strategy.” But it wasn’t actually about stopping anybody from invading the United States. That cannot happen. It was about reshaping the U.S. military in a way that “preserves American global leadership, maintains our military superiority,” as Obama put it.

Curiously, President Obama was not wearing animal skins and wielding a stone ax when he made this announcement, although his logic came straight out of the Stone Age. Back when land was the only thing of value, it made sense to go heavily armed, because somebody else might try to take it away from you.

It doesn’t make sense anymore. China is not getting rich by sending armies to conquer other Asian countries. It’s getting rich by selling them (and the United States) goods and services that it can produce cheaply at home, and buying things that are made more cheaply elsewhere. It hasn’t actually made economic sense to conquer other countries for at least a century now — but old attitudes die hard.

If you analyze Obama’s rhetoric, he’s clearly torn between the old thinking and the new. The new U.S. strategy is all about China, but is it about China as an emerging trade partner (and rival), or is it about China as the emerging military superpower that threatens the United States just by being strong? A bit of both, actually.

“Our two countries have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building a cooperative bilateral relationship,” said Obama. “But the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by a greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.”

Would it help if China were to promise that it has no intention of attacking anybody? Of course not; it already does that. “Clarity about its strategic intentions” is code for not developing military capabilities that could challenge the very large U.S. military presence in Asia. After all, the Pentagon implicitly argues, everybody knows that the U.S. forces are there solely for defense and deterrence and would never be used aggressively.

Well, actually, the Chinese do not know that. They see the U.S. maintaining close military ties with practically all the countries on China’s eastern and southern frontiers, from Japan and South Korea to Thailand and India. They see the U.S. 7th Fleet operating right off the Chinese coast on a regular basis. And they do not say to themselves, “That’s OK. The Americans are just deterring us.”

Would Americans say that about China if Chinese troops were based in Canada and Mexico, and if Chinese carrier fleets were operating just off the U.S. West Coast?

For the first time in history, no great power is planning to attack any other great power. War between great powers became economic nonsense more than a century ago, and sheer suicide after the invention of nuclear weapons. Yet the military establishments in every major power still have a powerful hold on the popular imagination.

The armed forces are the biggest single vested interest in the U.S., and indeed in most other countries. To keep their budgets large, the generals must frighten the taxpaying public with plausible threats even if they don’t really exist. The Pentagon will accept some cuts but it will defend its core interests to the death.

Obama goes along with this because it would be political suicide not to. Beijing has its own powerful military lobby, which regularly stresses the American “military threat,” and the Chinese regime goes along with that, too. We left the caves some time ago, but in our imaginations and our fears we still live there.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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