President Trump’s budget proposal would increase military spending $54 billion, not quite a 10 percent increase over the current level. According to Quartz, the increase alone is more than all but two countries — China and Saudi Arabia — spend on their militaries. (China spends $145 billion, Saudi Arabia $57 billion, Russia $47, and Iran $16 billion, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reports.)
Meanwhile, Trump implies that NATO members take advantage of America by not paying enough for own defense. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Washington recently, Trump tweeted: “Germany owes … vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”
As we’ve come to expect, Trump gets it wrong. NATO members don’t pay dues to NATO, and they don’t pay the United States for defense. However, NATO requires members to budget at least 2 percent of their GDP for their own militaries. Some members haven’t spent that much, but that has changed in recent years.
Trump leaves the impression that Americans shoulder an unnecessarily large military burden because some NATO members underfund their military establishments. But that’s nonsense because that’s not how things work in Washington. Americans don’t pay more because Germans Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Norwegians pay less.
At other times Trump seems to acknowledge this. In his campaign he never said the U.S. military budget would be smaller if NATO members paid up. Rather, he said he wanted to make America “strong again” — so strong that no one would dare “mess with us.” His budget message said, “In these dangerous times, this public safety and national security Budget Blueprint is a message to the world—a message of American strength, security, and resolve.” His address to a joint session of Congress also did not justify greater military spending by pointing to how little the allies spend. It was all about making America “great again.”
In other words, Trump’s proposed increase is “signaling” — the American military is already powerful beyond imagination — and this signaling has little to do with NATO members’ spending. We have no reason to think his Pentagon budget would be smaller if suddenly other NATO members hiked their military budgets.
Signaling is not the only driver of military spending. The U.S. government maintains an empire, and empires are bloody expensive. They also generate their own need for greater resources. For example, the so-called war on terror, especially the repeated bombing of noncombatants, provokes a desire for vengeance against Americans, which in turn functions as a justification for greater military spending. And so it goes.
Moreover, the Pentagon, as a bureaucracy, exhibits the well-known internal dynamic for expansion. Civilian and military administrators have a natural desire to enlarge their domains and enhance their prestige. Similarly, those who wish to sell products and services to the government — The Complex — have an interest in the growth of the military budget and can be counted on to lobby for it. Finally, members of Congress can advance their careers by maintaining and bringing jobs and military facilities to their states and districts. When the budget sequester was pending, a leading Democratic and progressive member of Congress, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, opposed limits on the growth of military spending because they might reduce jobs in his district. We’ve all heard stories about legislators authorizing weapons that the Pentagon did not want because of the supposed economic stimulus in their states. Military Keynesian is as mistaken as other forms of Keynesianism: if the government doesn’t spend the money, private individuals will spend or invest it.
Trump may think that the American military is not powerful enough because its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have dragged on for more than a decade and other wars, such as those in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, show no signs of success. Trump’s mistake is in believing that such failure indicates weakness, but in fact it shows that those wars by nature are unwinnable, short of nuking the countries and killing everyone — in which case new conflicts would be provoked.
Instead of increasing the military budget, we ought to be debating the imperial mission the budget finances. We can’t afford the empire — both in terms of the money it costs and the enemies it creates.