Max Boot: Abandoning American primacy will just cost us more in the long run

“'We don’t spend enough on military' is such a ridiculous take that I had to check to make sure this wasn’t an Onion article.”

That Twitter comment was typical of the incredulous reaction to my column last week about the National Defense Strategy Commission’s alarming report. It warned that “America has reached the point of a full-blown national security crisis,” because we can no longer be sure of victory against potential adversaries such as China or Russia. The bipartisan commission called for greater investment in air-, land-, sea-, space- and cyberpower to maintain U.S. dominance.

I wrote that no such increase in defense spending would be possible until we get our fiscal house in order — we need to address budget deficits that will soon reach $1 trillion a year by reforming entitlement spending and raising revenue. But my argument struck many as preposterous. Why, a lot of readers argued, should we spend more on defense when we already spend more than the next seven countries combined? The United States is spending $716 billion on its defense in 2019 compared with $215 billion for China and $69 billion for Russia in 2016. Joe Plenzler, a retired Marine officer, wanted to know how we are being outmatched by countries that spend so much less than we do. “Something really doesn’t add up,” he tweeted.

Skeptics of defense spending can point to the fact that the Defense Department recently failed its first audit. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., went so far as to claim that the Pentagon lost track of $21 trillion to suggest that there is a vast pot of money that is unaccounted for. That is a false claim that earned her four Pinocchios from the Post fact-checkers: Just because the Pentagon comptroller has trouble tracking some transactions does not mean the money is being wasted or stolen. The Defense Strategy Commission conceded that the Defense Department needs to become more efficient to “assure taxpayers that their tax dollars are well-spent” but warned “that even the most optimistic advocates of reform cannot identify sufficient savings to make this approach a reliable source of real growth in defense capability.”

So if the answer isn't sheer waste, why isn't the United States generating more bang for its buck? Much of the explanation lies in the fact that U.S. service personnel are volunteers who receive competitive pay and benefits, while Russia and China rely mainly on low-paid conscripts. (Russia is introducing more professionals, but the transformation is far from complete.) Personnel and health-care costs consume 42 percent of the U.S. defense budget - and growing. That is what it takes to support 2.2 million active-duty and reserve soldiers and their families, along with 740,000 Defense Department civilians. Add in retirees and their families, and the military's Tricare health insurance program serves 9.4 million people. The average cost of health care per active-duty service member doubled between 2001 and 2016 and continues to increase just as civilian health-care costs do. Those are bills Beijing and Moscow don't have to worry about paying. By one calculation, if you compare Chinese and American defense spending at purchasing-power parity, and if you take out U.S. personnel costs, China actually spends more on defense than we do.

China and Russia also haven't had their military equipment chewed up in 17 years of war. The United States has: The deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan have been a punishing environment in which to operate. And the 9/11 wars followed the "peace dividend" drawdown and the procurement holiday of the 1990s. The United States has to recapitalize its forces while also modernizing them to keep up with countries such as China and Russia that are innovating in fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum computers and hypersonic missiles.

Many critics pointed out that the United States' homeland is not endangered: i.e., we don’t have to worry about a Russia or Chinese invasion. True, but we do have to worry about the possibility that we may no longer be able to win a war in Europe or the Pacific — much less simultaneous wars in both theaters. The United States has long had the goal of being dominant militarily in the three major centers of world power — Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. China and Russia, by contrast, seek only to dominate their own regions. Put another way, we need to win the “away” game; they only need to win at home, which is cheaper and easier.

A number of readers suggested that we should lay down the burden of primacy. That is an alluring option, but we should remember what happened in the past when the United States embraced isolationism — or, if you prefer, non-interventionism. Do the years 1914, 1939 and 1950 jog your memory? The historical record shows that if we are not able to overawe potential aggressors, we are more likely to be dragged into wars (e.g., World War I, World War II, the Korean War) that ultimately exact a far greater toll in blood and treasure. American primacy may be a drag, but it beats the alternatives — and if we are to maintain our geopolitical primacy, we will need to stop the erosion of our military edge.

Max Boot | The Washington Post

Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right."