An Unbalanced Three-Legged Stool
The three-legged stool of American foreign policy – defense, diplomacy, and development – is wildly out of balance. (“International affairs” as defined by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Budget includes both diplomacy and development). The United States has always spent a large portion of its budget on defense, but 9/11 drastically altered patterns of military spending. “Before 9/11, Rumsfeld believed he was making hard choices about the direction of the Pentagon,” said Washington Editor-at-Large of The Atlantic Steve Clemons. “Rumsfeld advocated moving from large, clunky military operations dependent on manpower to much more nimble operations because he didn’t think the Pentagon would continue to have the kind of budgets it did. 9/11 ended the era of hard choices, and everything got funded.”
A focus on defense spending at the expense of diplomacy and development means that much of the world experiences the United States primarily through its military presence. According to Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies Emira Woods, “Clearly there needs to be a rebalance here between how the U.S. engages with the world. It cannot be with this heavy hand of a U.S. military. Whether it’s through drones, or sales of equipment for militaries, or military training, it is through these forces that the U.S. is presenting itself and engaging with much of the world.”
Long Tail Effects of Veteran Spending
Spending on World War I veterans peaked in 1969 and spending on World War II veterans peaked in the mid-1980s, according to Harvard Kennedy School Professor Linda Bilmes, meaning costs for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan likely won’t peak for a few decades. Our obligations to veterans have also increased substantially since these earlier wars, due to higher injury rates, higher survival rates, and more generous healthcare benefits. “The average disability claim approved for 9/11 veterans has 8-10 disabling conditions,” Bilmes said, “whereas in Vietnam it had two disabling conditions. We’re really in a new frontier, and we have certainly not in any way planned ahead for how we’re going to pay for this.”
Putting Wars on the Credit Card
According to Bilmes, we’re looking at around $3 trillion in operational costs to date for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and $2 trillion in accrued liabilities. “This is a very different kind of spending than spending on things like infrastructure, where we spend a lot of money up front but we get a benefit in the future. When it comes to war spending, we’re spending a lot up front and what we get is another stream of obligations and liabilities in the future…All of this spending that we’ve done so far has been put on the credit card.” Previous wars, Bilmes said, from the War of 1812 up through the Vietnam War, were financed through a combination of higher taxes and some borrowing. The last 15 years represent a drastic departure from the historical precedent.
The U.S. has had a difficult time post-World War II, said UC Berkeley Economics Professor Brad DeLong. “Since 1945, one of the positive roles that realists in foreign policy and military affairs can play is to point out that we have enormous amounts of force at our disposal, and that we are very careful and jealous of the lives of our soldiers. All we can do is what Colin Powell warned us against – we can go into a Pottery Barn and break things. We should be very careful not to break things unless we have a very clear plan of how someone afterwards is going to come and sweep it up.” Essentially, DeLong said, we’ve spent $4 trillion for a less secure Middle East.
An increasingly diverse American population comprised of more immigrants, who may have more international perspective, and Millennials, whose foreign policy ideals lean more towards diplomacy than military intervention, may help even out the three legs of the stool. “We have to understand that throughout history, whether it’s Jim Crow or apartheid in South Africa, systems change,” said Woods. “I don’t want us to lose sight of the importance of envisioning. Conversations like this, reinventing foreign policy, are a part of that process of envisioning a foreign policy that brings a much more stable world.”
Sources: White House Office of Management and Budget Historical Tables 3.1 and 7.1