Reining in American foreign policy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2007, 12:00am

The Iraq war continues to consume lives, both American and Iraqi. The conflict is also burning mountains of cash. The Bush administration this month proposed a complex US$715-billion defence spending package, including US$481 billion for standard Pentagon operations and US$142 billion for the Iraq war next year.

So far, Iraq and Afghanistan have cost an estimated US$661 billion. By the time US forces finally go home, Americans will be US$1 trillion or more out of pocket. But Iraq is only part of a larger problem: the US spends so much on the military because of Washington's policy of promiscuous foreign intervention.

Indeed, America's military budget must be seen as the price of America's foreign policy. The more Washington policymakers desire to do around the globe, the more American taxpayers will have to pay. America is engaged in cold war spending without a cold war. The high price of global intervention is most obvious when comparing American expenditure with that of other nations. The International Institute for Strategic Studies calculated 2005 world military outlays at US$1.2 trillion. America accounted for US$495.3 billion, or 41 per cent.

American expenditure is roughly twice that of the rest of Nato, 4.5 times that of China and 8.5 times that of Russia. Washington spends as much as the next 20 countries combined, most of which are allies and friends. Indeed, the US devotes almost three times as much to the military as do all its potential adversaries combined: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Myanmar, Venezuela and a handful of others.

America is not alone, however. Toss in Nato, non-Nato but friendly European countries, America's Asian allies and Israel, and the 'free-world coalition' comes in at US$873.8 billion, or 72 per cent of global spending. Most of the rest aren't hostile, of course, simply not fully allied.

In short, America's military spending is vastly disproportionate to the threats it faces. The US continues to deploy hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe, which faces no military threats; Japan, which could defend its own interests; and South Korea, which vastly outranges its northern antagonist. Without an over- arching global threat, the security of such allies is no longer vital to the security of America.

The US could spend far less while remaining the most powerful single nation, able to play the role of an 'offshore balancer' dedicated to ensuring that no hegemonic power dominates Eurasia. Real threats to the US primarily involve terrorism and nuclear proliferation. However, these dangers are not easily met with carrier groups, armoured divisions and vast military spending.

It's time to transform US foreign policy. Most pressing is the task of getting out of Iraq, sooner rather than later. But it is also time to focus on protecting the homeland, withdrawing America's outdated garrisons strung across the globe.

The US would be far more secure if it returned to a more traditional foreign policy, treating most international events with benign detachment.

Then its defence budget would be genuinely devoted to the country's defence. And it would cost Americans far less.

Doug Bandow is a former special assistant to president Ronald Reagan