I distinctly remember the shock and disbelief I felt when I first learned that the United States spends more money on its military than the next eleven countries combined. This was in my first year of college, and at the time the fact was only given to me, not explained at all. All I was told was that it was wrong that we lobbied to cut support programs like welfare when we spent so much on our military, as it was obviously unnecessary.
Personally, I believe welfare programs do benefit our economy, and I spent years defending the argument that we should cut military spending without really understanding why the United States spent so much on the military. Then I studied international politics and I began to understand why the seemingly excessive military spending has been a very important part of the strategy to keep peace in the world, and why it was actually important.
Understanding why a hegemony is important
That’s a big word. Hegemony. In international politics, a hegemony is when one country holds a strong leadership or dominant position over the rest of the world. For the past several decades, the United States has been pursuing a strategy of hegemony. The general idea is that it is easier to maintain world-wide peace if there isn’t anyone who is willing to challenge US military strength. It requires a commitment by the US to intervene if any of its allies are attacked, and the need to maintain a very, very large military. One that is so big that no nation will even be tempted to combine forces with another nation to challenge US authority. Thus the need to spend more than the next eleven countries combined.
While the idea that we could cut our military budget in half and still spend more than the next country is a nice one, it belies the strategy that the US has taken for the past few decades, and the strategy that the rest of the world has come to rely on. Much of Europe spends far less on their military than they used to because they have become accustomed to the fact that the US will intervene if they are attacked. Countries like India and China have experienced unprecedented economic growth, partially because there has been no need for them to invest too heavily in their military with the US standing over them as the world’s police. If the military budget of the US was cut in half, the temptation for another nation to try to compete with us would grow and potentially destabilize the balance of power that currently exists in the world.
Why a strategy of hegemony is becoming unsustainable
When the United States began pursuing a strategy of hegemony, we were living in a time of economic prosperity and tremendous growth. It was easy to spend more than the next several countries combined because there was a lot of money to go around. Additionally, the number of actors who were potential challengers to US authority was smaller than it is now, which meant that the US could spend less and still remain the unquestionable authority. But the world stage looks a lot different now than it did twenty years ago.
Currently, the United States is struggling with economic growth. Unemployment is higher than we would like it to be, and our country is facing a need to reduce debt, provide better services to its citizens (like military vets, the terminally ill, and the homeless), weakening infrastructure, and widespread lack of support for an increased military. The American public may have been supportive of massive military spending in the past, but that support is gradually decreasing.
Additionally, the economies of other nations around the world have significantly increased over the past few decades. China’s economy is set to overcome the economy of the United States in the next year or two, and there are other countries that aren’t far behind. If any of those nations decided to commit as much of their budget to their military as the US currently budgets, it wouldn’t be long before they could effectively challenge us.
Finally, there are a lot more actors on the stage that are in a position to challenge the US than there were a few decades ago. The relative peace and prosperity that has been brought about by the combined forces of globalization and US hegemony have enabled several countries to become significant forces of power within the world. Before this happened, the US could spend more than the next two or three countries and have a military that no one would challenge, even with combined forces. Today, the chance that two or more nations might combine forces to challenge US military strength has led to a need to spend more than the next eleven countries combined.
What does all this mean for the future?
President Trump has voiced strong support for the military and police forces in the United States. In his first address to Congress, he voiced support for increasing our military budget, rather than decreasing it. This strategy was applauded by Republicans, and based on the state of the world today, it may still be the right strategy to take. As long as the other nations of the world are not trying to compete with the US by significantly increasing their defense budgets, the US still has a chance to grow its military might and make it harder for other nations to catch up.
This is especially true in our current world climate, where nations like China and Russia are posturing themselves against the United States. It is important to let them know that we will not back down easily.
Trump also called on NATO allies to commit to their share of defense spending. This is highly recommended as a long-term strategy for the US military. If or when nations like China overcome the US economically and decide to spend more money on their military, the US will no longer be able to discourage war and encourage peacetime alone. The military might of our allies will need to be combined with our own to discourage attempts by other nations to challenge US authority world-wide.
Some argue that the US needs to prepare for the world’s military climate to change all together, and that we should adopt a strategy that is more conducive to a multi-polar (meaning more than one country shares world power and influence) world. President Trump does not appear to be preparing for this potential eventuality. Rather, he is gambling on continuing a strategy of hegemony. Let’s hope he is right.
Chloe Longstreet is an OpsLens Contributing Editor. She graduated from Columbia University in 2012 with a BA in Political Science and Anthropology. Since then she has worked as a writer and an editor spanning a wide variety of topics. Her recent projects include working as a ghostwriter for a political memoir, and launching her company, Awen Books and More.