The United States spends about 600 billion dollars a year on its military. It seems an outrageous amount, and is indeed more than the next highest six or seven national defence budgets combined, but it amounts to only 3% of U.S. GDP, and – without intending to betray my essentially liberal, progressive values, but meaning only to express an uncomfortable truth – that isn’t near enough to keep America’s armed services at anything close to peak operational effectiveness.
The Air Force is composed primarily of aging 4th generation airframes that were designed in the late Sixties and early Seventies, which are no longer superior to the aircraft fielded by Russia, or China, or England and France, for that matter. The Navy is down to 10 aircraft carriers, and under 300 ships, and suffers dangerously low levels of operational readiness. The Regular Army is down to about 460,000 soldiers (though there are sizeable reserves and National Guard forces), and its inventory of roughly 7,000 tanks seems robust until one learns that about 3,500 of them are in storage.
Where’s all the money going? Part of it is wasted, of course. A lot of it is being invested in gold-plated weapon systems that always seem to emerge from development at a cost that can’t be afforded. There’s a depressing pattern, from the Seawolf class submarine (3 built), the F-22 Raptor (180 odd built, only 120 or so combat-coded), the Zumwalt class destroyer (3 planned), The F-35 (a real mess, with endless problems and cost-overruns, fewer than 200 delivered so far, a decade late) and the new Ford class aircraft carrier (the lead ship of which cost close to 14 billion, and has major problems with virtually all of its vital systems). Military procurement is generally dysfunctional, unconscionable, and in many instances all but disastrous.
So yes, there’s plenty to criticize. Yet the fact remains that more, much more, will soon need to be spent. Meeting the American military’s global responsibilities is an overwhelmingly expensive undertaking, and at present, US forces are spread too thin to accomplish their missions, while at the same time being steadily depleted by a constant commitment to war zones in the Middle East and Afghanistan, fighting battles that have been going on for 16 years now. No matter how well the procurement process is straightened out – and it needs to be straightened out in a big way, and soon – modern armed forces are horrendously expensive, both to equip and operate. We in the Western World desperately need a militarily powerful United States. It is America’s military power that has underwritten the post-World War II liberal international order, and there is absolutely no one who can step in and take its place. That’s just the way it is.
Yes, that’s hard to swallow, especially when all that the Republicans who run the country want to do is cut taxes on the wealthy and stiff-arm the poor. When there’s talk of a cumulative 800 billion dollar cut to Medicaid, it’s easy for liberals such as myself to become incensed over a 600 billion-dollar defence budget. But 3% of GDP is not all that much for a nation to spend on defence, and is almost paltry for a country that seeks to be the globe’s sole superpower. It’s just that the recklessness and innate cruelty of Republican politics and fiscal policy make it seem like a zero-sum game, like a buck spent on social services is a buck extracted from the purchase of new tanks, or the pace of training sorties for naval aviators. It isn’t so.
The Republican narrative that Americans are among the most heavily taxed people on Earth is a transparent and despicable lie. The Trumpian narrative that other allied nations should be doing more is a little less divorced from reality, yet ignores that the chief beneficiary of America’s expenditures on this front is America itself. The United States is not even within artillery range of being stretched to its economic limits when it comes to defence spending, not at all, nor does, say, Germany’s failure to kick in a few billion more to defence really matter. I’m a bit galled by allied free-riding too, to be sure – look, I’m a Canadian, a citizen of the world champion at free-riding on defence matters – but it’s still something the U.S. can handle without breaking a sweat, if it so chooses. What’s needed is rational taxation and budget policy.
The United States has a GDP hovering around 18.5 trillion, at last reckoning. That’s about as much as the entire European Union, 300 million odd American people producing as much as 500 million in Europe, and depending upon how you measure it, about as much a 1.37 billion people in China. The United States remains an absolutely extraordinary nation. The combined efforts of its citizens can easily meet the needs of national and global security, while tending to the fundamental needs of the domestic population at the same time. The essential first step is to dispel the mythology, promulgated entirely to benefit of the rich white men whose money elects rich white male politicians, that has gulled ordinary Americans of all races into believing that civil society should be maintained at no cost to the individuals who inhabit it. News flash: the only people who will benefit from Republican policies are the well-off, and especially the plutocrats.
American military might, in short, is essential to all of us, and is actually threatened by the Republicans who always wrap themselves in the flag, and it needn’t be bought at the expense of fundamental justice for America’s own citizens.
That’s fine as far as it goes. Yet, I would argue, it’s only one corner of the big picture, because overall, any strategic calculation based solely upon military power ends up being a lot like exulting in your happiness based on how much money you have. People like to say that money doesn’t buy happiness. That’s bullshit, really, since of course it does, though not on its own. The better way to put it is that money is an absolutely necessary but not necessarily sufficient pre-condition to happiness. I think something analogous is true of superpower status. Military might is the necessary, but not sufficient, pre-condition to global pre-eminence. Real power is only achieved when complimented with soft power. It’s soft power that converts you from a mere thug, someone to be feared, into someone of substance to be admired and emulated.
Soft power is the power of persuasion, the power of example, the power that accrues when others take their measure of you and what you’ve achieved, and decide that you must be on to something that they’ve failed to incorporate into their own polity. Soft power accumulates when diverse peoples all over the world want to replicate your political institutions, emulate your economic system, listen to your music, watch your TV and movies, eat your food, speak your language, and even become allies that will rally to your flag. It’s the power that comes from others wanting to seek your protection, confident that you’ll deploy your vast might to protect them if powerful and unprincipled enemies are a threat. It’s what comes from like-minded nations having confidence in your judgment, and believing that you’ll use your might responsibly, in the interest of shared values.
It’s what comes when the starving receive food in bags and boxes adorned with your national flag. It’s what comes when, in the wake of disaster in some far-off land, great grey warships designed to support amphibious warfare are repurposed to provide relief, their helicopters delivering food, their medical facilities dealing with the wounds of foreign nationals rather than banged-up Marines. It’s the power that grows out of admiration and respect, and it’s entirely about character, behaviour, and the attractiveness of your culture. Military power is just the power to smash things. It may inspire fear, but it will never breed affection and respect. To be a true super-power, it’s necessary that people of disparate societies also admire you, and your obviously successful ways.
It seems to me that America has forgotten this. America under Trump has abandoned leadership. Trump’s America intimates that it might choose not to come to the defence of its allies against tyrannical aggression. It chides its friends and coddles its philosophical foes. It cultivates, as if on purpose, an image first made prevalent under the hideous abomination of George W. Bush’s presidency, that the United States will deploy its military might in cynical and unprincipled endeavours that serve only to advance its own ill-percieved short-term interests, at the risk of advancing the long-term interests of its enemies, and the enemies of Western Civilization, acting as a rogue nation that does any dirty thing it wants, merely because it can.
Meanwhile, look what’s happening on the home front. Wealth disparity at a level not seen since the Gilded Age. Racial discrimination, seemingly a backlash against what millions apparently view as the appalling accident of having elected a black President, rising to generational highs. The middle class being hollowed out. The organs of government, including the Supreme Court, seeming to act only for the advancement of the interests of angry, rich white people. The rise of the Alt-Right. Breitbart. Fox News. Voter suppression laws. Then there’s the Prison-Industrial Complex; the ruinous and insanely counter-productive War on Drugs; the obsession with mere pinpricks of terrorism that would have to be about 50,000 times as destructive as they are to cause anything like as many deaths as annual traffic accidents and gun fatalities; the gun-crazy Second Amendment fetishism that has resulted in the number of fire-arms exceeding the human population; the overt racism; the police repeatedly running amok and killing minority citizens for the crime of submitting to their fascist commands; the rotting infrastructure; the official denial of climate change, even as climate-related disasters are featured every evening on the Nightly News; the mind-bending, Constitution-violating antics of Republican leadership; and then, of course, Trump.
Barack Obama, the intellectual constitutional scholar, the supreme orator, the leader who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize out of nothing more – or less – than the rest of the world’s intense relief in the change of tone his administration brought to U.S. rhetoric and actions, the dignified man who was respected abroad, who was reluctant to engage in war, who was leader of a notably scandal-free Presidency – he’s the one they choose to hate. His beautiful kids, his otherworldly wife who could obviously helm a Presidency just as well as he could, these people of ultimate substance, they’re the ones that so many Americans fear and abominate.
They’d rather be governed by an ugly, craven, vulgar and almost incandescently ignorant moron, whose character flaws would, in ordinary circumstances, disqualify him from running a local 7-11, even if he was judged intelligent enough to do so, which, obviously, he would not be. He’d run it into the ground as he does every enterprise in which he engages, committing indictable fraud and sexual harassment as he did so, while failing to pay wages and skimming off profits for himself, dodging taxes, and claiming to donate money to charity. Look, for the love of Christ, he’s actually tweeting videos of his own antics when he was a minor celebrity performing in the grotesque theatre of the World Wrestling Federation. Tony Soprano is a moral and intellectual colossus by comparison. Can America really relish being run by a demented, immoral, inarticulate, misogynistic, corrupt and bloviating idiot? Is all lost?
America used to be the country that did big things. It was the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Hale Observatory, the interstate highway system, the Big Three auto-makers, the Apollo program, the land that welcomed newcomers, and actually placed a towering statue at the mouth of one of its greatest harbours, inscribed at its base with a poem that invited all desperate souls who sought refuge to come where they could be free, and prosper. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me”. It’s enough to make you weep.
Now it’s a decaying, frightened, racist, crumbling, exclusionist, xenophobic, violent, and very, very stupid society in horrific decline, perhaps on its way to civil war. It’s a country that denies climate change, thinks evolution is a myth, thinks the Sun goes around the Earth, thinks there really was a Noah’s Ark, and thinks that a misguided constitutional amendment, written to secure the right of the people to raise local militias – a provision only drafted on the assumption that a free society could abide no standing army – enshrines a basic civil right to own a guided, shoulder-launched anti-tank missile. I shit you not. Antonin Scalia, the oh-so-not-at-all-intelligent former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, is actually on record wondering whether the right to “bear arms” meant the guaranteed right to own any weapon a human being could heft, personally. Like the dummies who crafted that shitty amendment could have imagined a Stinger ManPAD missile, or an RPG – or even an AR-15, with a hundred rounds in its special high-capacity clip (probably available at Wal-Mart), light enough to be carried by any adolescent.
Americans keep chanting to themselves that they’re the greatest nation on Earth. Like drunken A-holes at a football game, too stupid to understand from the scoreboard that the home team is actually losing, they holler “USA! USA! USA!” Oh yeah, you’re so the very greatest. Wait, though – greatest at what, exactly, save the capacity to smash things? Literacy? Infant mortality? Life expectancy? Relief from grotesque income disparity? Environmental stewardship? Race relations? Freedom from violence? Freedom from want? Educational achievement? Public participation in democratic processes? Sharing of opportunity? Access to health care, clean water, and good schools? Public infrastructure? Rule of law? What, exactly?
Seriously, America – what? Look it up, dummies. Nothing, that’s what. You think you’re a shining city on a hill? Jesus Flag-Waving Dumb-Ass Christ, at this point you’re more like a slum in a crater. Nobody in the world wants to be like you any more. Here’s what we all think: you all should just go listen to your dumb-ass country music and shoot bottles with machine guns in your backyards, eat a ton of junk food, make yourselves morbidly obese, listen to Rush Limbaugh, and for God’s sake, shut the fuck up about how great you are.
The Hell of it is, I miss you. I miss the dream of what you once sincerely desired to be, despite your myriad historical sins, including the original sin of slavery, also written into your cherished Constitution, you should remember, since you’re so keen to be governed from the graves of the privileged white men who knew nothing of the circumstances under which you would suffer from their mistakes. I’m reminded of a scene from Gladiator, the Russel Crowe swords and sandals epic. His character, running to the top of the ramp on his way to another bout in the coliseum, turns back to his fellows and shouts “There was a dream that was Rome – and this is not it!” This is not it. This is is not the dream that was America.
I know, too, that now you’re gone, now that nobody respects you, now that you’re led by a laughing-stock that makes the people of every society on Earth, whatever their core beliefs, disgusted and afraid, we’re all in trouble. A world devoid of American leadership must soon begin to follow the leadership of somebody else. No other plausible candidate fails to frighten me.
America, we need you to be mighty, but not just militarily. We need you to return to the sort of greatness you imagine for yourselves, but no longer possess. The sort of greatness that fuses decent pride with compassion and humility, that tempers awareness of its own power with instinctive mercy, and an understanding that all power has its limits, as well as its inherent risks and temptations. The sort of greatness that walks softly as it carries its big stick. Try, can’t you? Try soon, as it’s getting to be too late.
Oh well. At least the general rise in global sea levels will take out Mar-a-Lago first.