Key defense priorities for the next president

With the 2016 U.S. election underway, the transition to the next commander in chief and his or her new team is now less than a year off. Amidst these changes at the highest levels of decision-making, a several-front war against extremists continues to flare, and the risk of great-power conflict—once largely thought extinct—again becomes real.

On February 1, Michael O’Hanlon and the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence convened an expert panel to chat about the key defense issues facing the next president. Robert Kagan, Brookings senior fellow and author of many books including “The World America Made,” was joined by Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute, and James Miller, former undersecretary for policy at the Department of Defense. 

Getting imaginative about the future

Robert Kagan began the discussion with a historical reminder: In the early 1900s, the idea that great power war was no longer likely began to gain traction. This was during a period of globalization in which the world commons was largely policed by the British Navy. As we know today, when that system dissolved, great wars followed. 

While noting that today is in many ways different, Kagan argued that humans “lack imagination” and “tend to underestimate how bad things can get.” Since World War II, the United States has taken on the task of putting a lid on global sources of trouble. Recently, signs that this order is “cracking around the edges” have become more apparent. If that continues, “some sort of chaos, and almost certainly large wars” could result, he said. 

Humans “lack imagination” and “tend to underestimate how bad things can get.”

James Miller then stressed that the next administration will inherit a world full of challenges. But within these challenges lie unique opportunities. Miller further argued that a priority should be an “increase in stable funding.” Specifically, “the opportunity costs for not knowing where your defense program is going to be in a few years is significant.” 

Miller highlighted key issues associated with “strategic capabilities.” These include next steps on the nuclear force, long-range strike including the new bomber, missile defenses, as well as space and cyber capabilities. Miller pointed out that strategic capabilities in these areas are increasingly advanced, and that advances are likely to continue in decades to come.

Mackenzie Eaglen noted that the choices ahead are not specific to political party. She articulated a choice for the next president: to increase American internationalism once again, or continue with the new status quo of standing back whenever possible. In many ways this is a requirement of sustained attention rather than massive increases in funding, she said. 

At the same time, Eaglen conceded that the administration is struggling because of budgetary concerns that are not entirely its fault. In some ways, she sees a struggle in choosing between readiness, capability, or capacity. In her view, the choice can’t be either/or, but needs to be and when it comes to these areas.

Show me the money?

Michael O’Hanlon stated that while the numbers tell us that we spend a lot of money on the U.S. military— more than during the Cold War, in fact—it currently comes out to about 3 percent of GDP and is headed lower. This is near historical lows. 

Kagan pointed out the U.S. economy is much larger than during and after the Cold War, however. He also compared overseas troop presence now versus in the past: Even looking at peaceful eras like the Eisenhower administration, today’s overseas footprint is considerably smaller. 

He reminded the audience that the “world order is beneficial. We don’t think much about what loss of that order might bring.” In other words, he said, “think of defense spending as insurance. It’s much more costly to fight a war than deter it.”

Another factor to consider, argued Miller, is the cost per individual in the military and how much it has risen over time. He concluded that treating military members fairly and paying them relatively well is a key factor explaining why the United States has the most capable military in its history. 

Politics, China, and a common enemy

The audience then asked the panelists how to explain defense needs to people who don’t know history or pay much attention to the world outside the United States. Kagan responded that it is tough—generally a crisis needs to get quite bad before Americans want to get involved. He argued that the Obama administration has done little to explain why we need to be heavily engaged, and that the next president needs to ramp up that communication effort.

“Think of defense spending as insurance. It’s much more costly to fight a war than deter it.”

Miller noted that it is indeed hard to explain where $600 billion dollars goes, but that Americans fundamentally want the country to be strong. He blamed many of the budgetary issues on the toxic relationship between Congress and the administration. As such, he believes another key for the next president will be reaching across the aisle on security issues. O’Hanlon interjected that the candidates have been, in his view, a little lazy in delving into the issue thus far. He called for more detail, which he believes most people are capable of absorbing. One area in need of better focus is the relationship vis-à-vis China, adding that we need to consider the message sent by having our Navy in decline while theirs is growing. 

Kagan agreed with O’Hanlon, wondering if China can find a different way to emerge as a great power other than through war, as past history suggests is possible. He also pointed out that staying ahead of a rising power is the best way to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. Concurring, Miller noted the importance of forward operating bases with significant capabilities. He also stated that an inadvertent conflict with China is certainly a possibility, and the United States and allies must attempt to avoid this as much as possible through military-to-military as well as diplomatic interactions. O’Hanlon mentioned a quote by Brookings Senior Fellow Kenneth Lieberthal in which he said, the “shadow of the future looms large in Asia.” O’Hanlon takes this to mean that the “pace of change matters.” As China’s economy boomed in recent times, it has devoted great resources into its defense program. At the same time, the United States has been cutting its defense budget. In this light, he said, “I like the idea of a more gradual hegemonic change.”

Eaglen strongly agreed that there is no commonly agreed-upon single threat to the United States today, and pointed to this as a reason for the atrophy in defense.

As the event wrapped up, journalist and Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Marvin Kalb noted that in the Cold War, the United States had an enemy that was easy to identify. That helped the money flow when it was requested. He wondered if the problem today is we have no “communist menace.” Eaglen strongly agreed that there is no commonly agreed-upon single threat to the United States today, and pointed to this as a reason for the atrophy in defense. She also reiterated the idea of a spectrum of threats—from terrorism on the lower end to a conflict in the South China Sea or with Russia on the high side. She concluded that the United States needs to not just focus on one or the other. 

Seeing these issues as an opportunity is important, reiterated Miller. We should use the current concerns as a reason to strengthen alliances and overseas partnerships. The public can understand that, even if they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about national security. 

Kagan ended on a hopeful note: He said we’ve done harder things in the past than we are faced with now, and we can again. The unknown, he said, is our will to do them.