While a $740.5 billion defense budget worked its way through Congress, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley delivered a succinct and refreshing message that appeared to go against the spirit of this bloated spending: The Defense Department must “take a hard look at what we do, where we do it,” Milley told the Brookings Institution Dec. 2. “There’s a considerable amount that the United States expends on overseas deployments, on overseas bases and locations, etc. Is every one of those absolutely, positively necessary for the defense of the United States?”
The U.S. national security community should work from the same, basic premise. Because despite the United States continuing to field the most capable, modern, professional military on the planet, the country doesn’t have the capacity, money, or interest in anchoring its foreign policy on a platform of liberal hegemony. The world in 2020 looks quite different from the world in 1992, when the dissolution of the Soviet Union provided the U.S. with the status of unrivaled superpower. In the time since, Washington has made numerous mistakes—three wars of choice (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya); a war on terrorism that has spread to dozens of countries in three continents; strategically shortsighted interventions into tertiary conflicts; getting stuck in an unimportant Middle East—which have served as the genesis of the many challenges and excessive security burdens the U.S. now carries.
Between December 2010 and December 2020, the U.S. national debt increased nearly doubled to approximately $27.4 trillion — the highest debt figure in U.S. history. The U.S. military is tired and overextended after two decades of continuous war; since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan alone. The U.S. closed out the 2020 fiscal year last September with an astounding $3.1 trillion deficit, the largest percentage of gross domestic product since the end of World War II. All of this is occurring as the U.S. continues to struggle with the worst public health crisis in over a century.
Despite the economic stresses imposed on the nation, successive U.S. administrations have followed the same post-Cold War script of primacy first, prudence and realism later. More than 220,000 U.S. servicemembers are deployed overseas, according to the latest publicly available Defense Department personnel report. Tens of thousands of those troops are stationed in the Middle East, a region whose strategic relevance to broader U.S. security and prosperity goals has gone down precipitously since the Cold War ended and the U.S. oil boom began.
In Europe, the U.S. military remains the primary guardian of the continent’s defense even as European economies have gotten more prosperous (the European Union’s gross domestic product has more than doubled since 2000) and Russia’s own power has atrophied relative to Soviet standards. As much as proponents of NATO are quick to remind everyone about the longevity of the alliance, the organization remains dependent on the U.S. for logistics, air power, munitions, and surveillance platforms.
Current U.S. force structure around the world is based less on what the U.S. truly needs to promote its security interests and more on what primacists in the foreign policy establishment want: large, permanent military footprints in every region of the world, regardless of how insignificant those regions are in terms of strategic value.
The United States doesn’t need 800 military bases sprinkled in every corner of the globe to retain its advantage — what it needs is to toss aside the dead weight and engage in a cold-hearted review of what missions are vital, which facilities are irrelevant, and which alliances and security partnerships could use a dramatic downgrade. That work needs to begin immediately, because the longer it is put off, the harder it will be to do.
As Gen. Milley said during another talk at the United States Naval Institute last week, many of Washington’s permanent basing arrangements are “derivative of where World War II ended.” By the admission of the most senior U.S. military officer, the U.S. is in effect maintaining a global force posture as if it was 1945.
The Defense Department should heed Milley’s words and be tasked with downsizing and reformulating where the U.S. military deploys its soldiers. And the U.S. foreign policy community writ large should discard primacy as the operating concept, one whose costs to U.S. strength and prosperity are too often ignored.
If we have learned anything over the past 20 years, it is that the status-quo is increasingly unsustainable.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.