The defense budget debates in Washington over the past several years always took place in a vacuum: rarely, if ever, were discussions on how much to cut put into a global context. Few partisans of reduced military spending ever stopped to consider that the United States was not reducing its commitments around the world, only its ability to carry them out. Nor did they seem much exercised by the thought that other countries were not motionless, but would be pursuing their own interests regardless of what Washington did.
Two news stories today bring some more clarity to a situation that has been developing for some time. While the U.S. defense budget continues on a long-term downward trend (though spared from the worst of the congressionally-mandated sequestration cuts for now), China, Russia, and the Middle East are driving a new surge in military spending. Meanwhile, America and its liberal allies continue to pare their defensive capabilities, leading to an increasing imbalance around the globe.
According to the New York Times, China will spend more than Britain, France, and Germany combined, a total of $148 billion, though many experts believe it may be as much as double that. Just as worryingly, Bloomberg reports that in 2015 China and Russia alone will spend more on their militaries than the entire European Union. Those who dismiss Vladimir Putin's regime as a paper tiger should update their assessment: Moscow now has the world's third-largest military budget, and is increasing it by 44 percent. Meanwhile, China has just tested a hypersonic missile and has recently fielded new Predator-style drones, while investing in precision-guided cruise missiles, new bombers, an aircraft carrier, and a fifth-generation stealth fighter.
The political implications of the world's largest authoritarian powers dramatically increasing their military budgets while the Western democracies reduce theirs seem unappreciated in Washington. It would be bad enough were a more confident China and Russia acting more coercively at their current levels of strength; a more powerful Beijing and Moscow, increasingly dismissive of their neighbors and acutely aware of regional military spending, will certainly be emboldened to push their interests in a more assertive fashion.
The response from the Obama administration is disheartening. It turns Syrian disarmament over to Russia and the U.N.; it refuses to confront China on its coercive behavior in the East and South China Seas; it embraces long-term personnel and modernization cuts in the U.S. military while ignoring other wasteful spending. The Obama White House may have the pulse of a war-weary American public, but it has completely misdiagnosed the global condition.