Thursday, February 07, 2008

Superpower Skeptic

Here's a thought experiment: would it be so terrible if the United States stopped being the world's military superpower?

What would happen if we reduced defense spending down to the level of, say, Australia (the 13'th largest defense budget in the world)? The US spends over half a trillion dollars a year on the military, Australia spends 14 billion dollars a year-- or roughly half a trillion dollars less than the US.

I was born in Australia-- it's a very nice country. As far as I can tell, Australia isn't suffering because it's not the World's Number One SuperPower. Like the US, it doesn't share any borders with unfriendly neighbors (but my mum tells me that a big worry down under in the sixties was the "Yellow Peril"-- that Chinese overpopulation would force them to invade).

Run the thought experiment in reverse-- what benefits would Australia get if it spent an extra half a trillion dollars a year and became the Worlds Greatest Fighting Force?

I know next to nothing about defense or foreign policy, so enlighten me-- besides bragging rights, what am I getting for that half a trillion dollars that I wouldn't get if we spent 20 billion dollars instead?

7 comments:

Bill said...

The War on Terror.

Gavin Andresen said...

RE: The War on Terror:

I am not afraid.

If we all stopped acting afraid and truly made this the Home of the Brave, then terrorism wouldn't work.

Xenophon said...

The US military/industrial complex is incredibly powerful. Mess with that at your peril. Also, many very large business interests worldwide are buoyed up by the presence of troops in so many countries. It's quite subtle, but think of it as a sort of guarantee that US economic interests will be upheld all over the globe...oil, minerals, agricultural products, etc. It works to the benefit of the US in precisely the same way as Roman troops benefited their far-flung economic interests back 2000 years ago.

Gavin Andresen said...

Anybody have good pointers on attempts to quantify how much business benefit we get from the half trillion dollars we spend?

Browsing the Wikipedia GDP per capita table, I don't see a correlation between military spending and economic productivity.

So I'm deeply skeptical that all our military spending is making US companies (or US citizens) richer...

Fred Wickham said...

It's a wonderful question. Yes, there are huge economic interests involved, but we are screwing ourselves in the bargain.

roezmv said...

Ah, one of the few areas you and I disagree on :)! I'm afraid I lack hard data on this, so I'll be forced to use analogy.

During Pax Romana, the entire Greater Mediterranean basin experienced an explosive growth in prosperity - made possible because Rome's (expensive) armies had a near monopoly on force and so could "encourage" people to resolve disputes via non violent means.

Likewise Pax Britannica saw an explosion in economic development and prosperity throughout the world (for all the ills of the age, it was a far cry better than what came before). This prosperity effected many nations NOT in the empire, yet the growth in trade helped the empire none-the-less. All of this was made possible by British tax payers' substantial funding of the British Army & Navy.

Now let's stretch the example a tiny bit. Amherst's police force has a (near) monopoly on force. They exert that force throughout the town so successfully that very few of us consider violence as a reasonable means to resolve disputes - despite how easy it is to be violent! Instead we use words, laws, and economics - and so all benefit from it. Compare this to some parts of the world that had similar attributes to Amherst (lots of culture, well educated people, decent economy, etc), but then lost their monopoly of benign force (many towns in Zimbabwe or Yugoslavia in the past 15 years). Suddenly towns not all that different from us turned into hell holes of death and poverty.

And indeed, we are now living during Pax Americana, with unparalleled levels of GLOBAL economic development with hundreds of millions of people being lifted out of poverty. Made possible by our military might imposing relative calm throughout the world. Compare this to the status quo previously - WW I and II.

These examples hint (though, as articulated by me, certainly are not scientific proof!) that a near monopoly of relatively benign force encourages people to pursue peaceful means of dispute resolution, facilitating dramatic economic development for all. Sadly, someone has to foot the bill for that monopoly of force, usually the one who wants to have the strongest bargaining chip in negotiations.

If we retract this military spending, then I believe the same thing would happen as happened at the end of the Roman and British Paxes - dramatic increases in bloodshed and impoverishment.

Gavin Andresen said...

That's the most convincing answer I've heard. Wikipedia has a fair bit to say about "Pax Americana" (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pax_Americana ).