By John Cappel:
For the past several years, civilian defense officials, uniformed military leaders, and members of Congress have been warning about the negative consequences of defense budget cuts. While some of these statements have been balanced assessments of the implications of reduced military spending, many have done little more than decry “devastating” cuts that will “gut” the military and make allies question American security guarantees. While such rhetoric is intended to motivate domestic audiences to support higher levels of defense spending, these statements also reach overseas audiences. As a result, rhetoric about “devastating” budget cuts may do much more than the actual cuts themselves to unsettle America’s allies.
During a recent trip to Japan, I witnessed how one of the United States’ most important allies is responding more to the rhetoric than the reality of American defense budget cuts. As a recent Stimson report noted, “Japan’s defense establishment is…confused regarding the ongoing fiscal budget debate in Washington,” and in meetings with members of the Diet, officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense, and officers of the Self-Defense Forces, I observed widespread concern about the effects of American defense budget cuts on the United States’ ability to continue acting as a guarantor of Japanese security.
While these officials’ worries are understandable, their perspectives suggested that rhetoric about budget cuts, rather than reality, is largely driving their concerns. Very few felt that there had been clear cuts in American capabilities or operations to date, and even fewer could cite concrete examples of curtailed training exercises or reductions in American military presence. Furthermore, while worries about American budget cuts were common, officials who were more directly engaged with joint military operations were generally more confident than their colleagues in the future of American capabilities in the region.
These relatively limited effects so far reflect the reality that ongoing defense cuts are coming out of historically high levels of military spending and will leave the US with fairly robust defense funding. Adjusted for inflation, defense budgets between 2007 and 2012 were the 6 largest since World War II, and the 2003 through 2014 budgets account for 12 of the 15 highest post-WWII budgets. If current legislative caps—often simply called “the sequester”—are kept in place, the defense budget will stabilize during 2016-2021 at a level slightly higher than the 2002 budget, which in turn was higher than any defense budget between 1993 and 2001. While the military must make hard choices and real cuts to adapt to lower funding levels, it will not be nearly as drastically under-resourced as statements about “devastating” cuts suggest.
Many members of governments, legislatures, and publics in both Japan and other allied countries, however, lack first-person familiarity with American military capabilities or budgets. Instead, they learn largely from American leaders’ public statements that sometimes make it seem the US military will become impotent unless it receives more money. Consequently, statements from senior leaders about the potential consequences of budget cuts may be the primary driver of allies’ concerns about US military capabilities.
To their credit, many DoD leaders seem to be well aware of the need to balance warnings about budget cuts against the sensitivities of overseas audiences. For example, in recent testimony, Admiral Samuel Locklear of Pacific Command sounded a warning about the “diminishing readiness and availability of our joint force” while also insisting PACOM has “maintained focus on the key aspects of the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, strengthening our alliances and partnerships and improving our posture and presence.” Perhaps more notably, even when Assistant Secretary of Defense Katrina McFarland declared that the rebalance to East Asia “can’t happen,” she quickly retracted her statement. Not all political and military leaders, however, have displayed this kind of awareness.
Highlighting worst-case scenarios is an understandable tactic for trying to drive domestic debate in favor of higher military spending, but America’s leaders must walk a fine line in what they say. Statements highlighting or exaggerating negative consequences are likely to damage relationships with allies, especially those who feel heavily reliant on American protection.
Ensuring that allies remain confident in American leadership therefore requires a more moderate and balanced tone on the implications of budget cuts. To maintain allies’ confidence, political and military leaders should underscore that the United States will continue to possess by far the world’s best-funded and most capable military force even as budgets decline.
At the same time that American politicians and defense officials are trying to shape the future of the military, they are also shaping the international environment. By focusing too heavily on the negative implications of budget cuts, America’s military and political leaders risk encouraging allies to unnecessarily question America’s leadership and role in the world, creating the very outcome they seek to avoid.
The author recently traveled to Japan as a participant in the Kakehashi Project, a US-Japan exchange program organized by the Japan Foundation and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Photo credit: #PACOM via flickr