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The Global Vote of No Confidence in Pax Americana

Walter Russell Mead

Defense spending is rising around the world, and it’s not because people feel safer. Bloomberg:

Global military spending has begun rising in real terms for the first time since the U.S. began its withdrawal of troops from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Defense budgets rose 1 percent to $1.68 trillion in 2015, making up about 2.3 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, Sipri said in a report Tuesday. While the U.S. spent the most at $596 billion, that was down 2.4 percent compared with 2014, while China’s outlay increased 7.4 percent to $215 billion.

Concern about a possible advance by Russia into North Atlantic Treaty Organization territory following the Crimea invasion and hostilities in east Ukraine led to a surge in spending in Eastern Europe, as Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea spurred arms purchases among Southeast Asian states.

What’s forgotten among all the grousing by President Obama and Donald Trump about ‘free riding’ allies is this basic fact of international life: the Pax Americana was intended to suppress global geopolitical and military competition by providing a framework for international security. That benefitted the world by making countries safer at a lower cost and by assuring people that their national defense and access to world trade and markets did not require them to build huge military establishments.

People who don’t know much about history or understand American foreign policy well look at the result—that the U.S. spent more on the military than other countries—and think that we were somehow getting snookered. But they forget—or perhaps they never learned—some vital facts:

1. The U.S., a country whose economic and security interests extend globally more than those of any other country thanks both to our geography and the nature of our economy, benefits more than any other country from the existence of a global economic and security system

2. It is actually cheaper for us to maintain this framework when other countries don’t feel the need to spend lots of money on their militaries—when the U.S. spends less than 4% of GDP on defense but has a bigger defense budget than the rest of the world combined, that is the sign of a successful strategy: our military superiority is immense and unchallengeable, yet the cost to us is by historical great power standards, low. That is the sign of strategic success, not of ‘free riding allies’, Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump.

3. The other reason that the U.S. has followed this strategy is the bitter experience of the past that teaches an important lesson: multipolar arms races lead to great power war. The U.S. has believed since the 1940s that another global conflict on the scale of World War I and World War II would mean the collapse of global civilization, or even the extermination of the human race. We have therefore made it a centerpiece of our policy to deter other powers from building huge military establishments and, when they do it—as the USSR did in its day—to ensure that such powers are deterred from war and that other powers feel safe enough in the shadow of U.S. strength that their military responses, though real, are limited.

For 70 years this strategic approach has prevented the outbreak of devastating wars like those of the first half of the twentieth century. That we did so at an affordable, though not an insignificant, cost, is a triumph of strategic thinking and of American foreign policy.

Weak leadership and a failure of strategic intelligence now threatens the success of the most successful world strategy of modern times, a strategy whose success has been the root cause of American prosperity and global stability for two generations. There is no enemy powerful enough to destroy the Pax Americana today, except for the greatest of all great powers in human affairs: the power of stupidity.

We will know that American foreign policy has started to work again when military budgets around the world go down, while ours remains at an affordable level. Those are the metrics we are looking for; right now, we seem to be getting the opposite.

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