National Security

The Checklist Manifesto

Five steps to getting the defense budget right.

Leaders from both branches of government and both political parties agree that the amount of money that the United States can and should spend on defense must be part of the discussion on how to reduce the federal deficit. But in their deliberations, they must keep in mind that they cannot buy perfect security. Even if the Obama administration and Congress were to give the Pentagon the entire federal budget or the whole gross domestic product, there would still be risks and unforeseen developments. But, in deciding how much of the nation's scarce resources to allocate to national security, political and military leaders can minimize those risks by considering five interrelated factors.

First, leaders must realistically assess the actual threats the nation faces. National security threats are existential or they are not. Existential threats, like the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, are those that threaten the very survival of the nation if they are not dealt with. The threats we face in the current post-Cold War environment -- international terrorist networks, rogue regimes like Iran or North Korea, climate change, or a rising power like China -- do not threaten the country's existence. Moreover, many of these threats can be handled more effectively by the non-military components of the national security apparatus, such as the State Department or the Department of Homeland Security. Therefore, it is not necessary that the Department of Defense receive the same priority as it did during World War II or the Cold War.

Second, the nation's leaders must decide what political and military strategy they should pursue to deal with the current threats. During the Cold War, the United States pursued a political strategy of containment that was backed up by military strategies ranging from massive retaliation to flexible response to Air-Land Battle. In the post-Cold War period, the Pentagon sized its forces to be able to fight two major regional contingencies simultaneously. After 9/11, the Bush administration embraced preventive war and counterinsurgency to address the threats of terrorism and rogue states (even though they were not existential threats). With the end of the war in Iraq and the twilight of the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has correctly ended the emphasis on counterinsurgency, correctly switched to counterterrorism, and adopted the newest military construct, Air-Sea Battle, as a response to the perceived threat of rising China. These changes will provide a more cost-effective way to deal militarily with current security challenges.

Third, leaders must assess the nation's fiscal condition in deciding how much the government can spend on defense, because a nation cannot be strong abroad if it is not strong at home, and even our military leaders admit that the escalating federal debt is a threat to national security. President Eisenhower gave priority to balancing the budget and investing in infrastructure, such as the Federal Interstate Highway System, and he allocated the remainder to the Pentagon. President Kennedy increased defense spending as a means of stimulating the economy because there were few other discretionary government programs in the early 1960s. President Nixon cut defense spending significantly after the war in Vietnam in order to fund domestic programs like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Amtrak. Reagan increased defense spending by 28 percent in his first administration, but when supply-side economics did not work and the debt grew exponentially, he cut it by 10 percent in his second term, a drawdown continued by George H.W. Bush even before the end of the Cold War. President Clinton used the post-Cold War peace dividend to jumpstart the economy and pay down the federal debt. As a result, when George W. Bush took office, the United States accounted for one-third of the world's military expenditures, one-third of the world's economy, and the government was actually running a surplus. Yet he became the first wartime president to increase defense spending dramatically while simultaneously cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthy. When he left, the U.S. share of the world's military expenditures had increased to almost one-half, but its share of the world's economy had dropped to one-fifth, and the nation experienced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. To deal with the mess created by Bush, Congress and the Obama administration agreed in 2011 to reduce the projected increases in non-war defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade as part of an attempt to rein in the federal deficit, a necessary step to reduce the percentage of GDP consumed by federal spending and a reasonable step given the fact that the defense budget has nearly doubled in the past decade.

Fourth, leaders should compare the defense budget to that of previous decades and to those of other countries, particularly those of our current or potential enemies. Even after the $487 billion reduction, the United States will still account for 40 percent of the world's military expenditures and will spend more on defense than the next 15 nations combined, most of whom are our allies. Meanwhile, base -- or non-war -- defense spending is now higher than it was during the Cold War, adjusted for inflation. The country may be in a time of austerity, but the Pentagon is not.

Fifth, the political situation must be factored in. Eisenhower and Nixon could make drastic cuts in defense spending without political risk or pushback from Congress because of their reputation as tough Cold Warriors and the public's frustration with the Korean and Vietnam wars, respectively. Kennedy and Reagan (in his first term) could increase defense spending because of the public's concern with Soviet actions like the launching of Sputnik and the invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan in his second term and George H.W. Bush could make significant cuts in defense because of public concern over the rising federal deficit and their own reputations as military hawks. Clinton could continue the cuts started by President Bush because of the end of the Cold War, but was forced to increase defense spending in real terms in his second term because of pressure from the Republican-controlled Congress, which he found hard to resist because of the perception that he was weak on defense. Finally, after 9/11, George W. Bush could raise defense spending to levels not seen since World War II by exaggerating the threat posed by al Qaeda. He created such a climate of fear that the Democrat-controlled Senate did not object, despite the fact al Qaeda did not pose an existential threat and that he not only did not raise taxes to pay for the buildup or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but actually cut them.

These five factors all point to further significant reductions coming in the size of the Pentagon budget. We do not face an existential threat. The federal debt is increasing, as is the need for investment at home. The United States is adapting a less expansive military strategy, and defense expenditures remain at an all-time high. President Obama is seen as a strong military leader, and all available polling indicates that the American people support reducing the defense budget. Therefore, as part of a budget deal to reduce the deficit, avoid sequestration, and extend the middle-class tax cuts, defense spending can, should, and will be reduced significantly over the next decade.

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National Security

Rocket Backstage

Behind the scenes of North Korea's nuclear deliberations.

In its second attempt this year, North Korea has put a satellite into orbit. Pyongyang described it as a "great turn in developing the country's science, technology, and economy by fully exercising the independent right to use space for peaceful purposes." That "right" is limited by resolutions of the U.N. Security Council, which worries that North Korea may be using its space program as a front for ballistic missile development.

Only a few weeks ago I had the rare opportunity to engage in nuclear talks with the Korean People's Army at their guest house in Pyongyang. Needless to say, I was ignorant of the fact that the men sitting opposite me may have been contemplating, or even planning, this week's rocket launch.

Throughout our stay, my colleagues from the Royal United Services Institute and I were introduced to the endless contradictions that North Korea offers. One minute we were whisked off to see the now missing "imperialist spy ship" USS Pueblo, the next we were strolling through "Little Manhattan" en route to meetings with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Korean Worker's Party, and the army.

All repeated their conviction that the "hostile policy" of the United States drives Pyongyang's need for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Joint military exercises being hosted in South Korea, they said, were provocative, and "frequent clouds make rainfall." But if military exercises are a "cloud," a rocket launch is certainly one, too.

As part of the Six-Party Talks, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States have been trying to talk North Korea out of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. Two of Pyongyang's interlocutors, China and the United States, have recently elected new leaders, and another two are about to -- Japan on December 16, and South Korea on December 19. Along with the anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il, all four electoral contests have been cited as potential motivations for the timing of North Korea's satellite launch.

Our meetings suggest that Pyongyang may be most interested in using its successful launch to exploit the South Korean polls. While in Pyongyang, we asked each of our interlocutors a straightforward question: how might the U.S. and South Korean elections affect bilateral relations with Pyongyang? Despite the colorful language North Koreans ordinarily use to describe Washington, all the answers focused on the South Korean polls.

But why try to influence the South Koreans, whom they see as mere "puppets" of the United States? It is possible that North Korea has silently, but correctly recognized that the United States is unlikely to go against the preferences of the South Korean government. If South Korea wants to have a dialogue with the North, Washington would be hard pressed to object.

By now, South Korea's presidential candidates have made it clear that the days of Lee Myung-Bak's heavy-handed approach towards North Korea are over. Both Park Geun-hye of the ruling conservative party and opposition candidate Moon Jae-In have stated their willingness to re-engage Pyongyang. Admittedly, Park takes a more cautious stance towards negotiations with North Korea than her opponent, and the rocket launch could shift some votes her way. But despite the North's provocation, both candidates have built an election platform of re-engagement, and will likely stick to it.

Knowing this, the immediate pre-election period is the best opportunity for North Korea to get one over its neighbor. While candidates squabble south of the 38th parallel, a satellite launch north of it demonstrated Pyongyang's leadership stability and strength when both were in question. Seoul's irritation will be further exacerbated by the fact that the country has been beaten in the race to put a satellite into orbit. South Korea has had to solicit the help of Japan, and repeatedly postpone its more recent launch attempts. By contrast, North Korea has done it quickly and in the face of sanctions. 

Our meetings also shed light on the potential implications within North Korea of putting a satellite into space. Two actors will benefit directly. The first is Kim Jong Un, a young leader not yet fully settled in a political culture that values seniority and strength. His purges of the top rungs of the army have installed officers loyal to him despite his age. A demonstration of technical and military capability further consolidates his hold on power.

The second, the Korean People's Army, may be as uneasy as its master. In his first public speech, Kim Jong Un pledged that North Koreans will never have to "tighten their belts" again. In North Korea, even loose talk of shifting priorities can make the extremely conservative army skittish.

We were repeatedly told that North Korea's military-first policy will in no way be jeopardized by Kim Jong Un's increased focus on public welfare. Their protestations seemed overwrought, and indicated a deep unease over the future of the military's decades-old preeminent position. However, a demonstration of the Respected General's desire to advance the country's space and missile capabilities may put the army's minds at ease.

So what does this all mean? Given the upcoming South Korean election and North Korean internal wrangling, it should come as no surprise that preventative diplomacy failed to convince the North Korean regime that a missile test is not in its interests. Nevertheless, the aftermath can be managed through clever diplomacy that exploits the few changes that do appear to have taken place under the Kim Jong Un regime.

Unlike his father, the third Kim wants to improve the visibility of day-to-day relations with foreign governments, including Western ones. Kim Jong Un's public appearances are incredibly frequent, and they take him from tanning salons to major military parades. Importantly, he is eager to line the front rows of his audiences with foreign ambassadors. Scenes of the leader shaking their hands are later broadcast on TV screens in the capital.

This was the case the day we arrived in Pyongyang, and was the case for the military parades that followed the last rocket launch, in April. Foreign missions in the country are frequently sent invitations for an event an hour or so before it is set to begin. And what was clear from our discussions in Pyongyang is that the regime pays close attention to RSVPs. 

Kim Jong Un's desire for détente with foreign governments may be economically driven. The new regime has reiterated its willingness not only to adopt useful economic models from abroad, but also to enter into new agreements with foreign firms. The exodus of Chinese businesses now openly declaiming North Korea reinforces this trend. Pyongyang may be learning that warm economic relations are difficult to achieve while political ones remain so deeply frayed.

Whatever its motivation, North Korea's enthusiasm for a positive and public relationship with foreign governments creates opportunities and tools for post-launch diplomacy. A condemnatory Security Council resolution with Russian and Chinese "yes" votes rather than abstentions would be a visible and high-level starting point for communicating disapproval. News that suggests Pyongyang is losing old friends quicker than it is making new ones will not sit well with the Kim Jong Un regime.

A second tool exploits Kim Jong Un's preference for an audience composed of international "friends." Nations with missions in the country -- such as the United Kingdom, Germany, China, and Russia -- should do three things: clearly and swiftly condemn North Korea's flagrant violation of Security Council resolutions, if they haven't already; coordinate a unified approach to take face-to-face meetings with North Korean officials; and, for at least some time, reject invitations to major events that appear at their embassies. Despite their assertion that "diplomacy is not a gift," North Korean officials notice boycotts. This is a testament to the fact that sometimes the best way for managing diplomatic crises is to maintain and cautiously leverage open channels.

Discussions with high-level North Koreans can be remarkably frank, yielding insight into one of the least understood countries on Earth. "What did you think of our April satellite launch?" one official questioned. I now have an idea why he was asking.

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