Will the US increase military spending yet again?
At the present time, an increase in US military spending seems as superfluous as a third leg. The United States, armed with the latest in advanced weaponry, has more military might than any other nation in world history. Moreover, it has begun a $1 trillion program to refurbish its entire nuclear weapons complex. America’s major military rivals, China and Russia, spend only a small fraction of what the United States does on its armed forces―in China’s case about a third and in Russia’s case about a ninth. Furthermore, the economic outlay necessary to maintain this vast US military force constitutes a very significant burden. In fiscal 2015, US military spending ($598.5 billion) accounted for 54 percent of the US government’s discretionary spending.
Certainly most Americans are not clamoring for heightened investments in war and war preparations. According to a Gallup poll conducted in February 2016, only 37 percent of respondents said the US government spent too little “for national defense and military purposes,” compared to 59 percent who said it spent too much (32 percent) or about the right amount (27 percent).
These findings were corroborated by a Pew Research Center survey in April 2016, which reported that 35 percent of American respondents favored increasing US military spending, 24 percent favored decreasing it, and 40 percent favored keeping it the same. Although these latest figures show a rise in support for increasing military spending since 2013, this occurred mostly among Republicans. Indeed, the gap in support for higher military spending between Republicans and Democrats, which stood at 25 percentage points in 2013, rose to 41 points by 2016.
Actually, it appears that, when Americans are given the facts about US military spending, a substantial majority of them favor reducing it. Between December 2015 and February 2016, the nonpartisan Voice of the People, affiliated with the University of Maryland, provided a sample of 7,126 registered voters with information on the current US military budget, as well as leading arguments for and against it. The arguments were vetted for accuracy by staff members of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees on defense. Then, when respondents were asked their opinion about what should be done, 61 percent said they thought US military spending should be reduced. The biggest cuts they championed were in spending for nuclear weapons and missile defense systems.
When it comes to this year’s presumptive Presidential candidates, however, quite a different picture emerges. The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, though bragging about building “a military that’s gonna be much stronger than it is right now,” has on occasion called for reducing military expenditures. On the other hand, his extraordinarily aggressive foreign policy positions have led defense contractors to conclude that, with Trump in the White House, they can look forward to sharp increases in US military spending. Indeed, insisting that US military power has shrunk to a pitiful level under President Obama, he has promised that, under his presidency, it would be “funded beautifully.” In March 2016, when Trump appeared on Fox News, he made that commitment more explicit by promising to increase military spending.
Given the considerably more dovish orientation of the Democratic electorate, one would expect Hillary Clinton to stake out a position more opposed to a military buildup. But, thus far, she has been remarkably cagey about this issue. In September 2015, addressing a campaign meeting in New Hampshire, Clinton called for the creation of a high-level commission to examine US military spending. But whether the appointment of such a commission augurs increases or decreases remains unclear. Meanwhile, her rather hawkish foreign policy record has convinced observers that she will support a military weapons buildup. The same conclusion can be drawn from the “National Security” section of her campaign website, which declares: “As president, she’ll ensure the United States maintains the best-trained, best-equipped, and strongest military the world has ever known.”
Although the big defense contractors generally regard Clinton, like Trump, as a safe bet, they exercise even greater influence in Congress, where they pour substantially larger amounts of money into the campaign coffers of friendly US Senators and Representatives. Thus, even when a President doesn’t back a particular weapons system, they can usually count on Congress to fund it. As a Wall Street publication recently crowed: “No matter who wins the White House this fall, one thing is clear: Defense spending will climb.”
Will it? Probably so, unless public pressure can convince a new administration in Washington to adopt a less militarized approach to national and international security.
Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).