Rebuttal of MacDonald and Parent’s claims: or, The Foolishness of Retrenchment


In a ridiculous screed published in the November/December 2011 edition of the CFR’s Foreign Affairs bimonthly (“The Wisdom of Retrenchment”), two anti-defense hacks, Joseph M. Parent and Paul MacDonald, falsely claim that:

“The United States can no longer afford a world-spanning foreign policy. Retrenchment — cutting military spending, redefining foreign priorities, and shifting more of the defense burden to allies — is the only sensible course. Luckily, that does not have to spell instability abroad. History shows that pausing to recharge national batteries can renew a dominant power’s international legitimacy.”

Their screed, however, is utter garbage.

Firstly, it is not true that the US can no longer afford to stay globally engaged (how much engaged, and where exactly, should the US remain is a completely different question.*) America’s military spending currently amounts to just 4.22% of the country’s GDP and less than 17% of the total federal budget. Yet, at this bargain price, the US, together with allies, maintains – more or less – global security and stability and thus allows itself and its allies to reap huge economic and other benefits.

Cutting America’s defense budget deeply would be the stupidest thing America can do. It would gravely weaken the US military, thus making it incapable of defending America (to say nothing of its allies) and imperiling national and global security, which is totally dependent on a strong US military. The mathematical reality is that with a significantly reduced budget, the US military would have to dramatically reduced its size and deeply cut, if not completely jettison, key capabilities without which the Nation cannot do (e.g. nuclear deterrence, air superiority, naval superiority, etc.).

Protecting America means protecting long land borders with two countries, a large territory, a large populace of 308 mn people, a large coastline (including two long ocean coasts and the Gulf Coast), the airspace above it, or the world’s sealanes, through which the vast majority of America’s exports and imports go and which need to be protected with a large and strong navy.

Providing for America’s defense needs alone – to say nothing of America’s allies – requires, among other things:

  • Providing air superiority to control the airspace over America itself (and Canada), which requires a large number of advanced 5th generation aircraft to defeat incoming enemy aircraft (including bombers and their escort fighters);
  • Providing a large ground army to protect America’s land borders, or at least, the long border with Mexico, where a full-scale war with drug cartels is already ongoing (don’t take my word for it – visit Arizona);
  • Patrolling America’s long coasts: the two vast ocean costs and the Gulf Coast (where the Russians sometimes sent Akula class subs), and protecting the undersea resources and fishing areas in US territorial waters;
  • Providing a large, modern, survivable nuclear deterrent (which requires a large, survivable, modern nuclear triad and a large nuclear stockpile);
  • Providing a multi-layered missile defense system to protect the homeland;
  • Providing the human, space-, air-, sea-, and ground-based intelligence capabilities to collect all pertinent intel data about America’s enemies and making informed decisions about national security issues;
  • Providing the administrative support required;
  • Providing the healthcare, retirement, housing, and family support programs for the military’s members;
  • Providing a military judicial system; and
  • Other national security requirements.

For more on why deep defense budget cuts would be detrimental to America’s security (to say nothing of its allies’ security), see herehereherehere, and here.

The fact is that deep defense cuts would severely degrade America’s ability to defend itself, to say nothing of its allies. For more, see here.

Shifting more of the defense burden to America’s allies is not a bad idea per se, but that still does not eliminate America’s own defense needs and, consequently, does not mean that America can cut its defense budget. Furthermore, there is a limit to what share of the burden allies can bear. Most of America’s allies are poor, and usually mid-sized or small countries, although ones that are important for strategic reasons (e.g. geographic location). Wealthy, large countries such as Britain, Germany, Japan, and South Korea are the exception, not the rule. America’s allies are mostly countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, the Philippines, Thailand, and so forth.

Moreover, it is far that the US bear the largest part of the burden, because the US is by far the wealthiest country in the world and the third-largest by population. The US economy alone constitutes 25% of the world economy; GDP per capita is $48,000; and the population is 308 million people. Under any fair arrangement, the US would have to bear the largest part, indeed the majority, of the defense burden. That is NOT to say that allies should be allowed to free-ride, or that they shouldn’t bear a larger part of the burden. But they can’t bear the majority of it, even collectively.

Indeed, as Michele Flournoy and Janine Davidson have explained in their essay in the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs, forward engagement – stationing troops abroad, training with foreign militaries, and providing a defense umbrella to foreign countries – does not mean allowing them to free ride. On the contrary, it helps build their defense capabilities so that they can fight side by side with the US.

Moreover, the idea that America’s national interests, and the threats to America, stop at America’s borders is both false and idiotic. A rogue state such as North Korea perfecting ICBMs/IRBMs and nuclear weapons is actually more of a threat to the US than drug cartels running across the US/Mexican border. Similarly, an attempt by Iran to close the Straits of Hormuz would also be a huge threat to America’s security and economy. An aggression (let alone a nuclear attack) against important trade partners such as Japan and South Korea would also send shock waves across the US economy and weaken it, not to mention the importance of the subjugation of a country as strategically situated as Japan.

Then there are the world’s sealanes, on which the US economy is totally dependent (the vast majority of US exports and imports go through them). Then there are the vast oil and gas resources in the South China Sea, around the Senkaku Islands, and in the Arctic, which, if China and Russia (respectively) seize them, will be unavailable to America and its allies and will be exploited mercilessly by Beijing and Moscow.

Last but not least, let us not delude ourselves that if the US retrenched – i.e. re-adopted an isolationist policy as suggested by MacDonald and Parent – America’s enemies would leave it alone. On the contrary, they would see such behavior by the US as a huge opportunity to renew their aggression against other countries, this time on a much larger scale (since the US wouldn’t be there to deter them and defend aggression victims) and with much worse, downright disastrous consequences: entire countries, huge mineral resources, vast populations and territories, and the world’s strategic locations falling victim to Beijing and Moscow.

It is not difficult to foresee what would happen if the US were to dump its allies, retrench behind its oceans, and adopt an isolationist/noninterventionist posture:

  • North Korea would immediately launch a massive ballistic missile, rocket, artillery, armored, and specops attack on South Korea, possibly with the selective use of nuclear weapons against some targets. Without an American nuclear umbrella, South Korea would be subjugated, albeit at a high cost to the DPRK. Today’s ROK military is a far cry from the weak force of 1950, which the KPA defeated easily. From a conquered South Korea, the DPRK would gain a new launchpad from which to launch BM attacks against the US (it can already deliver nuclear warheads to Alaska and Hawaii and conventional munitions to the PNW).
  • China would subjugate its neighbors in the South China Sea, subordinating them politically to Beijing while taking control over the vast mineral resources in that sea and blocking it to the ships of any country not kowtowing to China. It would also subjugate Japan, seize the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the mineral resources near them, and erase any US influence from the Pacific Rim. Australia, now trying to balance relations with Washington and Beijing, would start siding firmly with the latter, as it would see American retrenchment as a sign of weakness.
  • Iran would obtain nuclear weapons and, unless it can be deterred, destroy Israel, which it calls a “one-nuclear-weapon state”. It would also shut down and reopen the Strait of Hormuz at will, since there would be no US Navy to deter it or to reopen the Strait.
  • Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would massacre the rebels just as ruthlessly as his father massacred the residents of Hama.
  • Russia would subjugate – by economic/energy pressure, by military blackmail, or by overt military aggression, Central and possibly also Western European countries, including such staunch allies of the US as Poland and the Czech Republic. (For the Poles, this would be the third time they would be betrayed by the US in 67 years, a remarkable feat.)
  • Israel would face renewed Arab aggression after being dumped by the US. It is doubtful that the Jewish state would even survive.
  • Hugo Chavez would redouble his spread of narco-terrorism and Communism in Latin America, defeating the few pro-American governments that exist there.
  • Pirates around the world, no longer having to fear the US Navy, would redouble their assaults against civilian ship (including American ones).
  • And last but not least, the entire world would learn that America’s word cannot be taken seriously, that the US is not a trustworthy ally, and that it retrenches easily and runs home at the first sign of economic distress.

These would be just some of the consequences of a policy of “retrenchment” (read: isolationism) as advocated by MacDonald, Parent, and some others (e.g. Ron Paul and Scott Rasmussen).

The claim that America can no longer afford a strong military, its current defense budget, or a foreign policy of engagement, is a blatant lie. It’s not supported by any facts. America’s entire military budget amounts to just 4.22% of GDP and less than 17% of the total federal budget; the figures for the base defense budget are 3.47% and 13.85%, respectively. Moreover, eliminating military spending ENTIRELY would not even halve the budget deficit and would not save more than a smidgen, which would be wiped out in a few years by the uncontrolled growth of entitlements. Conversely, deep defense spending cuts are NOT necessary to balance the budgets, as proven by the budget plans of Congressman Paul Ryan, the RSC, Sen. Toomey, and Sen. Lee.

MacDonald’s and Parent’s claims are all blatant lies. The CFR’s Foreign Affairs magazine should be ashamed of itself for publishing them.

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