The recently-published new U.S. military strategy, entitled Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, attracted a great deal of attention last week, with some critics denouncing what they claimed were excessive cuts in defence spending, and others noting the apparent shift in emphasis towards Asia-Pacific and wondering if starting an arms race with China was really a wise idea. What few realized, however, was the extent to which nothing very much will change. The cuts proposed are slight (approximately eight percent over ten years). Given the timeframe involved, this may easily change in years to come—added to which an eight percent reduction in current spending hardly dents the massive increases which have taken place since 2001. The United States will remain far and away the world’s largest military spender.
At the same time, the new strategy in no way challenges existing assumptions about the U.S.’s place in the world. Indeed, its very title, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership, underlines that the Obama administration shares its predecessor’s assumptions about America’s rightful leadership role and about the central part that military power plays in that. The fact that the strategy document stresses that “the United States will continue to take an active approach” to countering threats also demonstrate that the U.S. government still regards military power as something to be used, not merely held in reserve to respond to aggression.
Nor does the document question any of the big-ticket items or controversial projects which have helped to push defence spending up over the past decade, and prevented the United States from enjoying a peace dividend commensurate to the current relatively peaceful state of the globe. Talk of a lighter footstep merely harks back to Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of a smaller, more rapidly deployable and technologically advanced military. There is little here that is new.
Overall, the recent statement on defence policy once again bears witness to the lack of imagination and general conservatism of a president elected on a platform of change. It does not suggest that anybody in authority in the United States is either willing or able to seriously rethink their country’s military orientation. Obama continues to disappoint.