Commentary: A global foe without precedent

By Hank Davis

In 2022, the U.S. plans to spend close to $800 billion on the military. The figure exceeds $1 trillion if one includes related agencies like Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Given the growing deficit and calls for fiscal restraint, one would expect pushback against this high dollar amount. But no. For the most part, the spending is met with “a shrug of the shoulders,” as Elizabeth Warren recently put it. If there is controversy, it is mostly about a lack of funding for the military.

Meanwhile Washington reels when presented with Biden’s Build Back Better plan. The idea of spending $1.85 trillion over 10 years, or $185 billion per year, on climate change and the social safety net faces resistance from many quarters. The reaction is understandable given the $5 trillion already allotted to COVID relief and to the recent infrastructure bill. Still, while Biden’s $185 billion per year occasions concern and even outrage, the almost $800 billion per year in military spending meets with relative silence. Consider in this context the budget numbers for the climate.

A recent National Intelligence Estimate projects that unless we curb climate change “populations will feel negative effects in their daily lives … difficult to reverse….” The Pentagon warns of “mass migration events,” “state failure” and “cascading security impacts.” Government findings leave no doubt that fossil-fuel use will be the primary cause of this nightmare. Yet next year the U.S. will spend $250 billion on new weapons systems, with approximately $115 billion going to research and $140 billion going to procurement. At the same time, even with passage of the Build Back Better plan, only $105 billion will go to fighting climate change. Indeed, if current plans hold, the U.S. will spend between $8-10 trillion on the military over the next decade with as much as $700 billion spent on our nuclear arsenal alone. This compares to $550 billion for climate change during that same period. It is that imbalance that should send Washington reeling. Thirty years from now the question will resound: “What were you thinking?” “How could you have gotten your priorities so wrong?”

Part of the answer is simple. In 2015, in the wake of the still murky Ukraine crisis, the Pentagon began emphasizing “state threats” in addition to threats posed by non-state actors like al-Qaida. The phrase “great power competition” soon followed, pitting Russia and China against the U.S. This term or its recent equivalent (“strategic competition”) has become a kind of mantra within foreign policy circles, helping to justify both the current uptick in U.S. military spending and the trillions to come over the next decade.

Perhaps in a world unburdened by pandemics and a disintegrating climate, humanity could afford another round of “great power competition.” But that world is not ours. Ours screams for a new brand of U.S. leadership: honest and even-handed. Such leadership would understand that the idea of “great power competition” is little more than a self-serving relic. It would admit that misbehavior on the part of Russia and China is not sui generis but stems in part from overreach on the part of the U.S., an example being U.S.-led NATO expansion. The condescension and hubris that has stamped U.S. foreign policy since at least the end of the Cold War has to go. Such leadership would work to slow military spending worldwide, starting with unilateral reductions on our part.

Ordinarily, it would be easy to dismiss such moves as unworkable and naive. But no longer. The U.S. shares with Russia and China a common enemy in human-made climate change, a global foe without precedent. Any hope of warding off its worst effects requires not only a reallocation of the world’s resources, away from military hardware; it requires a level of unity among nations unseen in history. It is difficult to see how these conditions can be met if the U.S. insists on spending hundreds of billions more on weaponry than any other country, if it continues demonizing Russia and China while touting its own moral superiority, the notion that it alone among the three powers abides by international law.

The problem is not simply an outsized military budget. It is not overspending in this area or that. It is certainly not the heroic women and men of our military. It is the facile presumption that international stability requires a vastly superior military presence on the part of the U.S. It is the belief that we can have it both ways: countering China and Russia with coercive diplomacy and an arms build-up while working closely with them, as we must, to combat climate change. It is a U.S. government convinced that we have the resources to outdo the rest of the world militarily while at the same replacing our fossil fuel infrastructure in just a decade or two.

Radical cooperation among nations is no longer a mere moral requirement, a nice thought; the future of organized human life will require it. Lazy assumptions about “great power competition” and the need for trillions in military spending are not helpful in this regard.


Hank Davis is a resident of Brooklin. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy and has taught the subject for the University of Maine. Sources for this op-ed are available at [email protected]

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