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Mitt Romney’s speech to the gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nev., offered his most expansive statements on foreign policy since the former governor clinched the Republican Party’s nomination for president. Making headlines was Romney’s suggestion that the White House, and possibly President Obama, has deliberately leaked sensitive intelligence for political gain. Romney likely cheered conservatives with his muscular rhetoric—”I am not ashamed of American power”—and his denunciations of Obama’s policies toward (by my count) Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, China, Egypt, Venezuela, Poland, and the Czech Republic. By political standards, it was a pretty effective speech. But it also revealed a view of national security that is hopelessly out of date.
Romney blasted Obama for proposing “arbitrary,” “across-the-board,” “radical” cuts in military spending that would jeopardize national security at a time when the U.S. faces an unprecedented array of threats. Leave aside the fact that the Congressional Republican leadership agreed to $500 billion in mandatory defense cuts, effective next January, as part of last summer’s “deal” to raise the government’s debt ceiling. In Romney’s view, reductions of any kind in military spending are a mistake, because ”the world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic.”
In fact, the opposite is true. By nearly every reliable measure, the international scene is more peaceful now than at any time in modern history. As political scientist Joshua Goldstein points out, fewer people died in wars in the last decade than in any other in the last 100 years. There hasn’t been a conflict between two great powers since the Korean War. Despite the persistence of bloodshed in places like Syria, the number of civil wars raging in the world is down one-quarter since 1990. During World War II, the rate of “battlefield deaths” worldwide was 300 out of 100,000. Today it is fewer than 1 in 100,000.
One reason the world is so much safer is that the U.S. and its allies enjoy an unprecedented monopoly on the planet’s military power. A 2010 paper by Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution estimated that the U.S. and the 60 or so states that are part of its system of alliances account for more than 80% of global military spending. By contrast, the small number of countries that qualify as “adversaries” of the U.S.—rogues such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria—collectively possess from 1 percent to 2 percent of the world’s military power. “The geo-strategic forces working to the advantage of the U.S. are extraordinary,” O’Hanlon concludes.
The specific dangers cited by Romney, meanwhile, are vastly exaggerated. In his Reno speech he warned of the military buildup of “other major powers … with intentions very different from ours”—a not-so-subtle reference to China’s efforts to modernize its armed forces. And yet China still spends just $100 billion a year on its military, less than 15% of the Pentagon’s budget, not including the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Romney also said “the threat of radical Islamic terrorism persists,” ignoring the broad consensus among U.S. intelligence experts that al-Qaeda has largely been eliminated as a strategic threat.
As for Iran’s nuclear program, Romney called it ”the most severe security threat facing America and our friends.” There’s no question that an Iranian bomb would be destabilizing, but the direct dangers it would pose to the U.S. are far from clear. As the eminent international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz argues in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, there’s reason to believe that a nuclear Iran would be significantly less inclined to provoke a large-scale conflict with the U.S. or Israel. “History shows that when countries acquire the bomb, they feel increasingly vulnerable and become acutely aware that their nuclear weapons make them a potential target in the eyes of major powers,” Waltz writes. “This awareness discourages nuclear states from bold and aggressive action.”
In Romney’s view, “this is not the right time” to be touching the defense budget. Yet the United States still spends twice as much on its military as the next 10 countries combined, even as the federal government has racked up a trillion-dollar deficit and the American public has grown weary of foreign wars. On the global stage, the U.S. faces no great-power challenge, a historic decline in the incidence of warfare, and a diminishing terrorist threat. If this isn’t the right time to scale back military expenditures, what would be? If not now, Mitt, when?