Global Economics

The 'Red Dawn' Case for Cutting U.S. Defense Spending


The unsung remake of the Patrick Swayze movie, "Red Dawn," makes a case for cutting the defense budget.

Photograph by Everett Collection

The unsung remake of the Patrick Swayze movie, "Red Dawn," makes a case for cutting the defense budget.

Like the vast majority Americans, you may have missed the release last month of Red Dawn, a remake of the 1984 film of the same name in which a bunch of teenagers led by Patrick Swayze fought off an invading Soviet army in Colorado. The new version stars a collection of C-list actors and cost $65 million to produce; so far it has made less than one-third of that back at the box office. Only 11 percent of people who’ve seen the movie gave it a favorable review on the review-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes—compared with 53 percent for the original and 92 percent for the latest outing of that other Cold War holdover, James Bond.

Despite its less-than-blockbuster performance, Red Dawn turns out to be surprisingly trenchant —though probably not in the way the film’s creators intended. In particular, the movie makes a powerful case for why the U.S. should take a sledgehammer to its military budget.

The new version of Red Dawn, like the original, centers around a foreign invasion of the U.S. The country that manages to invade this time is North Korea, a pariah state with a military budget generously estimated at $9 billion, compared with about $650 billion for the U.S. The North Korean economy is so battered that famines are a regular occurrence. This inadvertently lends the movie’s plot a smidgen of plausibility, since any North Korean invasion of the U.S. probably could be defeated by a misfit band of teenage dropouts.

Red Dawn was originally going to star the Chinese as the bad guys, which would have made a little more sense but also doomed sales prospects in a growing export market for Hollywood. Yet even China currently has but one aircraft carrier, which doesn’t have any aircraft stationed on it. It’s a third-hand boat, a hand-me-down from the Soviet Union to the Ukraine, which China picked up at a yard sale in 1998. Meanwhile, the U.S. has 20 carriers—all of which come with actual planes.

In fact, the relative success of movies like Independence Day and the Men in Black franchise suggest it’s far easier to imagine enemy forces arriving from outer space than it is from Russia, Japan, China, or (especially) North Korea. And that says something quite comforting about the state of American security.

As Tufts professor Michael Beckley points out, the U.S. now “formally guarantees the security of more than 50 countries,” which means the U.S. has more allies in the world than at any time in its history. More broadly, war between nation states has been incredibly rare since 1945. Europe is the most obvious beneficiary of Pax Americana: Before today, the last time the Rhine had gone this long without being crossed by armies with hostile intent was more than 2,000 years ago, according to economic historian Brad DeLong. The painful and often violent process of building independent nation states out of colonies was often stoked into civil war by the competing powers of the Cold War. But with the decline of that global struggle, and the growing legitimacy of the new countries, even civil wars are on the wane.

It’s not just land wars that are relics of the 20th century. There’s little incentive for the Chinese to block sea lanes in Asia, for instance, since much of the traffic going through is on the way to or from China itself—the world’s largest exporting nation. Similarly, blocking the Straits of Hormuz would be economic suicide for the Iranians—if they could even manage it. That leaves pirates, operating off rubber dinghies using knockoff AK-47s off the coast of Somalia. How many new $7 billion guided missile stealth-destroyers does the U.S. need to take them out?

The American public appears more clear-eyed than its politicians about the true threats to national security. The 2012 Chicago Council Survey found that the top three foreign policy goals of the U.S.—mentioned by more than two-thirds of people as very important—are protecting the jobs of American workers, reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Combating international terrorism was rated as only the fourth-highest priority. “Maintaining superior military power worldwide” came in fifth.

And all that may help explain why cutting the Pentagon’s budget is becoming more popular. In Harris polls since 2008 the percentage favoring defense cuts has risen from 35 percent to 42 percent. Of five areas of expenditure—Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, Medicaid, and defense—the military was only area where a majority (60 percent) suggested spending should be cut to reduce the deficit. In a YouGov poll, when asked if they would support a tax increase to maintain America’s current military advantage over rising powers such as China, only 30 percent of respondents suggested that they would—with 50 percent clearly stating they would not.

The wisdom of crowds when it comes to U.S. security is that the nation is safe from military invasion and that the defense budget can shrink. This is a perfect moment to start that process, of course, because all the president and lawmakers have to do to cut the Pentagon budget is not do anything at all. The automatic spending cuts due to come into force at the end of the year as part of the “fiscal cliff” would reduce the defense budget by about $55 billion, or somewhere less than 10 percent. Even after those cuts, multi-tentacled aliens would still be by far the most plausible military threat to the nation. And future taxpayers might have a little more money to spend watching movies about them.

Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and author of The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Great for the West.

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