The U.S. Defense Subsidy

Matt Yglesias writes:

[B]oth Cato’s Will Wilkinson and Joseph Heath from the University of Toronto agree that America’s massive defense spending is, in effect, subsidizing the national defense of other countries and both agree that it’s perverse that American conservatives like this. As they say, the right would be none-too-keen on the idea of the United States paying for Italians’ health care, so why should they like paying for Italians’ defense?

I like the conclusion of this argument (that defense spending should be cut) and I like the subsidiary thesis that conservatives are stupid and hypocritical. But I’m not 100 percent satisfied with the conclusion. Is it really the case that cutting U.S. defense spending would force Canada to increase its defense spending? In a generic sense, it’s hard to see the argument. If our military were smaller, Canada would need a bigger military to defend it against . . . what? Invasion from the United States? An amphibious attack mounted by Peru?

It’s even harder to see when you pour into the details. Right now our nuclear arsenal has about 4,000 warheads. If we entered a bilateral agreement with Russia that cut that arsenal down to about 1,500 warheads we could spend money. But obviously that wouldn’t imperil Canada’s defenses and require it to build up a nuclear arsenal. Or say we had one fewer carrier group what would the implications of that really be for, say, Portugal.

I think Matt's overlooking Canada's proximity to a potentially truculent Russia, and thus badly overstating the superfluity of Canadian defensive capabilities. As I understand it, there's a real possibility for conflict between Russia and Canada (and Denmark and Norway) over claims to arctic territories, waters, and potential shipping lanes. The Russians have acted pretty boldly so far, planting a flag on the arctic seabed and making noises about a military buildup in the Arctic (which it has subsequently backed away from.) I think it's pretty hard to conclude that Russia would not likely be more aggressive about this if Canada and other Nato members were not so thoroughly backstopped by American power.

Canada's likely to scale up in the north in any case, but I'm pretty sure their efforts would be greater in the absence of the American insurance policy. Canadians, Danes, Norwegians, etc. would be pretty unhappy to spend significantly more on the military, but I think that's partly because the persistence of the American subsidy over decades has allowed them to pretend that they are, unlike the warmongering Americans, spending their budgets on things they value more than the military, instead of acknowledging that they depend upon, but largely take for granted, their U.S.-subsidized defense. Likewise, Americans have become so accustomed to subsidizing much of the world, and to the immense negotiating power that gives the American state, that they are loathe to become but one middle power among others with a merely sufficient defensive capability. So we continue to spend insane amounts of money on the military. Much of this is, as Matt argues, pure waste. But a good deal of it is actually necessary if we're going to continue to do so much of the work in protecting our allies and thereby maintain our strategic advantage in imposing the American state's will in the name of the “serious” foreign policy establishment's idea of “the national interest.” USA! USA! It's a dismal truth that many, many Americans really believe that they would be put into mortal peril should the U.S. put an end to other states' dependency on it's military power.