President Trump’s “America First” budget is headlined by its big hike in military spending, which Trump touts as “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.” The buildup is “paid for” by cuts in civilian programs, including savage cuts to the State Department, U.N. programs, foreign aid and the Environmental Protection Agency and anything related to climate change. In fulfilling his campaign pledge to throw money at the Pentagon, Trump is undermining his oft-promised America First foreign policy.
Trump’s budget document misleadingly claims that the “military’s depletion under President Obama is our foremost challenge.” In fact, the United States already spends nearly 40 percent of all the money spent globally on defense and more than the next 12 highest military spenders combined. (The hawkish GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona complained that Trump’s budget calls for only a 3 percent increase over Barack Obama’s last budget.) Yet on top of the billions already being poured into the military, Trump wants to add 60,000 active-duty soldiers to the Army, 78 ships and submarines to the Navy, 12,000 Marines, 1,200 active Air Force fighter planes, plus enhanced missile defense, cyber-capabilities and more.
The president mistakes the problem. The military is stressed not because we spend too little but because it is asked to do too much. Trump’s budget is paying for a military that is tasked with policing the world — with a bigger Navy, more expeditionary forces and more attack aircraft. This global reach is reflected in Trump’s early foreign policy moves — continuing the buildup in Eastern Europe, sustaining the longest war in Afghanistan, apparent mission creep in Yemen and Syria, threatening military action against North Korea and more.
On the campaign trail, Trump lacerated the failures of the foreign policy establishment. He criticized endless wars that “we never win,” expressed skepticism about regime change, suggested better relations with Russia could lead to cooperation against the Islamic State, called NATO “obsolete,” and questioned our commitments to Japan and South Korea. But now, as each week goes by, inertia governs. The allies have been reassured; the endless wars without victory continued. Trump has pushed the allies to bear more of the burden, but his military expansion will reduce their motivation to do so.
A true America First policy would build up diplomacy rather than military forces. We’d cut back on policing the world and seek to mediate and help settle disputes. We’d end the pointless war in Afghanistan and reduce our presence in the Middle East’s agonies. We’d seek to revive nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts with the Russians and cool the drive toward a new cold war. We’d work with China to help enforce freedom of the seas in the South China Sea rather than launching a buildup to assert our right to bear that burden alone. All of this would suggest augmenting, not reducing, our investment in diplomacy. We’d want to support U.N. peacekeeping and development efforts more, so that we would no longer dispatch forces to more than 100 nations across the world every year.
Ironically, it is military officers familiar with the horrors of war who understand the importance of diplomacy and foreign aid; 120 retired general and admirals warned Congress against cuts to the State Department and foreign affairs budget. They cited Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who said while he headed U.S. Central Command, ‘If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
Trump rails about the “$6 trillion” squandered in failed wars in the Middle East, enough to rebuild the United States many times over. Instead, to pay for a military able to police the world, Trump’s budget would slash funding for science, for health research, for innovation and for education, from preschool to work-study programs and more. Some of the cuts — to infant nutrition, home heating, and rural and urban development — are simply cruel. Cuts in research are simply stupid — reducing investment in America’s economic future to pay for its overstretched military. And an America First policy would be investing more, not less, in renewable energy, in energy efficiency and in meeting the costs of the damage already caused by climate change.
Trump has promised to make the U.S. armed forces “so big, so powerful, so strong, that nobody — absolutely nobody — is gonna mess with us.” But the question is whether we will continue to mess with them. A military that can go anywhere and do anything is called on constantly to go somewhere and do something. The problem with endless wars without victory is that they must be ended without victory. The challenge for a true America First policy is to reduce the lives and resources squandered across the globe in order to rebuild at home. Trump’s budget submission omitted plans for his promised rebuilding of U.S. infrastructure. Clearly the military buildup took priority. And that buildup — along with the doubling down on current policies in Europe, the Middle East, Korea and the South China Sea — suggests that once more the bipartisan consensus of the United States as the “indispensable nation” on duty across the world will betray the promise to rebuild our country.