The good news is that U.S. economic activity is so robust compared with that of current or prospective enemies that global military supremacy can be sustained for only a modest additional increment of national wealth:
Obma administration has the option of building on it, not only by purchasing the sinews of long-term military superiority, but also by bolstering the readiness accounts.
Global military supremacy is affordable at a level of sacrifice that many citizens might hardly notice. In a nation that now spends 6 percent to 7 percent of national wealth on various forms of gambling, it hardly seems unrealistic to expect that half that amount might be spent on defense. After all, the alternative might be to suffer military defeat at the hands of an emerging competitor sometime in the first half of the next century. That may seem improbable today, but who foresaw the full extent of the danger that would be posed by fascism or communism in the early years after the Great War? Human nature has not changed. If no other lesson can be learned from the deaths of 100 million human beings in conflicts during the American Century, there is at least the one that lingers from the experience of Rome two millennia ago as well: Over the long run it costs far more to be unprepared for war than it does to be well-armed and ready.
As ambitious as its $10 trillion domestic agenda has been, the Obama administration has been even bolder and more creative abroad. Led by Secretary Clinton, the U.S. isn’t just talking to the bad guys. From Russia to Afghanistan, China to Syria, the administration has put some mind-bending partnership proposals on the table that, if successful, could transform the world and help our economy. Fat chance? Suspend your disbelief for a moment and imagine Iran as a partner in the Iraq/Afghanistan theaters. How many lives, how many trillions in military spending and nuclear deterrence efforts would that save? Imagine reading about how Syria helped turn Jerusalem and Gaza into a global biotech hub, instead of about how Israel and Palestine turned the region into a biohazardous wasteland. Imagine a China that buys $100 billion worth of U.S. clean air and water technology each year, both lowering global asthma rates and creating tens of thousands of U.S. jobs for high school graduates.
If you think this sounds like “happy talk”–by all means, take a seat. Some of the less charitable folks in Obama’s circle would certainly invite you to sit on the sidelines and doubt them as you did in 2007. They would argue that the failed U.S. economy and our huge deficit demand that we radically rethink one of the biggest items in the federal budget: close to $1 trillion in annual military and war spending. A kinder contingent of Obama supporters (or perhaps just a group of smart historians) would point you to those so-called “sudden” transformations we’ve seen before: South Africa in the early 90s, Northern Ireland in the mid-90s, India in the 40s, even Japan post-World War II.
Of course, as in each of those historic reversals, Obama will need to take great risks to achieve great change. He’s initiated the conversation with Iran by inviting them to a summit on Afghanistan. They’ll want a favor in return. To work with the moderate Taliban (assuming moderate Taliban exist), Obama and Clinton may have to sacrifice some generally non-negotiable principles, namely women’s rights. And that’s if he even gets to the table. This is an administration still feeling its way through the art of diplomacy; clearly, they have yet to master the subtleties of international gift-giving. Entering into so many arenas at once, with such an ambitious agenda, increases the chances of a blunder far worse than a mistranslated word.
Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs, Wilson the League of Nations. Even if Clinton & Company are dramatically successful abroad, a continued recession at home would expose 44 to the same political fate as Jimmy Carter, Bush the First, and Winston Churchill. He’ll need favorable outcomes in upcoming overseas elections (the U.K. this summer, Iran and Germany this fall, Iraq in December) and a healthy dose of luck for the gamble to work. But the upside is clear: if Obama can redraw the global partnership map and stave off a depression at home, the U.S. may spend (and deserve) another 50 years as the world’s leader.