World

Are We Giant Suckers? While the US Blows Money on the Military, Europe Spends Dough on Social Programs

Hawks simultaneously argue that lavish U.S. military spending subsidizes Europe’s social welfare programs, and that we’re the smarter party in this deal.

Last week, during his final European visit before retiring, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates blasted our NATO allies for spending too little on their militaries.

“The blunt reality,” he told an audience in Brussels, “is that there will be dwindling appetite” in the U.S. “to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources … to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.’’

It's not uncommon for American hawks to whine about those soft Europeans not shelling out enough dough on weapons systems. But let's take a look at what "defense" actually means in this context.

On average, wealthy countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development spend 2.5 percent of their economic output on their militaries. That's not peanuts with very large economies. Europe is shielded by nuclear arms in the hands of the UK and France (not counting the nukes we “lend” to Germany, Italy, Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands under a NATO agreement). There are no nation-states likely to attack the continent anytime soon.

So Gates isn't talking about being “capable partners in their own defense” at all – not as long as the word “defense” maintains its meaning. Whatever one thinks about the intervention in Libya, for example, one can't argue that we're actually defending ourselves. What he's saying is that they're not ponying up enough to engage in far-flung conflicts in service of Western hegemony. In this, he is accurate – they enjoy the fruits of an international system dominated by the West without paying through the nose for it.

We do. The U.S. devotes 5.1 percent of its economic activity to "defense," but that only counts the Pentagon's annual budget. It doesn't include military and homeland security spending tucked into other areas of the federal budget. Just a few examples: the costs of maintaining our nuclear arsenal are part of the Department of Energy budget; caring for veterans is in the Department of Veterans' Affairs budget; foreign military assistance falls under the State Department's budget. It also doesn't include the costs of maintaining troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those conflicts will run us $170 billion this year -- enough to offer insurance to 35 million low-income people or provide renewable energy to 100 million households, according to the national priorities project. 

American hawks accuse Europe of essentially using the United States' enthusiasm for spending a fortune on its military to subsidize Europe's more generous social safety net. And it is true that in 2008, the EU accounted for 26 percent of the world’s military spending, while the U.S., with an economy that‘s around 7 percent smaller, accounted for 46 percent of global military spending. And in 2007, we forked over 16.2 percent of our economy to finance our social safety net, which was 3.1 percentage points below the OECD average.

For their tax dollars –or euros -- they get universal health care, deeply subsidized education (including free university tuition in many countries), modern infrastructure, good mass transit and far less poverty than we have here at home. That may help explain why we have Tea Partiers screaming for cuts while Europe is ablaze with riots against its own "austerity" measures.

And while we outspend everyone on our military, among the 20 most developed countries in the world, the United States is now dead last in life expectancy at birth but leads the pack in infant mortality—40 percent higher than the runner-up. We also lead in the percentage of the population who will die before reaching age 60. Half of our kids need food stamps at some point during their childhoods. There's certainly a modest difference in priorities dividing the Atlantic, but common sense suggests that we're the ones who have it all wrong.

But interestingly, conservatives simultaneously argue that lavish U.S. military spending subsidizes Europe’s social welfare programs, and that we’re the smarter party in this deal. Our kids get the wonderful opportunity to die in distant lands, while theirs are burdened with the horrors of decent retirement security and free health care.

Max Boot, a prominent and utterly pathological neoconservative, went so far as to lament that we, too, are spending too little on the military these days, writing, “It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when the federal government spent most of its money on the armed forces. In 1962, the total federal budget was $106 billion of which $52 billion—almost half—went for defense. It wasn’t until 1976 that entitlement spending exceeded defense spending.”

For Boot, however, the really frightening prospect is that we’ll go the way of Europe. “Last year government spending in the 27 European Union nations hit 52% of GDP,” he wrote. “But most of them struggle to devote even 2% of GDP to defense... When Europeans after World War II chose to skimp on defense and spend lavishly on social welfare, they abdicated their claims to great power status.”

On that last point, it's worth noting that in a 2010 poll of citizens in 27 countries, 53 percent of respondents said the EU had a positive influence on the world, while 46 percent felt the same about the United States. Europe is unquestionably a global power.

Boot asked, “What happens if the U.S. switches spending from defense to social welfare? Who will protect what used to be known as the 'Free World'? Who will police the sea lanes, stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, combat terrorism, respond to genocide and other unconscionable human rights violations, and deter rogue states from aggression?”

What he doesn’t say is that the American Right has long opposed the kind of international security cooperation that might shift some of the cost of policing the world to other states. If we didn’t insist on doing it ourselves, perhaps we wouldn’t have to.

But I suppose that when Americans are waiting in line for food stamps—or waiting to pay their respects to a soldier who died in some godforsaken country thousands of miles away—they can take an abstract pride in being the world’s only superpower. The argument has always seemed to me like the biggest loser in Las Vegas saying that the house is a sucker.

So remember to take pride in American power, and remember that it comes at a very high price.