The GOP national security debate last on Tuesday night was dynamic, raucous and telling for what it revealed about the state of strategic thinking in national security.
Though their approaches differed sharply, the candidates all expressed a deep concern about the U.S. approach to Pakistan and Afghanistan, focusing in particular on the security of Pakistan’s nuclear sites. There were also exchanges about the withdrawal plan from Afghanistan and what the Defense Department’s budget should be.
These are all pressing issues. The U.S. faces very real and frightening threats. But the military remains stuck in the Cold War — which ended 20 years ago next month — and has not kept pace with the changing nature of strategic threats.
As an example, the American nuclear arsenal is badly mismatched to the nuclear threats we face. We face rogue states that are seeking to acquire nuclear weapons; materials that go toward building nuclear weapons in unsafe areas; the potential for regional conflicts to go nuclear; nuclear states trying to build more weapons to create leverage over the United States; and the potential for terrorist organizations to use nuclear weapons (a recurring theme at the debate last night).
But none of those threats necessitates a massive nuclear deterrent of thousands of warheads ready to launch at the drop of a hat. We simply don’t need an enormous nuclear complex to deter current threats and to preserve the right of action to respond to new ones.
This fundamental problem applies to the defense budget debates writ large. Both parties have neglected strategic, long-term thinking in the partisan squabbles over arbitrary defense budgetary issues. We haven’t decided where America stands in the world, or how it should respond to threats, which makes the bickering over defense spending premature.
Last night, the GOP candidates acted out the uncertainty about America’s role in the world: opinions varied from being forward deployed and active in many regions of the planet to adopting a hands-off approach. It’s healthy to have this debate in public, and the voters will decide which candidate best represents their preferences on this front. But this debate has to happen first, before we start talking about the budget, about threats, and about any specific plan for Afghanistan.
Looking at the nuclear arsenal, the scope is astounding: the U.S. is set to spend about $700 billion on nuclear weapons and their associated programs over the next decade. That astounding sum includes the weapons themselves, maintaining nuclear materials, and extra facilities to handle everything, along with new delivery platforms being budgeted like submarines, bombers and missiles.
In short, it is an arsenal designed to fight the Soviet Union, and not to respond to the smaller state or terrorist challenges that make up the current nuclear threat. But because the arsenal is neither designed nor budgeted with America’s long-term role in the world clearly defined, it could potentially stay that way. The Soviet Union is gone, but it (or a phantom “threat” of a similar scope) still dominates the budgetary discussions.
There is no need for a massive nuclear arsenal in the 21st century. We can maintain a deterrent with a smaller force, and we can spend the money we save on other programs elsewhere that are more responsive to national security concerns. That better use of the money remains up for debate: it might be toward other programs within the Department of Defense or it might be toward social programs or alleviating the tax burden. That is part of this larger debate about the role America should play in the world we so desperately need.
What is important about the debate right now is that it is happening. It’s refreshing to see such varied approaches argued so forcefully at a primary debate. It means we as a country still have the capacity to reexamine who we are and where we want to be. And despite everything else we may find frustrating about our political process that is a very good place to be.