James Brown's post about the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Obama's new Defense Secretary focuses on his views about the Asia 'pivot', but perhaps those views won't matter very much in comparison to the stance Hagel takes on US defence spending overall. President Obama has said that an increasing proportion of US defence effort would go to the Asia Pacific (the pivot), but if the size of the overall pie is smaller, the pivot may still amount to business as usual or even a slight decline in the US presence in Asia.
Some commentary from the US overnight suggests this might be the right time for defence spending cuts. In fact, NY Times Commentator David Brooks argues that Hagel's job is to oversee the beginning of US military decline:
As the federal government becomes a health care state, there will have to be a generation of defense cuts that overwhelm anything in recent history. Keep in mind how brutal the budget pressure is going to be. According to the Government Accountability Office, if we act on entitlements today, we will still have to cut federal spending by 32 percent and raise taxes by 46 percent over the next 75 years to meet current obligations. If we postpone action for another decade, then we have to cut all non-interest federal spending by 37 percent and raise all taxes by 54 percent.
Both Brooks and Matthew Yglesias argue that, while defence spending is seen as politically sacrosanct, it is in fact easier than cutting health spending or other benefits. And when you look at the graph above and consider that US military spending is comfortably higher than under Reagan, it's not hard to see defence spending getting cut pretty severely. The size of the cuts are, of course, everything, but given the rapidity of China's military rise, it won't require very much to change the regional power balance.
All of this set me thinking about Hugh White's The China Choice, specifically his argument that the US needs to take formal steps, including a public declaration from the president, that the US is prepared to share power with China and that it is content to balance against Chinese military strength rather than maintain regional military primacy.
If these US political experts are right that the political winds are blowing in favour of US military retrenchment, maybe the economy will take care of this problem before the policymakers get around to it. The public declarations may eventually come, but only after it has become obvious that, for instance, the US is simply incapable of assembling sufficient military forces to defend Taiwan despite its commitment to do so.
Hugh argues that, for the sake of regional peace, the US needs to make a conscious choice to give up military dominance in the Asia Pacific. But would he settle for ex post facto rationalisation of steps forced on the US by economic realities rather than strategic ones?