I've never been a huge fan of Robert Gates, even though friends whose judgment I trust hold him in high regard. But as his tenure as Secretary of Defense comes to a close, I'm prepared to concede that he exceeded my initial expectations. He had the advantage of succeeding Donald Rumsfeld -- whose combination of arrogance and incompetence could make anyone look good by comparison -- but Gates has also shown remarkable balance, common-sense and imagination in dealing with one of the world's more challenging managerial jobs. Of course, Gates is often regarded as something of a realist, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.
In any case, today I commend to you Gates' final policy speech, which he delivered at the American Enterprise Institute a couple of days ago. It's not the equivalent of Eisenhower's famous farewell address on the "military-industrial complex," but it is a sober and realistic assessment of some of the things that the Department of Defense needs to do.
Most importantly, it acknowledges that cold hard fact that DoD will have to do it with less money, and that this is ok. Money quote:
But as I am fond of saying, we live in the real world. Absent a catastrophic international conflict or a new existential threat, we are not likely to return to Cold War levels of defense expenditures, at least as a share of national wealth, anytime soon. Nor do I believe we need to."
Translation: sorry, folks: but you can't fight a couple of costly wars, experience a major global financial meltdown, and spend nearly a decade cutting taxes, and still expect to have lots of money to throw at national security. And it would be foolish to do so even if we did, because we live in an era where we face no existential great power threats. Instead, our main priority needs to be getting our economic house in order and preparing for longer-term challenges down the road, while maintaining the essential elements of our current global security role.
One of the classic tradeoffs in national security is between measures that increase short-term readiness and those that enhance long-term strength. We could be a lot stronger in the short-term if we ramped up defense spending -- even if there wasn't an obvious need -- but if we neglected our fiscal health, education, national infrastructure, etc., then we would end up a lot weaker down the road. Which is why I think we should be focusing a lot more attention on long-term capacity building than fighting costly wars in places that don't matter very much (like Afghanistan).
Furthermore, although Gates elides this issue in his speech, the various pressures that are going to constrain national security spending in the years ahead are also going to put some limits on our global ambitions. The United States will remain a very powerful and very influential international actor; indeed, it will probably be the single most powerful and influential player on the globe for many years to come. But it won't be quite as dominant as it was in the immediate aftermath of World War II, or as it appeared to be at the end of the Cold War. Instead of trying to dictate events in virtually every corner of the world, future US leaders are going to have to pick-and-choose a bit more, and rely more on regional allies who will have their own interests and preferences and may be unwilling to follow Washington's guidance from time to time. That's not necessarily a bad world to be living in, but it will require considerable adjustment in how we do business. And after sixty-plus years of global primacy, getting used to that fact is likely to take awhile.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.