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Peace—and Prosperity—through Strength

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries gave us statesmen who articulated and demonstrated the proper priorities for defense and its funding: preventing future wars requires vigilant investment in defense capabilities.

The debate over defense spending is teetering around a tipping point: should it be more about spending, or more about defense? The former seems to have gained the edge for now, with a preponderance of politicians on both sides spending more time talking about fiscal spending cuts, deficits, and debt than about national security goals, strategies, and threats.

But before we permanently invert our priorities, we would be wise to pause and ponder a few not-so-subtle clues left to us by our Founding Fathers and others from our past. Those clues tell us that, in spite of our fiscal situation, today’s debate should not be about how much national security we can afford; it should be about how much we need.

The list of clue-givers includes familiar names of past presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ronald Reagan. The clues can be found in their personal writings, in the Constitution, and in their actions as presidents.

Some clues embrace portions of today’s conservative agenda, such as achieving peace through strength. Others embrace portions of the liberal agenda, such as deficit funding for federal “investment” projects. But given today’s political climate, can conservatives relax their anti-deficit stance to achieve the peace-through-strength they want? Can liberals relax their anti-defense-spending stance to get the investment stimulus they desire? A pessimist, of course, might see this situation as little more than a precursor to continued stalemate on Capitol Hill. An optimist, however, might view it as a promising mix of ingredients for a grand compromise—an economic stalemate-breaker with something in it for both sides of the aisle.

The Constitution establishes the priority: Defense, then funding

In short, the Constitution first tells us what to do (defend the country), and then tells us how to pay for it (tax, and borrow on credit).

Providing “for the common defense” is one of the primary reasons our Founding Fathers ordained and established the Constitution. Moreover, they clearly wanted the defense imperative to be unmistakable, so they put it in the Constitution’s very first sentence, the Preamble. Later, in Article I, Section 8, they gave Congress the power “to lay and collect taxes” and “to borrow money on the credit of the United States” in order to fulfill the imperatives.

In short, the Constitution first tells us what to do (defend the country), and then tells us how to pay for it (tax, and borrow on credit). Could the founders have made it any clearer? Maybe, just maybe, if they’d said it something like this: “The president and the Congress must defend this country; to do that properly, Congress must maintain the country’s good credit, and must tax and borrow as necessary.”

Notably, the Constitution does not say, “Defend this country, unless it would require Congress to borrow money.” No, our founders wrote it to say precisely the opposite—a point that should be obvious to everyone, not just Constitutional originalists.

George Washington confirms the priority

In his farewell address in 1796, George Washington confirmed the Constitution: The public credit is a valid source of funding for providing proper defense capability.

Using public credit as necessary to prevent future war is a good investment. Long run deficits are smaller when a policy of peace-through-strength avoids costly wars.

Specifically, Washington said, “As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit.” He also said that sparing use of public credit helps to preserve it. Cultivating peace and “timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it.”

To help clarify today’s debate, one way to rephrase Washington’s words would be this: Using public credit as necessary to prevent future war is a good investment. Long run deficits are smaller when a policy of peace-through-strength avoids costly wars.

Jefferson and Reagan act on the priority

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson understood that the ability to expand westward beyond the Mississippi River would be crucial to the nation’s future growth and defense. Consequently, he and his agents acted quickly to acquire the Louisiana Territory from France when the opportunity briefly presented itself. The only way to close the deal before it evaporated was to borrow on the nation’s good credit, which Alexander Hamilton had solidly established by that time. Jefferson not only understood the national security priority, his decisive actions—backed by the ability and the mandate to borrow on the nation’s credit for such occasions—produced one of the best investments in our history.

In short, peace comes through strength.

Almost two centuries later, in 1981, Ronald Reagan committed his administration and the nation to a policy of peace through strength—holding the defense budget above the fray during budget negotiations. One consequence of his commitment was a series of fiscal deficits. What also followed, however, was the end of the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the resetting of the Doomsday Clock (in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) to its safest-ever setting. Like Jefferson, Reagan understood the national security priority, stuck with his principles, and—with the help of borrowing on the nation’s solid credit—pulled off another of the best investments in our history.

A grand compromise for today?

Most Republicans advocate a policy of peace through strength, a policy of not cutting defense “by one penny.” Most Democrats advocate a policy of investing in infrastructure to build for the future while stimulating today’s economy. Can we safely assume that, to these Republicans, investing in necessary war-prevention strength is a higher priority than reducing the budget deficit? Can we safely assume that, to these Democrats, investing in such things as the Aegis antimissile system and cyber defense is infrastructure at least as important to our kids and grandkids as a bigger Hoover Dam or a wider interstate highway system? If we can take those things to be true, then we have the opportunity to put it all together into an economy-boosting, security-enhancing grand compromise.

The lesson we should hasten to re-learn

Cutting near-future deficits by cutting current and near-future defense capabilities is a policy that Washington, Jefferson, and Reagan would have considered dangerously misguided. They tried to tell us that we should do the opposite: cut the likelihood of costly future wars by investing properly in war-prevention capabilities, while borrowing on the nation’s good credit as necessary for that investment.

In his farewell address in 1796, George Washington confirmed the Constitution: The public credit is a valid source of funding for providing proper defense capability.

A Roman called Vegetius purportedly said the following: “Si vis pacem, para bellum”: If you want peace, prepare for war. In short, peace comes through strength. To shed better light on the contemporary budget debate, however, the converse might work better: “If you want lower deficits from lower defense spending, prepare to be surprised by wars (...and, ironically, by the higher deficits that accompany them).”

The 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries gave us statesmen who articulated and demonstrated the proper priorities for defense and its funding: preventing future wars requires vigilant investment in defense capabilities. It was a lesson we apparently forgot as the 20th century drew to a close, when we allowed a so-called peace dividend to accumulate into a fleeting surplus—just prior to the onset of the two costly wars we are still fighting.

Now, in the budget debates of the 21st century, the lesson apparently continues to elude us. In order to re-learn it, will we have to lose an entire city to a rogue nation’s missile-launched nuke, or lose our electric grid to a rogue nation’s cyber attack? Let’s hope we are wiser than that.

Steve Conover retired recently from a 35-year career in corporate America. He has a BS in engineering, an MBA in finance, and a PhD in political economy. His website is www.optimist123.com.

FURTHER READING: Conover also writes “Why Growth Matters More than Debt,” “The Fatal Flaws of a Balanced Budget Amendment,” and “How Democrats—and the Tea Party—Get Reagan Wrong.” Mackenzie Eaglen contributes “Obama’s Defense Strategy Says One Thing While the Defense Budget Does Another” and “President Obama's Defense Budget Falling Flat on Capitol Hill.” Richard Cleary says “Obama's New Defense Strategy Is Based on a False Premise.” Danielle Pletka and Gary J. Schmitt explain "Why the U.S. Should Reverse Course on Iraq."

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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