America’s rising danger of imperial overstretch

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Countries with faster-growing economies—in this case China and India, mainly—are beginning to catch up with the dominant great power, the US

Twenty-nine years ago, historian Paul Kennedy coined the term “imperial overstretch” to describe what happens to great powers when their global commitments become too expensive to sustain. He also suggested that the US, which at the time was in the midst of a defence-spending boom under Ronald Reagan, might be overstretching things a bit.

A lot of the points Kennedy made in the forward-looking final chapter of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 seem prescient today: The Soviet Union suffered from a much more extreme case of overstretch than the US, he argued. Check.

The focus of global economic activity was going to shift toward Asia, with China becoming one of the world’s leading economies. The U.S. would continue to be beset by fiscal deficits, disappearing blue-collar jobs and declining relative economic power.

Kennedy, a professor at Yale University, also seemed convinced, though, that defence spending was going to represent an ever-growing burden for the US. He wrote: Great Powers in relative decline instinctively respond by spending more on “security,” and thereby divert potential resources from “investment” and compound their long-term dilemma.

Hasn’t happened. Since Kennedy published those words in 1987, the share of US gross domestic product going to the military has declined from 6.1% to 3.3%.

The amount of spending was almost exactly the same, in constant dollars, in 2015 as in 1987; the shrinking of the military’s share of GDP was due entirely to economic growth. Still, military spending didn’t rise. It didn’t rise because the collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to the Cold War, which led to outright declines in military spending in the 1990s in the US and around the world (all these numbers are from the military expenditure database maintained by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute):

As you can see, spending stopped declining in the late 1990s, then rose strongly over the first decade of the new millennium. That was partly because the world’s biggest military spender, the US, got involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and because other post-Cold War conflicts flared up in the Middle East and Africa. You can see evidence of those wars in the list of countries that devote the highest share of GDP to defence.

But global defence spending also rose in the 2000s because global economic growth was strong outside the US, allowing nations on the rise to invest in their militaries without overburdening their economies. The most dramatic example of this was China, where military spending rose more than tenfold, in constant-dollar terms, from 1989 to 2015, even as the percentage of GDP going to defence actually fell from 2.5% in 1989 to 1.9% in 2015. In the process, China rose to second place in global military spending, with more than twice the expenditures of No. 3 Saudi Arabia.

This is consistent with Kennedy’s rise-and-fall story. Countries with faster-growing economies—in this case China and India, mainly—are beginning to catch up with the dominant great power. They’re still miles behind, India is increasingly looking like a US ally and China doesn’t seem to have anything like the global military ambitions that the Soviet Union did. But it is nonetheless possible to envision a near future in which US military spending as a share of GDP starts rising steadily as perceived threats to the country’s security grow faster than the economy. Defence spending isn’t all bad, in economic terms. Because the US makes its own weapons, buying more of them can have a stimulative effect—although some economists argue that this effect disappears if the purchases are made with borrowed money. There’s a long history of positive spillovers into the rest of the economy from military research and development. And sometimes spending more money on defence is essential to, you know, defend yourself.

Still, Kennedy’s “security” vs. “investment” tradeoff has to come into play at some point. Is the U.S. anywhere near it? Probably not yet. But I can’t see any reason why we should be immune from imperial overstretch forever. Bloomberg

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These charts show the immensity of the US’ defense budget


Skye Gould/Business Insider

According to the latest information from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US budget dwarfed military spending of the next six highest spending countries. China, which had the world’s second largest military budget, spent just over a third of what the US did in 2014. 

The US’ military budget is reflected in the country’s assumed international responsibilities. The US is the leading economic and military power in NATO. As such, the US made up approximately 2/3s of NATO’s entire defense budget despite the presence of an additional 27 countries in the organization. 

The comparative size of the US military budget is shown in the graphic below, which compares the 2015 budget to a range of other big expenditures:  


Skye Gould/Business Insider

The military budget is by far the largest single cost displayed. It is almost six times larger than the 2015 education budget and it is more than 34 times the size of NASA’s 2015 operating budget. In total, the costs of running the military amount to approximately 16% of the overall 2015 US budget. Original article

SEE ALSO: Here’s how the US military spends its billions – Business Insider

WATCH: How the US military spends its billions – Business Insider


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