In his recent State of the Union speech, President Obama declared the United States to be the most powerful country in the world, period. The first piece of evidence he cited to support this claim was that the U.S. spends more on defense than the next eight countries combined (start video at minute 30).
While Obama is right that the United States is the single most powerful country in the world today, his use of this oft-cited parameter (defense spending vs. rest of the world) ignores the shrinking supremacy of U.S. military might and the growing mismatch between resources and responsibilities this creates.
To illustrate this point, I did a little google searching to find articles from the recent past that use the same metric on defense spending. The result is a stark trend. The combined effects of declining U.S. defense spending and rising spending from many other countries has more than halved the U.S. advantage in just half a decade. In 2010, the United States spent more than the next 17 countries combined.
Just one year later, this advantage had narrowed to the next 13 countries combined. By 2012, it was more than the next 10 countries. Today, according to Obama, the U.S. spends more than the next eight countries combined. Others tally the difference as only covering the next seven.
Regardless of whether the true difference is the next eight or seven countries, the trend is clear. The gradual decline in real U.S. military spending is resulting in a far sharper relative decline. This is problematic because of the growing scope and scale of the United States’s responsibilities. Take the next biggest spender, China, as an example. In 2014, the United States spent $610 billion on defense according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). By comparison, Chinese defense spending that year was barely a third of that amount, at $216 billion.
This difference may point to a commanding primacy for U.S. military forces in any potential conflict with their Chinese peers. Yet this image is partly an illusion. In addition to managing China’s rise, the United States must use its budget to meet other responsibilities, including fighting terrorism in the Middle East, deterring Russia in Europe, and promoting stability in Africa and Latin America. China, on the other hand, due to its lack of global responsibilities, can concentrate nearly all of its spending on enhancing its position in Asia. This means that when it comes to assessing U.S.-Chinese competition in Asia, the balance of power is less lopsided than the difference in overall defense spending would suggest; the United States’ global responsibilities dilute the impact of its higher spending.
However, it’s not just the quantitative difference in commitments that matters but the qualitative difference as well. Rising defense spending in Moscow and Beijing, coupled with increasing chaos in the Middle East, means that not only does the U.S. face more responsibilities than other powers but that the difficulty of managing these responsibilities is increasing too.
Overall then, it’s not enough to simply compare defense budgets. One must compare defense responsibilities as well in order to achieve a true understanding of the balance of power. While Obama is right in his assertion that the United States remains the most powerful country on earth, the relative decline in U.S. defense spending reveals how increasingly perilous this position has become. Increasingly challenging global commitments coupled with a relative decline in resources to meet them is leading to a mismatch between means and ends that should alarm U.S. policymakers. If this trend continues, it will be difficult for the United States to credibly maintain its global commitments – a development that could spell disaster for the country’s interests.