The Peace to End All Wars

Jan. 1, 1990
According to a new study from the Brookings Institution, we can safely cut defense spending by half over the next ten years. The author, William W. Kaufmann, figures that our pint-size forces of the twenty-first century will encounter few real challenges. And, he says, we should count on at least three months’ warning to mobilize for significant conflict. If we need to reinforce Europe, the Reserve and the National Guard can do that. Navy submarines, backed up by a diminished complement of bombers and ICBMs, will provide plenty of strategic deterrence. As for force modernization, why bother? The study postulates defense outlays of $160.1 billion (in 1990 dollars) for 1999.

For shock value, though, the Brookings study wasn’t a patch on a November directive from the Defense Department telling the services to find reductions of $180 billion in budget authority between 1992 and 1994. That suggests a 1994 budget in the $280 billion range, a twenty percent retrenchment from Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney’s spending forecast last April.

Such a reduction would disband units, abolish infrastructure, and close production lines, but some critics see it as a limited step. Larry Korb of Brookings, for example, accuses Mr. Cheney of playing a numbers game because the entire $180 billion cut does not fall in a single year and because the reduction is from planned budget levels rather than from current ones.

Mr. Kaufmann, Mr. Cheney, and Mr. Korb are hardly alone in planning reductions to defense. Deep cuts seem to be a foregone conclusion. The politicians and pundits are already spending the anticipated “peace dividend,” and the public is cheering them on.

National security planning is in chaos. The speculation list of what forces might be disbanded or demobilized changes by the day. The nation seems blissfully eager to bet the works on optimistic assumptions.

It is tempting to believe that collapse of the Soviet empire and the new detente in Europe signify an era of permanent peace. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. We emerged from that conflict–and from the next world war as well–with no enemies in sight, but we had not seen the last of war.

Nations today are still at odds over ideology, values, and economic interests. Ballistic missiles and chemical weapons are proliferating. The spread of nuclear weapons is probably inevitable. There is little chance that we have begun a peace to end all wars.

In Europe, we must now reckon with the factor of instability. The Cold War gave the East and the West long decades to scope out each other’s capabilities, options, and order of battle. They had time to plan, prepare, and exercise for specific scenarios of conflict. The result was a stable stand-off. Suddenly, the old assumptions and strategies may no longer apply.

If Germany reunifies–and the probability of that is high–will it be neutral? To what extent would a unified Germany, nonaligned or otherwise, dominate the rest of Europe? How will the Soviet Union react if Germany drifts Westward? How will we react if it drifts Eastward? The world has not been faced with such questions for more than forty years.

The Warsaw Pact nations have slipped the Communist Party leash. Will they also defy Moscow and leave the military alliance? It is inconceivable that a power vacuum could persist for long in eastern Europe.

In the USSR itself, the non-Russian republics are rumbling with nationalism. The example of eastern Europe will almost surely stimulate them to demand greater self-determination. At what point will the Russians feel compelled to react as their sphere of influence shrinks and their borders recede

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has not delivered many benefits at home to compensate for the disruption and change. The economy is as bad as ever. Conditions are volatile, and if the lid blows off, Mr. Gorbachev may not be able to get it back on.

The awesome military power of the Soviet Union survives virtually intact. Even with radical reductions, it would still be awesome. Power and instability make a combination that is both unpredictable and dangerous.

Tremendous pressures are building from the Atlantic to the Urals. Those pressures may dissipate with time, or they might find some peaceful channel for release. It is equally possible that the aspirations, fears, and energies of nations in transition may propel events in some strange new direction.

As the entire Gorbachev phenomenon demonstrates, world affairs can take unexpected turns, and sweeping change can be upon us quickly. If we knew that our security and interests were free from danger, we would not need any defense. It would be pointless to spend even the $160 billion that Mr. Kaufmann would allow us.

Almost everyone concedes, however, that we will need some defense. Despite the happy visions so popular at the moment, there is a strong possibility that we will need quite a bit of it.