Comparing the United States to the Roman Empire is quite fashionable. It’s also warranted.
Rome was destroyed because it replaced the middle class with a slave and welfare class, overrelied on cheap labor, had an educated class that all but stopped having children, replaced small farms with gigantic plantations, outsourced its defense to mercenaries and overextended its military. Does any of this sound familiar?
Just as the ancient world had the Pax Romana we now have the Pax Americana. To be fair, in our foreign policy interventions, the U.S. has at times been more interested in stability than democracy.
Our nation has supported dictators and strongmen from Pinochet in Chile, to Carlos Castillo in Guatemala to Mubarak in Egypt. Though mistakes may have been made, if the U.S. withdrew all armed forces from overseas there would be a global destabilization. At the least, North Korea and Iran would feel free to take on any expansion they wanted.
As the wealthiest nation on Earth, perhaps we have a responsibility to intervene for the sake of humanity. Though delayed, we did this in Bosnia and attempted to in Somalia.
Undoubtedly we are quicker to intervene when we also have commercial interests, though commercial interests can be humanitarian as well. As much as we may hate the idea of fighting a war to maintain the supply of oil, if that supply of oil stops before the world has alternatives ready, there will be unrest and starvation on a massive scale. That is why developing alternative fuels is key to global security and stability.
Debt, however, also threatens our national security. Though a strong defense is necessary I’m afraid that just like the Romans we have overreached. We account for 47 percent of all military spending worldwide. Pundits playing with numbers will point out that in 2011 we spent only about 5 percent of our GDP on defense. If 5 percent is no big deal, then why are we wailing about individual federal income taxes which accounted for only 7.3 percent of GDP?
Those numbers also hint at how much of our budget is dedicated to defense. We simply can’t get out of debt or balance the budget unless we cut defense spending.
Let’s be honest — the Pentagon has become the classic example of a government bureaucracy interested in expanding itself just to expand itself. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even described it as vexing and disturbing that, since 9/11 the Pentagon had spent $700 billion on procurement, research and development and had only made modest gains in military capacity.
Cutting defense spending while maintaining world stability will require three things. For one, the other developed free nations on Earth will have to step up their involvement and decisiveness on the international stage.
Second, we’ll have to let them without feeling like we are losing international prestige. Third, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with fewer boots on the ground.
There are forces that don’t want to cut military spending. In 2008 it was estimated that 1 in 5 dollars spent in Iraq went to private contractors. With what we know about lobbyists, that figure should cause us to worry.
It seems that defense spending is the perfect storm capable of taking down our ability to create a balanced budget. Not only has the Pentagon become a government bureaucracy intent on expanding itself at all costs, it’s aided by millions of dollars of private sector lobbying.
At this point our national security spending has become an extravagant alarm system for a house which we can no longer afford. Unless we get this debt under control we won’t have a nation to defend.
Brandon Givens is a Hall County resident and occasional columnist.