Defense Cuts and the Future of Security

Commentary | March 28, 2012

The U.S. defense budget and a new, broader definition of security were dominant themes at day two of the Affordable World Security Conference, co-hosted by the W. P. Carey Foundation and the EastWest Institute.

Participants discussed the current defense budget and potential cuts.

“Half the money the Defense Department spends will be wasted,” quipped CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin. “The trouble is no one can tell you which half.”

Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post journalist Dana Priest argued the defense budget includes a vast landscape of private contractors, but many politicians believe they cannot risk arguing for cuts. “In a very politicized system,” Priest said, “cutting defense … can so easily be called ‘soft on defense.’”

State Department veteran Terrell Arnold underlined the importance of how money is spent. “There is no fixed relation between the amount of money we spend and what we get,” Arnold said.

General Michael Hayden, former director of both the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, argued that institutional structures “relatively preordain” future outcomes. Change, he said, must come at the institutional level and in strategies like counterinsurgency to prevent threats rather than targeted attacks to eliminate existing threats.

Hayden also said the “cyber domain” presents a new kind of security challenge. While he said the result of the Stuxnet attack on Iranian infrastructure was positive, it represented a turning point. “This is a legion that crossed the river … this is August 1945,” he said, noting it was the first time a nation state had attacked another‘s critical infrastructure in peacetime using software-based weaponry.

Participants also assessed the U.S. position in international politics, its dependency on fossil fuels, and the U.S. relationship with China.

Ambassador Chas Freeman criticized the current U.S. approach to China, arguing that some on both sides are engaging in shrill rhetoric. Wei Hongxia, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International peace, noted that the Chinese media, too, can play the nationalist game.

EWI Vice President David Firestein called for more careful public discussions. “Discourse about U.S.–China relations is important, because it has an impact not only on the tone but on the substance,” Firestein said.

Earth Policy Institute President Lester Brown focused on the dangers of resource scarcity in the coming decades. “Food is probably the weak link in our system, as it was with many of the societies whose archaeological sites we study today,” he said.

Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, called for action “We can manage change or wait for it to exert itself, but either way, change is coming,” he said.

Closing the conference, former President of Costa Rica and Nobel peace laureate Óscar Arias Sánchez declared: “Our real enemies today are climate change, poverty, inequality, hunger, disease, environmental degradation and illiteracy, which can create dangers anywhere in the world.” He called for the world to practice the “art of peace,” not the “art of war.”

Click here to read coverage of the first day of the Affordable World Security Conference.