President Trump shocked the defense establishment on Monday with a tweet describing the current level of U.S. military spending as “crazy,” and endorsing a “meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race.” The president predicted that he and the leaders of Russia and China would one day begin discussing how to bring about such a halt.
Even by the standards of a notoriously unpredictable chief executive, Trump’s tweet was unusual. The president seems to share Ralph Waldo Emerson’s view that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, because the sentiments expressed in his Monday tweet at first blush appear very much at variance with statements he has made in the past about national security.
Clearly, Mr. Trump feels little need to coordinate his policy pronouncements with other members of the GOP. Only days earlier, the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees had co-authored an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal warning the White House not to back away from its plan to spend $733 billion on defense in fiscal 2020. Trump’s tweet adds to mounting evidence he plans to do precisely that – trim the defense budget back to $700 billion.
Although the typical reflex among Washington pundits is to dismiss anything unexpected that Trump says, I think his tweet signals a significant evolution in the president’s view of national security. For all the complaints about turnover in his cabinet and avoidance of heavy reading, the president has learned a lot while serving two years in the Oval Office, and it is influencing how he views the world. Here are four implications of his tweet.
First of all, Trump now realizes in a way few average citizens do that there really is an arms race under way. China and Russia are modernizing their nuclear arsenals; moving to deny America’s military use of the electromagnetic spectrum in wartime; undermining U.S. capabilities in space; launching daily cyber attacks to compromise Western networks; and developing new tools of war such as hypersonic weapons against which Washington has few defenses. Faced with such developments, it will cost the Pentagon trillions of dollars to stay ahead in the military competition. Having established what he considers good working relationships with Presidents Xi and Putin, Trump is probably thinking he can do a deal to avoid some of the costs of responding.
Second, Trump sees now far more than he previously did that the big military buildup he endorsed on the campaign trail has opportunity costs. Although military outlays tend to stimulate other types of economic activity, from a fiscal perspective the $700 billion spent each year on defense is money unavailable to the government for other purposes such as rebuilding infrastructure. With the Trump Administration facing the prospect of needing to borrow $1.3 trillion this year to finance a rapidly growing national debt, the president has little room for new spending initiatives. That presumably puts Pentagon spending increases in a different perspective for the president.
Third, Trump’s worldview is increasingly shaped by his closest advisors, most notably national security advisor John Bolton, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and trade advisor Peter Navarro. This trio is gradually eclipsing the influence of cabinet members involved with security, because Trump sees his inner circle more frequently and finds their views more congenial. Budget director Mulvaney in particular has alerted the president to the dangers of a growing federal debt, a concern that made Mulvaney one of the leaders of the Tea Party movement while he was in Congress. Meanwhile, Navarro is reinforcing the president’s belief that national security depends first and foremost on a strong economy.
Finally, Monday’s tweet reflects the tension between Trump’s desire to stay on top militarily and his doubts about the value of many overseas partners. He probably wonders why U.S. forces must help defend South Korea against a neighbor that has half its population and a tenth of its GDP. He questions why Germany, situated much closer to Russia than America, spends barely 1% of its economy on military preparations for coping with aggression from the east. And he long ago concluded that the U.S. needs to get out of Afghanistan.
Trump’s dim view of foreign partners and the drain they impose on U.S. resources has contributed to a rift between him and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, which has bolstered the influence of Bolton, Mulvaney and Navarro.
So, if you think that Monday’s tweet about an out-of-control arms race and “crazy” levels of defense spending was a one-time event, guess again. President Trump’s views are evolving. He still is committed to transforming U.S. trade relations and protecting Social Security, but his views of the military competition with Russia and China are shifting the same way Ronald Reagan’s did. If the Pentagon gets a budget increase in 2020, that will likely be its last.