"The prospect of a Soviet invasion into Western Europe, launched with little or no warning, is no longer a realistic threat. The Warsaw Pact has crumbled." With these words, in his recent speech on reducing nuclear weapons, President Bush reopened the debate about national priorities.
Immediately, congressional leaders and pundits returned to ongoing arguments on the fate of the B-2 bomber (at $865 million a plane) or the Seawolf submarine (at $2 billion a boat). It is as if poor actors continued to recite their lines even after the theater was condemned.
The old squabbles simply don't address the new reality. For more than 40 years, the United States has waged a global Cold War against the Soviet Union. We sustained burdensome military budgets, costly wars and interventions to guard against what was viewed as a global threat.
For decades, more than half our defense budget -- totaling close to $300 billion in 1991 -- has been devoted to helping European allies defend against a surprise Soviet conventional attack. Now the Soviet Union has collapsed. The Warsaw Pact has shut its doors. The threat no longer exists.
The moment for demobilization from the 40-year Cold War is at hand. The question is not what weapons systems should be cut. The entire military budget must be recast. How much need we spend to feel secure in the world? What is our fair share of the collective burden of providing security in a world of change? With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the next-largest military budget in the West is that of Japan at $30 billion a year, one-tenth the size of our own. Germany, on the edge of the turmoil in East Europe, spends a little less.
The disproportion is startling. The United States can spend more than Germany in defense of Germany and more than Japan in defense of Japan, add $40 billion for nuclear weapons and another $30 billion in case the Canadians get feisty, and still cut military spending in half. We can easily save $150 billion a year to use to get our own house in order.
Experts across the political spectrum have begun to grasp this new reality. William Hyland, former national-security adviser to Richard Nixon, has called for drastic reductions in defense spending. Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, has detailed a plan calling for 50 percent cuts over the next decade.
The public has been slower to react, in part because their representatives in Congress went AWOL as the Cold War came to its close. At the very moment the Warsaw Pact shut its doors, Congress joined the president in prohibiting the transfer of any money from the military to domestic investment for three years.
The Bush administration has fought hard for a defense plan that pares military spending by about 20 percent to 25 percent over the next five years. This sounds like a lot, but basically it only reverses the buildup during the early Reagan years. At the end of the Bush projections, military spending in real terms would still higher than it was in 1980, when the Soviet Union was thought to be at the height of it powers.
The extraordinary opportunity for demobilization comes at a time of great need. Vital investments necessary to our own prosperity -- in education, in infrastructure, in technology and the environment -- have been postponed for years.
Over the last decade, we paid for the largest peacetime military buildup in history while the Germans and Japanese were free to invest in their own economies. We built MX missiles; they built fast trains. As a result, the United States is falling behind in the new global marketplace; real incomes are stagnant; our children's prosperity is imperiled.
America urgently needs a GI bill for the country as a whole. Resources now subsidizing the defense of allies can be used to retrain workers, to research the technologies of the future, to rebuild the country's rotting infrastructure. These investments can jump-start our economy to the benefit of everyone. And the money is there -- without raising a dime in taxes.
Like any bureaucracy, the Pentagon resists drastic reductions in its budgets or missions. Yet Americans must find it bizarre that the United States will spend about $90 billion next year helping the Germans defend Central Europe from the same Soviet troops that the Germans are paying to house.
President Bush's unilateral nuclear reductions have made it perfectly clear. It is time to demobilize after the victory in the Cold War, and to rebuild a dynamic economy here at home. If the Congress and the administration refuse to act, the public must ++ insist that our budgets begin to recognize the world in which we live.
Robert Borosage is director of the Wolfson Center for National Affairs, a joint project of the New School for Social Research and the Institute of Policy Studies, of which he is the former director.