Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

U.S. Defense: A Question of Perspective

James Skillen


March 11, 2002

Six months ago today, the attacks occurred. Since then, the United States has strengthened security measures at home; almost finished a war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan; increased defense spending by more than $50 billion; and inaugurated a new Office of Homeland Security.

Americans, however, do not yet feel secure. Dominant in military and economic affairs throughout the world, we are the lightning rod for expressed grievances and antagonism. We can imagine attacks of all kinds coming from dozens of possible sources.

From the perspective of an American citizen, then, the United States is a highly vulnerable target right now and has the right to defend itself. We have no designs on the rest of the world but simply want to defend our freedom. And if we don't stand strong, the freedom of others will also be threatened.

There are questions, however, that cloud this perspective. Why does the United States need a new homeland security office? What, after all, is our Department of Defense for? And if the big push right now is to protect Americans from terrorists, why spend billions more dollars on pre-9/11 military equipment and operations?

These questions help expose the inadequacy of the naive American perspective on defense. The reason why the Bush administration came up with the idea of homeland security is that most of the American military is prepared for action in the far corners of the world. By means of treaties and alliances the U.S. military essentially functions as the defense system (or adjunct) for Europe, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Israel, and other countries. We may think we are simply and innocently trying to defend our borders, but militarily speaking the United States now exercises a global hegemony. We apparently need a new system of homeland security because our defense establishment is not focused on home.

This also helps account for the perspective that so many other countries have on the United States, a perspective we have difficulty grasping. Complaints in recent weeks, even from close allies, express frustration and even anger with American unilateralism and with the fact that the increase in our 2002-2003 military spending alone amounts to more than the combined military budgets of many other major countries. European countries in particular believe they are major players in the world and that the United States should operate in a more collegial fashion with them. Yet militarily speaking, European and many other countries do not have military capabilities or responsibilities significantly independent of the United States. They see the U.S. acting like a bully, while overlooking or underestimating the fact that the American military is part of their own system of defense.

Right now the United States is preoccupied with its own security, which it believes is also the world's security. American citizens can't understand why everyone else in the world doesn't agree. Yet most Americans either overlook or underestimate the fact that the American military has a controlling, global reach, which often sits uncomfortably on every country except the United States.

If perspectives catch up with reality, perhaps these unbalanced circumstances can be changed. Or perhaps it is reality that will first have to change to reorient perspectives. In any case, we ought to begin by acknowledging reality: the United States alone holds a global military hegemony. Consequently, the U.S. is sometimes unwelcome even where it has been invited, because by doing good for America (which Americans assume is good for the world), it does not do the good that others think should be done with them and for them. A more balanced and cooperative system of mutual defense may be urgent, but for such a system to emerge, the balance of power will have to change.

—James W. Skillen, President
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”