Getting to Less? Exploring the Press for Less in America’s Defense Commitments

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The Issue

This CSIS Brief is the first in a series that explores the contours and implications of strategies that might reduce the U.S. military’s mission space through greater constraints on its ends, ways, or means. Some analysts argue that America’s post-Cold War foreign policy has not made the country any safer, has needlessly cost lives, and has been too expensive. They argue instead for a more restrained approach. This first brief explores seven intellectual strains that argue for lessened objectives, more efficient ways, or decreased resources for the U.S. defense enterprise. The brief’s purpose is to inform active debates over the role of the United States in the world and over the role of the military in U.S. national security policy.


The United States has enjoyed an era of geopolitical primacy, backed foremost by its economic and military prowess and aided by the absence of a capable competitor to democratic governance. Over time, it has invested substantially in its intelligence and national security capabilities, deployed military forces around the globe, and engaged in military conflict, even war.1 Few would look back uncritically at U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, especially with respect to the U.S. war in Iraq. Nevertheless, many prominent national security experts believe that, on balance, the costs and sacrifices were worth it, and the United States would do well to continue using its power to shape the international environment.2 Not only has the United States remained dominant and relatively secure, these proponents might note, but the rest of the globe is better off for it.3

Serious critics of America’s post-Cold War foreign policy can nevertheless be found across the political and philosophical spectrum. Although some are concerned about American underinvestment in security, others argue that U.S. post-Cold War foreign policy represents an overinvestment in hegemony, expanding America’s security commitments in pursuit of far-reaching objectives, variously including rescuing failing states, defending human rights, suppressing nationalist movements, installing democratic regimes, containing rogue states, battling the threat of international terrorism, and discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons.4 Critics argue that pursuing this strategy has not made the United States any safer while simultaneously costing too many lives and too much money. They argue instead for a more restrained approach to U.S. foreign policy that narrows American objectives, limits the role of the military, or reduces investments in national security.

Though not exhaustive, the authors have identified seven relatively distinct strains of foreign policy literature and thinking that can result in lessened objectives, more efficient ways, or decreased resources for the U.S. defense enterprise. The brief’s purpose is to summarize the main themes of each approach, which collectively inform contemporary debates about the role of the United States in the world and the role of the military in U.S. national security policy. Subsequent CSIS briefs in this series will draw elements from these seven intellectual strains to explore the implications of three different approaches on the purview of the U.S. military.

1. Innovative Defense Approach

The innovative defense approach is especially popular with many defense thinkers. It maintains relatively robust national security objectives but seeks to significantly shift the ways and ultimately reduce the costs of U.S. military contributions to those objectives.5 The goals include protecting the U.S. homeland, ensuring that a democratic form of government continues to flourish in the United States, and facilitating a peaceful world abroad, which further secures the United States and contributes to increased American prosperity.6 In securing its objectives, this approach relies significantly on technological innovation to create a more effective force at lower cost.

One variant of an innovative defense strategy was delineated at length by John Hillen and Lawrence Korb during the 2000 presidential election cycle and informed the views of incoming Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Its key elements are described below.

In lieu of antiquated and lumbering militaries of the Cold War, innovative defense thinkers promote precision, range, speed, and stealth.7 There is an emphasis on using space-based systems “that not only support ground, sea, and air forces with better intelligence, communications, navigation, and weather forecasting but that are also capable of firepower anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice.”8 The approach seeks to use increasingly mobile communications systems to enable speed and maneuverability. The goal is to cripple an adversary’s command and control while simultaneously protecting that of the United States. In the air, the United States should rely increasingly on stealth technologies and continue to develop unmanned technologies.9

With greater reliance on technology and speed, this approach modifies the U.S. force structure. First, strategic nuclear warheads should be retained, but the numbers should be restrained by a mutual, verifiable treaty.10 This smaller nuclear stockpile will, however, be bolstered by both the U.S. ability to carry out conventional long-range precision strikes and the U.S. capacity to wage information warfare.11 Second, forward deployed forces will be reduced substantially. 12 “The Army’s ground forces will be deployed principally by air and be able to conduct decisive close-combat and land-based deep-strike operations anywhere in the world.” 13 The Marines, “will rely on smaller sea-based forces that emphasize stand-off weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles.” 14 The Air Force will become a Space and Air Force. “Aircraft of the future will be stealthier, have more lethal weapons and longer ranges, and increasingly become unmanned.” 15 The U.S. Navy “will begin to shift away from a carrier-based force to one that provides the same sort of mobile sea power through craft such as the arsenal ship, the stealth battleship, and the distributed capital ship.” 16 There is also a significant role for the reserve forces. They will “operate unmanned aerial vehicles, micro robots, and satellites; pilot transport aircraft; and perform information warfare, network-management, and distributed logistics functions in direct support of our active forces.” 17

Subsequent strategy efforts, including some within the Defense Department itself, have echoed the themes of the Hillen-Korb Innovative Defense Strategy. Then and now, proponents generally argue for new, up-front investments to realize operational and technological gains, yet they also foresee such investments reaping a payoff that allows for a reduction in defense expenditures over time.18 One contemporary proponent presents the fiscal argument this way:

In this sense, [the Third Offset Strategy] is not just about protecting or securing more money for defence innovation: a focus on technological innovation can also be linked to cost savings. Indeed, as a result of retirement packages, housing allowances and healthcare, almost a quarter of the US defence budget is allocated to military personnel costs and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that there was a 46 per cent increase in military personnel costs between 2000 and 2014 alone. Apart from cutting expensive personnel, reducing benefit costs and relying on civilian contractors for services, one other way of reducing military personnel costs is to replace them where possible with hi-tech solutions, such as robotics in factories and unmanned aerial vehicles on the battlefield.19

2. Offshore Balancer Approach

Several academics from the realist school of international relations theory have promoted an offshore balancer approach to restrain U.S. national security ends and defense means. An offshore balancing approach is concerned with “American’s position in the global balance of power and focuses on preventing other states from projecting power in ways that might threaten the United States.”20Generally less ambitious in its aims than the innovative defense community, this approach holds that the United States should only use force abroad when there are direct threats to U.S. vital interests. For offshore balancers, vital interests are those areas around the globe that are “of vital importance to U.S. security or prosperity and thus worth sending Americans to fight and die for.”21 They include the Western Hemisphere, Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf.22

Offshore balancers believe that the United States must remain the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere and ensure that no neighbor can pose a threat to the homeland. In Europe and Northeast Asia, the United States must “maintain the local balance of power so that the strongest state in those regions has to worry about one or more of its neighbors and is not free to roam into the Western Hemisphere, or any other area deemed vital to the United States.”23 Additionally, if another state were to dominate Europe or Northeast Asia, that country would “have considerable economic clout, the ability to develop sophisticated weaponry, and the potential to project power and influence around the globe.”24 Regarding the Persian Gulf, the United States must ensure that a hegemon does not arise, as that hegemon could potentially interfere with the flow of oil, which would be disruptive to the global economy.25

Under an offshore balancing approach, the size and shape of the “U.S. national security establishment depends on the distribution of power in the key regions.”26 If no potential hegemon arises or is rising, there is no need to deploy U.S. forces to those areas. If a hegemon does begin to surface, it is in the U.S. interest to balance the potential security threat, but the United States should turn first to local forces.27 If local forces are unable to successfully balance against the potential hegemon, the United States should “come ashore” and “deploy enough military force to the region to shift the local balance in its favor.”28

Under this strategy, there should be a greater focus on diplomacy in executing U.S. foreign policy. Military power should be “a tool that must be harnessed to broader diplomatic ends, not the other way around.”29 Generally though, the United States would “maintain substantial naval and air assets along with modest but capable ground forces and would spend enough to ensure that its military technology and personnel are the best in the world.”30 However, it must also be prepared to expand capabilities, should the need arise.31

3. Command the Commons Approach

Like the offshore balancer approach, a command the commons approach states that national security should focus on the “preservation of sovereignty, safety, territorial integrity, and power position.”32 There are two principal threats to achieving those national security ends. First, the United States must deter a nuclear attack against it, largely focused on other nation-states but also on suppressing terrorist organizations that have global ambitions and ensuring that such organizations do not obtain nuclear weapons.33 Second, the United States must maintain a favorable balance of power across the Eurasian continent.34

To deter a nuclear attack against the United States by another nation-state, the United States must maintain a sizeable and secure nuclear retaliatory force. In combating terrorism and ensuring that a terrorist organization does not obtain a nuclear weapon, the United States must rely on a combination of offensive and defensive tactics, which includes “intelligence collection, the use of force—especially special operations and drone strikes—and diplomacy.”35 The command the commons approach believes that the United States faces its greatest challenge to maintaining a favorable Eurasian balance of power in East Asia. Even there, however, the strategy argues for the United States to “ ‘encourage its allies to assume more responsibility for their own defense,’ while maintaining a security-assistance relationship with states like Japan.”36

To achieve its objectives, the United States will need to “command” the global commons, meaning:

that the United States gets vastly more military use out of the sea, space, and air than do others, that the United States can credibly threaten to deny their use to others, and that others would lose a military contest for the commons if they attempted to deny them to the United States. Having lost such a contest they could not mount another effort for a very long time, and the United States would preserve, restore, and consolidate its hold after such a fight.”37 Central to this undertaking is a maritime strategy that seeks to dominate “the most significant channels of global communications.38

Achieving those objectives requires the United States to rely heavily on qualitatively superior weapons and platforms but calls for significant reductions in U.S. force structure.39 The United States should maintain a ground force that allows it to “alter the local military balance firmly in favor of its friends in a range of contingencies that could matter.”40 However, the “standard should be the ability to ‘defend,’ not to attack.”41 As such, the U.S. Army should maintain six divisions, and the Marine Corps should be cut to roughly 65,000.42 With fewer U.S. Army troops, the Air Force could be cut to a total of 216 aircraft and see a reduction of roughly 30,000 personnel.43

The Navy is significant in this approach because of the role that it plays in commanding the commons. Defensively, the Navy must “prevent others from inhibiting the free movement of goods, and if necessary military material, across the globe.”44 Offensively, the Navy must “prevent others from moving their military material and goods across the globe” and “serve as a source of highly mobile, easy to concentrate firepower, to affect combat ashore.”45 To accomplish these missions, the command the commons approach recommends a force of 48 U.S. nuclear attack submarines and 7 to 9 nuclear powered aircraft carriers for an overall Navy structure smaller than today’s.46

Regarding space, the trajectory of U.S. capabilities suggests that “the fight would probably leave the adversary in worse shape than the United States.”47 The United States should thus continue undertaking a mix of offensive and defensive measures to deter and counter threats. This includes investing in some counteroffensive space capabilities, including research and development on antisatellite weapons. It also includes ensuring a conventional capability to challenge an adversary’s use of ground-based systems that might be used to degrade or deny U.S. access to space.48 Finally, rather than pursuing the cost-prohibitive goal of making satellites resilient against all possible threats, the United States should continue reasonable measures to harden satellites and maintain alternative methods to conduct reconnaissance, such as airborne systems.49

Additionally, this approach calls for the United States to close a large number of bases abroad given both the decrease in U.S. force size and the call for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to be transformed into a political alliance.50

4. Progressive Defense Approach

There is not yet a singular defining progressive foreign policy and defense approach. Some progressives believe in a foreign policy that is minimalist, while others believe in concepts such as a Responsibility to Protect, which would obligate the United States to engage in global affairs. With respect to internationalism, the strategy described here is perhaps best thought of as a “middle of the road” progressive approach.

Progressives have several objectives for foreign policy. First, progressives seek to decrease the amount of military spending and rely less on the use of force.51 Informing this is the belief that “the threats America faces are generally neither existential in nature nor susceptible to resolution by military force.”52 Second, there is a collection of values that progressives pursue, which include a “more just world through democracy, greater economic equality, and human rights protections, as well as opposition to imperialism and authoritarianism.”53 Third, the progressive approach conditionally supports the rule of law and international institutions.54

Regarding the first objective, progressives believe that the United States should strive for military sufficiency as opposed to military superiority. Progressives understand that the U.S. military must be able to project power and make credible threats. However, “a force structure sufficient to meet these purposes might be achieved without the endlessly increasing requirements of military superiority.”55 While the United States should maintain expeditionary capabilities, military sufficiency might be achieved by the adoption of a more defensive force posture.56 Along with its allies, the United States should “invest in systems capable of defending allied territory against aggression: cost-effective coastal defense missiles, denial of intrusions by special-operation forces, flexible and agile concentrations of high-end forces that can deploy rapidly to prepositioned equipment in theater, and other area-denial capabilities.”57

Progressives also believe that the United States should preserve its democratic alliances, but they are “quick to emphasize political—not just military—commitments at the state and sub-state level, and take a very circumspect view of allying with illiberal actors.”58 Regarding economics, the progressive approach has three parts: “ensuring basic health and sustainability of the U.S. economy, addressing inequality, and attacking absolute poverty both at home and abroad.”59 Relatedly, progressives believe that globalization must benefit the middle class.60 In combatting the threat of authoritarianism, the United States will need to, “[shore] up its institutions—and Americans’ trust in those institutions—as well as developing more effective methods to push back against authoritarian regimes, including deploying the tools of an open society against authoritarian regimes.” [61]

Third, the progressive approach generally supports international institutions. However, there are instances where it seeks to adjust or reform them. As an example, progressives might seek “a more democratic distribution of voting rights or agenda setting powers in international financial bodies — especially the World Bank and the IMF [International Monetary Fund] — and a more relaxed attitude toward economic protectionism in instances where fairness or just labor practices are called into question.”62

Regarding means, the progressive approach notes that U.S. defense spending accounts for over half of all discretionary spending.63 Nearly all progressives aim to set defense spending at a lower level, arguing that savings can be used to finance other forms of international engagement and take care of domestic programs.64

5. Nordic Defense Approach

As American progressives begin to advance writings on a possible defense strategy, they may be drawn to the example of advanced democracies in Europe. Progressives’ goals are particularly analogous to the foreign and national security strategies of the Nordic countries, including Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. The strategic approach described here attempts to draw on the commonalities that exist among these.

The Nordic approach has a diverse set of objectives. It seeks to “maintain and further develop the international legal order and to strengthen the UN and other international institutions; promoting human rights, the rule of law and democracy; responding to serious violations of international law.”65 The model stresses combating violent extremism. 66 Some Nordic countries seek to eliminate, or at least limit, nuclear weapons.67 The Nordic approach wants to maintain open and transparent economies and provide robust social services to its citizens.68

The Nordic countries employ a diverse set of ways to promote their security. They rely on regional, as well as international, institutions. “The Nordics work together on regional issues in the interparliamentary Nordic Council and the intergovernmental Nordic Council of ministers,” the Congressional Research Service notes.69 “They promote Nordic defense cooperation through NORDEFCO, a forum that brings Nordic military officials together.”70 They also work through regional security frameworks that extend beyond the Nordic region, such as the Arctic Council, NATO, and the European Union. 71 Internationally, Nordic countries “are frequent contributors to international peacekeeping missions, major providers of development and humanitarian assistance, and supporters of U.N. efforts to address climate change.” 72

The means dedicated to defense in the Nordic approach are limited. According to data from 2016, Iceland spends .10 percent of its gross domestic product on military expenditures.73 For the others, defense spending takes up between 1 percent and 1.6 percent of their gross domestic product (as of 2017): Denmark spends 1 percent, Sweden spends 1 percent, Finland spends 1.3 percent, and Norway spends 1.6 percent.74

6. Resilience and Restraint Approach

The resilience and restraint approach has several objectives, which include making the international order resilient and thus not overly dependent on the U.S. military, ensuring partners are self-reliant, and reducing the U.S. defense budget.75

Beyond self-defense, the United States should apply a stringent set of criteria to determine whether to employ the U.S. military. Those criteria include deploying forces when: “there is a vital U.S. national security interest at stake,”76 “there is a clear national consensus behind the mission,”77 we “understand the costs of war and know how we will pay for them before we choose violence,”78 we have a “set of clear and obtainable military objectives,”79 and force is “a last resort.”80

Because the goal of U.S. national security is not primacy in the international system, the U.S. military can take on a new profile. Now concentrated in the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. Navy should consist of six aircraft carriers and no more than 100 frigates and destroyers. Cuts could also be made to the U.S. submarine fleet.81 The U.S. Air Force would be focused on controlling the skies over the United States and could do so with half the number of fighters currently planned.82 Both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps could be dramatically reduced.83 Finally, the U.S. nuclear arsenal could be capped at 500 warheads, and likely could be smaller.84

Some of the savings from these reductions should be diverted to other government departments. However, this approach advocates returning the bulk of resulting defense savings to the U.S. taxpayer.85

7. Isolationist Approach

The isolationist approach states that America’s foreign policy has only two objectives: to protect U.S. national security and to promote U.S. prosperity.86 For the isolationist, these goals, although broadly stated, are narrowly defined. Moreover, the threat environment is more benign than the U.S. security community tends to depict. Given the significant geographic advantages the United States enjoys, America’s nuclear arsenal, and the defense expenditures of other states, it is “not at all clear what, if anything, Americans are getting for their extra defense dollars.”87

Therefore, the isolationist approach significantly reduces the ways that the United States undertakes to protect itself. The school of isolationists dominant in the 1990s was most concerned with reducing the costs of U.S. commitments in Europe and Asia. Its adherents argued that the United States should gradually dismantle NATO and withdraw the U.S. troops stationed in Europe. Troops should also be withdrawn from Asia, and the United States should end its security commitments in the region, treaty-based or otherwise.88 However, they argued at the time that U.S. disengagement from the Middle East should be limited. “Without American military power to defend them, a regional aggressor could consolidate Persian Gulf oil, threatening one of America’s core interests, prosperity.”89 Today’s post-Iraq and Afghanistan isolationists are unlikely to pursue a similar focus on remaining especially engaged in the Middle East, emphasizing instead an end to the “forever wars” and lessened American dependence on the region’s energy resources.

Despite the isolationist label, its proponents envision the United States staying involved in world affairs. They believe the U.S. economy should remain open and the United States should continue to participate in any number of international agreements. The United States should use its economic size to sanction aggressive states and work to combat terrorism. Finally, the United States must continue to work with allies to ensure that the seas remain open and free.90

Promoters of an isolationist approach anticipate significant savings for the United States, largely stemming from reductions in defense spending.91


Only some of the schools of thought described above are clear in their details about what tradeoffs the United States should make within the defense enterprise. Moreover, the permutations of defense restraint thinking extend beyond the seven approaches. As the international environment and Americans’ preferences for the U.S. role within it change, the frameworks for restraint will also shift. Older philosophies can become dated, at least in their details.

The remaining CSIS briefs in this series move beyond the limitations of existing literature to explore three illustrative defense strategies that reflect contemporary debates about the missions and capabilities of the U.S. military.

  • Innovation Superiority Strategy: This strategy’s primary focus is to maintain global military superiority, if possible, relying on reduced operational tempo, new operational concepts, and technology substitution. It is laser-focused on competition with China.
  • Progressive Values Strategy: This strategy endorses liberal internationalism but sees U.S. military force as generally ill-suited to the global challenges the United States faces. It seeks to shift toward a standard of military sufficiency rather than military superiority and is largely defensive in nature.
  • Minimal Exposure Strategy: This strategy limits the conception of national interests to attend more narrowly to domestic economic vitality and territorial integrity. It disengages the United States from permanent security arrangements and bases most remaining U.S. military forces inside the United States.

These three approaches reflect real differences in perspective over the U.S. role in the world and the nation’s objectives within it. Each also presents a unique internal alignment of ends, ways, and means. The briefs to follow will describe the potential opportunities each can create, alongside possible risks.

Kathleen H. Hicks is senior vice president, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C . Joseph P. Federici is an associate fellow and associate director of the International Security Program.

This material is based upon work supported by the Office of Net Assessment (ONA). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of ONA or the Department of Defense.

CSIS Briefs are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Kathleen H. Hicks

Joseph Federici