Posted by: bmeverett | October 5, 2009

Real National Security

[Apologies to my loyal readers for my absence the last couple of weeks. I have been down with the flu, but am gradually returning to the land of the living.]
Our energy debate over the last 35 years or so has focused largely on the threat of energy dependence to our national security. Recently, advocates of government climate change policy have picked up on the national security theme, arguing that climate change will change the world in ways that we won’t like. Even some senior military officers echo this concern. As I’ve discussed in this blog on many occasions, these arguments are rather weak. More importantly, we’re taking our eye off the real basis of our national security – a strong and technologically dynamic economy.
The United States has spent the last 200 years in a truly enviable position. We have been rich enough to confront those who have wished us ill. Our wars have been wars of choice in which our victory was never really in doubt, provided that we truly mobilized the resources that were available to us.
In the early days of our Republic, the situation was much different. Take, for example, the War of 1812, which was essentially the US engagement in the Napoleonic Wars which had raged in Europe for several years. According to OECD historical data, the US was dealing with two major European powers – Britain and France – each of which had economies and populations 2-3 times the size of ours. Even Germany and Russia were larger than we were in terms of population and GDP. Wars fought under these conditions are existential affairs – losing could mean the end of the country. Fortunately, the US was a minor participant in that war and the fighting in the western hemisphere was a sideshow.
During the 19th century, the oceans protected us from foreign threats while our economy grew rapidly. By 1900, the US population and GDP were substantially larger than Britain, France or Germany. Russia had more people, but was poor and in disarray. In 1898, the US took on Spain, a country with one-quarter of our population and about 10% of our GDP. Not much of a contest.
The US tried hard, but ultimately in vain to stay out of World War I. Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies decided to wage war against Britain, France, Russia and Italy – countries with more than twice their population and 2½ times their GDP. When the US entered the war in 1917, the US economy alone was about twice the size of the combined economies of the Central Powers. Americans were understandably concerned about the potential loss of life and treasure, but there was never a real question about who would win.
The situation was similar in 1939. The GDP of the US was larger than the combined economies of Germany, Italy, Japan and all the other Axis powers combined. The Allies in total had nearly 3 times the GDP of the Axis countries and four times their population.
In 1980, at the height of the Cold War, the US GDP was significantly larger than the combined GDPs of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. Even without our Western European and Japanese allies, the US had the resources to confront any combination of hostile powers.
Unfortunately, we’ve become complacent about this situation. We talk only about what the US should do militarily, never about what we can do. But this may not always be the case. China, a country with four times our population, is growing rapidly. Many current projections, including for example, the Energy Information Administration’s, see China’s GDP as outpacing the US over the next 20 years. This may or may not happen. The Chinese have many internal constraints to growth, including the remnants of central planning, a dysfunctional legal system and several hundred million poor people to look after. We should be very worried, however, about the prospect of a China which is richer, more populous and possibly more technologically advanced than we are. The Chinese government has global ambitions and the ability to put vast resources in the hands of the central government without worrying much about public opinion.
In the past, the US could rely on powerful allies among the democratic states. Western Europe has now given up its military power almost entirely, pinning all its hopes on us. Japan remains (for the time being) disarmed. It’s probably very much within our power to prevent the eclipsing of American power, but we have to wake up and focus on our own economy. The US economic machine is strong enough to withstand lots of sand thrown in its gears by government, but its strength is not infinite, and we may start to see some of those limits soon. The US is accumulating massive debt to be spent on programs that do nothing to expand the economy. Absurd environmental programs like the proposed “cap and trade” system would burden the US economy with substantial costs for no reason other than demonstrating our environmental credentials. We can foresee large tax increases, a resurgence of labor unions and many other anti-growth actions if we are not careful.
If we allow our economy to stagnate for reasons of “fairness” or “energy independence” or to worship at the green altar, we may very well bequeath to our children a world we have not seen for 200 years – a world in which the US lacks not only the political will but the economic resources to defend ourselves against a resurgent China. If we are not careful, our children may worry less about Chinese demands on Taiwan than about Chinese designs on Hawaii.



  1. Normally, I’m on board with the majority of your posts, but this one rubbed me the wrong way. I agree that we (read: the US government) should not waste money on well-intentioned, but greatly flawed environmental policies in the name of “energy independence”. Yet, you seem to be indicating that we are all better off in a world were China is poor and less technologically advantageous. I view the growth and technological advancement of China as a positive-sum game, as a richer society will indeed demand cleaner air and peaceful (or at least stable) relations with the rest of the world.

    • My point here is NOT that China should stay poor. They shouldn’t, and they won’t. I agree that economic growth can be a positive sum game. My point is that we cannot let the US economy lag behind. To do so would invite China to use its growing economic power to expand its influence. The US has to be a meaningful counterweight. Stability would allow both countries to focus on improving the well-being of our people.

  2. I dont know If I said it already but …Great site…keep up the good work. 🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    …..Frank Scurley

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