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What the US Budget Tells Us About Biden’s Foreign Policy

The president is making the same old mistakes.

Words: Laicie Heeley
Pictures: Victor Grabarczyk
Date:

On its face, the Biden administration’s trademark, “foreign policy for the middle class” seems straightforward. Reconsider free markets and globalization, invest at home, and put the American people, not American corporations, at the center of a new policy that projects an image of the country we’d like to be to our allies and adversaries alike. So why, after a season of reporting on the Biden administration’s policies for the podcast Things That Go Boom, am I unconvinced that the president’s trademark foreign policy goal is anything more than a slogan? 

There is a glaring inconsistency at the center of the president’s policy that he can’t seem to escape: The all-American temptation to put our money where our mouth is not. As nearly $800 billion in defense spending works its way toward his desk, President Joe Biden must consider whether his insistence on governing by consensus is cutting his real priorities off at the knees.

While some major elements of Biden’s proposed foreign policy for the middle class have been left open to interpretation, the White House is upfront about the connection it sees between things like infrastructure and global competition, going so far as to position its American Jobs Plan as “an investment in America that will… position the United States to out-compete China.” But if the administration intends to pivot in the way it says it does, toward greater investment in the American people in an effort to better compete, its budget still leaves much to be desired. 

WHOSE FAULT IS IT?

It might be tempting to pass the blame for these budget woes to Congress. After all, lawmakers did just add $25 billion to the defense topline as part of the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Biden’s opening bid, however, did all but tee this increase up. The $753 billion budget proposal embraced over $100 billion in spending increases seen under President Donald Trump, and included spending to rebuild all three legs of the nuclear triad and develop new tactical nuclear weapons. 

As nearly $800 billion in defense spending works its way toward his desk, President Joe Biden must consider whether his insistence on governing by consensus is cutting his real priorities off at the knees.

What’s more, the Biden administration proposed that the US maintain the current size of the active force, decreasing end strength by just 5,400 across the services after a Trump-era increase of 80,000. The administration did so even as it continues to shift its attention toward China, a move that should require a greater emphasis on naval and air forces over ground. And the savings Americans might have expected as a result of our withdrawal from Afghanistan? Those remained in the budget, reallocated toward weapons for a hypothetical war with China. A war with another nuclear power that, were it to come to pass, would certainly not be good for America’s middle class. 

All this while many experts would argue there are more pressing matters at hand. Climate change threatens to end life as we know it and, in many ways, an ongoing global pandemic already has. Building the type of resilience necessary to confront the full range of threats facing the American middle class will require a significant shift in priorities. In a recent piece, analyst Mike Mazarr suggests spending of, perhaps, $550–600 billion per year would do the trick, with the additional resources we currently spend on the Pentagon’s budget redirected toward building domestic resilience. 

The reason for this shift is clear: The vast majority of our current discretionary resources go to the military. The size of the Department of Defense’s budget is bigger than the next 11 departments combined. Despite this concentration of funds, a wide body of evidence suggests that the military is not suited to tackle the greatest current threats to the homeland. Not least because the military, itself, is a major contributor to climate change — the US military is the single largest petroleum consumer in the world and also the largest greenhouse gas emitter. But also because expanding the military’s role in domestic life isn’t great for democracy.

On the other hand, some experts argue that the Defense Department simply can’t afford to operate with less. Yet, the department regularly struggles to spend the money it already has. In February 2021, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that, “DOD has left billions of dollars in appropriated amounts unspent over the past 10 fiscal years.” GAO also reported that in 2020, the Pentagon paid about $11.4 billion in “improper payments,” adding up to almost 2% of payments made that year. Put another way, DOD’s inability to write the correct number on its checks cost them $2.7 billion more than the entire budget of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the same time, our economy has never been more vulnerable to catastrophic events. Wildfires, extreme cold, and a global pandemic have driven that point home for many Americans — and those recent events are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Climate change threatens to wreak havoc not just at home, but overseas, as increased dislocation and migration set the stage for greater conflict. Experts insist the next pandemic could come much sooner, and be much deadlier than we might think. While war with China remains a hypothetical, these threats are all but certain. 

It is likely, however, that the spending status quo is at least palatable to the administration. The perceived threat of China, as employed in the Jobs Plan, has helped sell Biden’s major domestic proposals to a skeptical and divided Congress. A little extra military spending might simply serve to grease the wheels. This was certainly a tactic the Obama administration was known to employ. Notably, negotiations with Senate Republicans during the Obama years over ratification over the New START Treaty led to a swath of increased nuclear investments that now serve to crowd out more strategic demands. 

Those trades, however, were made in favor of a two-thirds vote for ratification. One would presume they’d be less necessary in a world where the president’s own party also controls Congress. This was not the case for the NDAA. Even in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, more members voted for the bill than against it (51–43). This means that the president is up against even the most sympathetic ears in Congress if he hopes to one day implement his foreign policy for the middle class. Defense spending, it seems, is even more of a sticking point for Democrats than the policies contained in Build Back Better. 

ENDING THE STATUS QUO 

Biden’s next budget proposal is due out early in the new year. Democrats may only hold the power of the purse for one more budget cycle. A status quo proposal can only lead to a status quo result: Meaning, unless the president makes a bold move, the defense budget will continue to go up. And it will continue to crowd out more pressing needs.

Biden himself once famously said, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” Rhetorically, the Biden administration might be right on track. But the Biden budget is failing the American middle class. Greasing the wheels means we’ll continue to make the same mistakes that brought us here in the first place. Biden must work with his party to beat back the urge to continue to invest in the exact opposite of what they say we need.

Laicie Heeley is the founder and editor of Inkstick and the host and executive producer of the PRX- and Inkstick-produced podcast, Things That Go Boom.

Laicie Heeley

Editor in Chief

Laicie Heeley is the founding CEO of Inkstick Media, where she serves as Editor in Chief of the foreign policy magazine Inkstick and Executive Producer and Host of the PRX- and Inkstick-produced podcast, Things That Go Boom. Heeley’s reporting has appeared on public radio stations across America and the BBC, where she’s explored global security issues including domestic terrorism, disinformation, nuclear weapons, and climate change. Prior to launching Inkstick, Heeley was a Fellow with the Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program and Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Her publications include work on sanctions, diplomacy, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, along with the first full accounting of US counterterrorism spending after 9/11.

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