To surmount the debt crisis, America needs to stop feeding the
Military-Industrial Complex, the most powerful lobby in Washington.
By Jeffrey D. Sachs
In the year 2000, the U.S. government debt
was $3.5 trillion, equal to 35% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By
2022, the debt was $24 trillion, equal to 95% of GDP. The U.S. debt is
soaring, hence America’s current debt crisis. Yet both Republicans and
Democrats are missing the solution: stopping America’s wars of choice
and slashing military outlays.
Suppose the government’s debt had remained at a modest 35% of GDP, as
in 2000. Today’s debt would be $9 billion, as opposed to $24 trillion.
Why did the U.S. government incur the excess $15 trillion in debt?
The single biggest answer is the U.S. government’s addiction to war
and military spending. According to the Watson Institute at Brown
University, the cost of U.S. wars from fiscal year 2001 to fiscal year
2022 amounted to a
whopping $8 trillion, more than half of the extra $15
trillion in debt. The other $7 trillion arose roughly equally from
budget deficits caused by the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19
Facing down the military-industrial lobby is the
vital first step to putting America’s fiscal house in order
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To surmount the debt crisis, America needs to stop feeding the
Military-Industrial Complex (MIC), the most powerful lobby in
Washington. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously
warned on January 17, 1961, “In the councils of government,
we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether
sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential
for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Since 2000, the MIC led the U.S. into disastrous wars of choice in
Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and now Ukraine.
The Military-Industrial Complex long ago adopted a winning political
strategy by ensuring that the military budget reaches into every
Congressional district. The Congressional Research Service
recently reminded Congress that, “Defense spending touches
every Member of Congress’s district through pay and benefits for
military servicemembers and retirees, economic and environmental impact
of installations, and procurement of weapons systems and parts from
local industry, among other activities.” Only a brave member of Congress
would vote against the military-industry lobby, yet bravery is certainly
no hallmark of Congress.
America’s annual military spending is now around $900 billion,
roughly 40% of the world's total, and greater than the next
10 countries combined. U.S. military spending in 2022 was triple that of
China. According to Congressional Budget Office, the
military outlays for 2024-2033 will be a staggering $10.3
trillion on current baseline. A quarter or more of that could be avoided
by ending America’s wars of choice, closing down many of America’s 800
or so military bases around the world, and negotiating new arms control
agreements with China and Russia.
Yet instead of peace through diplomacy, and fiscal responsibility,
the MIC regularly scares the American people with a comic-book style
depictions of villains whom the U.S. must stop at all costs. The
post-2000 list has included Afghanistan’s Taliban, Iraq’s Saddam
Hussein, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi, Russia’s
Vladimir Putin, and recently, China’s Xi Jinping. War, we are repeatedly
told, is necessary for America’s survival.
A peace-oriented foreign policy would be opposed strenuously by the
military-industrial lobby but not by the public.
Significant public pluralities already want less, not more,
U.S. involvement in other countries’ affairs, and less, not more, US
troop deployments overseas. Regarding Ukraine, Americans
overwhelmingly want a “minor role” (52%) rather than a “major
role” (26%) in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This is why
neither Biden nor any recent president has dared to ask Congress for any
tax increase to pay for America’s wars. The public’s response would be a
While America’s wars of choice have been awful for America, they have
been far greater disasters for countries that America purports to be
saving. As Henry Kissinger famously quipped, “To be an enemy of the
United States can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal.”
Afghanistan was America’s cause from 2001 to 2021, until the U.S. left
it broken, bankrupt, and hungry. Ukraine is now in America’s embrace,
with the same likely results: ongoing war, death, and destruction.
The military budget could be cut prudently and deeply if the U.S.
replaced its wars of choice and arms races with real diplomacy and arms
agreements. If presidents and members of congress had only heeded the
warnings of top American diplomats such as
William Burns, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia in 2008, and now
CIA Director, the U.S. would have protected Ukraine’s security through
diplomacy, agreeing with Russia that the U.S. would not expand NATO into
Ukraine if Russia also kept its military out of Ukraine. Yet relentless
NATO expansion is a favorite cause of the MIC; new NATO members are
major customers of U.S. armaments.
The U.S. has also unilaterally abandoned key arms control agreements.
In 2002, the U.S. unilaterally walked out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile
Treaty. And rather than promote nuclear disarmament—as the U.S. and
other nuclear powers are required to do under Article VI the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty—the Military-Industrial Complex has sold
Congress on plans to spend
more than $600 billion by 2030 to “modernize” the U.S.
Now the MIC is talking up the prospect of war with China over Taiwan.
The drumbeats of war with China are stoking the military budget, yet war
with China is easily avoidable if the U.S. adheres to the One-China
policy that properly underpins U.S.-China relations. Such a war should
be unthinkable. More than bankrupting the U.S., it could end the world.
Military spending is not the only budget challenge. Aging and rising
healthcare costs add to the fiscal woes. According to the Congressional
Budget Office, debt will reach
185 percent of GDP by 2052 if current policies remain
unchanged. Healthcare costs should be capped while taxes on the rich
should be raised. Yet facing down the military-industrial lobby is the
vital first step to putting America’s fiscal house in order, needed to
save the U.S., and possibly the world, from America’s perverse