Foreign Policy

Military Primacy Doesn’t Pay (Nearly As Much As You Think)

Joshua Tucker Jul 16 '13

Continuing our new series of collaborations with political science journals, we are pleased to present the following guest post from Tufts University political scientists (and blogger for Foreign Policy magazine) Daniel Drezner to discuss his article “Military Primacy Doesn’t Pay (Nearly As Much As You Think)” that appears in the current issue of International Security.  In conjunction with this post, MIT Press will make the article freely available to all for the next 30 days; you can download it here.


For the past generation, U.S. military hegemony has been a concrete fact of life in world politics.  The coming austerity to the defense budget has triggered anxiety from some quarters of the U.S. national security community.  Advocates for a large military argue that the world is safer and more prosperous today precisely because of the United States’ outsized security capacities and deep engagement with the rest of the world.  Critics, however, have long questioned whether military preeminence yields the benefits claimed by proponents.  Given the unchallenged military supremacy of the United States, some argue that is natural to target cuts in defense spending after a decade of dramatic budgetary increases.  While these debates over the economic merits and demerits of military predominance are common in policy circles, there is less discussion about their theoretical and empirical foundations.  What can international relations scholarship say about the relative economic benefits of military primacy?

This article evaluates whether the economic benefits of military preeminence and deep engagement are as great as advertised.  This evaluation proceeds by analyzing the most plausible arguments put forward for how military primacy can yield economic returns – and then assessing what the scholarly literature and evidence can conclude about those causal mechanisms.  There are three plausible pathways:  The “geoeconomic favoritism” argument posits that private capital will gravitate towards the military superpower because it provides the greatest security and safety to investors.  The “geopolitical favoritism” argument is sovereign states, in return for living under the security umbrella of the military superpower, voluntarily transfer resources to help subsidize the costs of hegemony.  Finally, the “public goods” logic argues that a unipolar distribution of military power is most likely to lead the provision of global public goods that accelerate global economic growth and reduce security tensions.  These public goods benefit the hegemon as much if not more so than other actors.

After reviewing the evidence, each of these arguments is less empirically persuasive than is commonly articulated in policy circles.  There is little evidence that primacy yields appreciable geoeconomic gains.  The private sector responds positively to a country’s military capability, but only up to a point; military primacy is hardly a prerequisite for attracting trade and investment.  The evidence for geopolitical favoritism is also modest.  Geopolitical favoritism does occur, but only during periods of bipolarity.  Economic exchange is actually less correlated with security ties under conditions of unipolarity.  The evidence for public goods benefits is strongest; military primacy does appear to be an important adjunct to the creation of an open global economy and a reduction in militarized disputes and security rivalries.  Military supremacy is only one component of unipolarity, however.  A decline in the hegemon’s economic power undercuts many of unipolarity’s posited benefits.  It is only full-spectrum unipolarity that yields appreciable economic gains.  At a minimum, therefore, this article suggests that the economic benefits from military predominance alone have been exaggerated in policy and scholarly circles.  The principal benefits that come with military primacy appear to flow only when coupled with economic primacy.

There are clear implications for U.S. foreign policy and fiscal policy.  When applying the lessons from this analysis to U.S. grand strategy, the prescription seems clear; an overreliance on military preponderance is badly misguided.  Again, it is not that military power is useless, it is that the law of diminishing marginal returns has kicked in.  The United States would profit more from investing in nonmilitary power resources than in more military assets.  An excessive reliance on military might, to the exclusion of other dimensions of power, well yield negative returns.  Without a revived economy – and the global recognition of a renaissance in American economic power – the United States runs the risk of strategic insolvency.  The United States needs to focus primarily on policies that will rejuvenate economic growth, accelerate job creation, and promote greater innovation and productivity.  If the U.S. economy is perceived to be rebounding, then the biggest economic benefits that have been hypothesized to flow from military predominance will be preserved.  As policymakers must choose between maintaining a large military and taking steps towards fiscal solvency, the results in this paper point strongly towards deeper cuts in defense expenditures.