Reagan’s military buildup vs. Pentagon spending in the Trump-Biden era
Speaking Security Newsletter | Note n°166 | 2 August 2022
Like Ronald Reagan, Joe Biden seems to believe amplified military spending is the answer to all questions, foreign (beating back/down a rival power) and domestic (economic buffer against declining social welfare).
Put simply, outspending rival powers militarily promises security as an outcome. Biden described his $813 billion military budget request—now at $850 billion, after congressional add-ons—as “among the largest investments in our national security in history” as if security was a commodity that could be bought through Pentagon appropriations.
In reality, spiking military spending can worsen the problem it purportedly solves. Far from ‘buying more security’ it can escalate tensions, thereby increasing risk, as Reagan demonstrated in the 1980s. Here is Historian Michael Brenes: (the following from his excellent book on the politics of Cold War military spending, For Might and Right):
Reagan’s defense [spending] increases inflamed tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, igniting a “second Cold War” and erasing efforts at détente begun by Kennedy in 1963. With “peace through strength,” the administration retriggered the arms race, even while discarding the premises behind mutual assured destruction. (p. 208)
That Biden appears to be following this template vis-à-vis China should’ve prompted progressives in Congress to pull the fire alarm already.
Military spending shot up by an average of $23 billion (FY23 dollars) per year under Reagan. This has been the pace during the Trump-Biden era, too. However, it climbs to a $28 billion average annual increase if you include either (a) a portion of this year’s supplemental funding for military aid to Ukraine, or (b) the pending Pentagon budget for FY2023, which stands at $850 billion—the House voted to authorize this amount in mid-July and the Senate Appropriations Committee endorsed the same number last week.
In terms of the volume of military expenditures, it’s not even close. So far, annual military expenditures in the Trump-Biden era have been $220 billion higher than under Reagan, on average.