Beyond the cascade of death, destruction, and trauma the war in Ukraine has visited on the Ukrainian people, it has also harmed the Russian people, led to greater food insecurity in the Global South, intensified nuclear brinksmanship, introduced new threats to the norms of the UN Charter, and set back the urgent fight against climate change. While the history of relations between Ukraine, Russia, and the United States does not leave us with a clean portrait of good versus evil, it seems clear to me that the United States has no responsible choice but to support Ukraine militarily.
But Rajan Menon puts the right emphasis on outlining ways to push harder on negotiations, while assessing with clear eyes the obstacles in the way. He also focuses necessary attention on ways to avoid the postwar dangers of a further-isolated Russia and outlines a set of specific measures to achieve that end.
In a sea of unknowns about the war’s outcome and amid its litany of harms, though, we have one known beneficiary. This is the world’s fraternity of arms merchants, dominated by the five U.S. prime contractors. In the month before the war started, the CEO of Raytheon promised his investors that the storm cloud of war would be good for business. He was right, of course. We also know that the conflict is pushing the U.S. economy to become further militarized.
Propelled by Russia’s invasion in February of 2022, the base U.S. military budget jumped almost 10 percent, from $782 billion enacted in 2022’s fiscal year to $858 billion for 2023. While this surge was couched as a necessary buildup in response to unprovoked Russian aggression, only a tiny fraction of this budget was earmarked for support for Ukraine: that was provided in a supplemental appropriation of $47 billion, $13.7 billion of which went to Ukraine.
The United States’ so-called discretionary federal budget includes all the money Congress votes on every year. (Social Security and Medicare are funded separately, and don’t require an annual vote.) In the 2023 budget, nonmilitary spending increased by about 8 percent—that is, it lost ground to the military’s 10 percent jump. Military and nonmilitary spending had for years divided the discretionary budget roughly in half. After the invasion of Ukraine, military spending has tipped into the lead. When the military portion of the budget is adjusted to include aid to Ukraine, plus the State Department’s funding of subsidies to the arms trade, it reaches $920 billion, exceeding the amounts for housing, education, transportation, international affairs, and all other nonmilitary accounts combined.
And while the Biden administration’s military budgets have exceeded any that the Trump administration proposed, Congress has insisted on adding even more—about $25 billion in 2022 and $45 billion in 2023. In other words, Congress has insisted on giving the Pentagon more money for its overall national security mission than the Pentagon has requested. The rationale has added the Ukraine crisis to the case for a general military buildup that trains much of its attention on waging a new Cold War with China. This, despite the fact that the United States already spends more on its military than the next nine countries put together, including China (two and a half times more) and Russia (over ten times more). If Congress continues this practice in the coming budget year, as it seems inclined to do, U.S. military spending this year may tip over the $1 trillion mark.
What is sacrificed by such a prospect? One trade-off stands out. The military itself calls climate change an urgent and growing threat to national security. Indeed, it is the greatest threat to war and disruption in the world short of a nuclear exchange. Yet no military forces on earth can stop it. Through executive action and legislation, the Biden administration has for the first time crafted an industrial policy that gives us a chance to build a zero-emission economy in time to prevent the worst ravages of climate change. Congress has acted to pare back the regulations and incentives in the policy. The amounts Congress has added to the military budget beyond the Pentagon’s requests would be enough to more than double the total amounts currently allocated annually to green economic development. The centerpiece of federal climate investment contained in the Inflation Reduction Act amounts to about 4 percent of what the Pentagon received this year.
And will focusing on military increases at the expense of other national priorities benefit the United States economically? The contractors certainly say so. Their pitch for more money highlights the jobs it will create as often as the national security it will deliver. But this case has significant holes.
First, according to figures from the National Defense Industrial Association—the contractors’ main trade association—the concentration of more than half of the federal discretionary budget on this one thing has bought about one million jobs, in a workforce of 166 million. This is down from about 3 million a few decades ago, due to factors including increased automation and outsourcing overseas.
Second, studies have repeatedly shown military spending to be a poor job creator compared to other investments such as education, health care, transportation, clean energy, and even tax cuts.
Finally, in my travels to defense-dependent communities across the country, I found concentrations of military money to be far from a reliable predictor of community prosperity. Los Alamos County, for example, where the Nuclear Age was born and is being perpetuated, routinely makes Forbes Magazine’s lists of richest counties by per capita income. The adjacent county, Rio Arriba, routinely appears toward the bottom nationwide. Palmdale, California sits next to an airbase where Northrop Grumman is building the next U.S. bomber and Lockheed Martin only recently scratched plans to add hypersonic weapons onto fighter jets. In an interview, the then-head of Palmdale’s department of economic development wryly referred to his city’s reputation as “a basketcase.” Anecdotal evidence like this led me to look at the poverty rates of the sixty most military-dependent counties in the United States. It turns out that about half of these communities, awash in Pentagon money, have poverty rates that exceed the national average.
As this surge of post–Ukraine invasion military spending further militarizes our economy, it will inevitably create jobs and make some people richer. But it will also create fewer jobs than would be created by putting the money in most other places. And for military-dependent communities, it will not be a reliable ticket to broadly-shared prosperity.
Acknowledging the United States’ responsibility to support Ukraine against Russian occupation, Rajan Menon effectively argues for avoiding the short- and longer-term harms of committing to unconditional victory at all costs. To this case I add one more point: providing necessary military support to Ukraine must not be conflated with a headlong rush to spend more inflation-adjusted dollars on the U.S. military than at any time in our history save World War II. The significant opportunity costs of doing so must not be ignored.