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Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at the latest U.S. defense budget , updates on the war in Ukraine , and more news worth following from around the world.
Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at the latest U.S. defense budget, updates on the war in Ukraine, and more news worth following from around the world.
If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.
Biden’s New Defense Budget
The United States is set to spend more than $773 billion on defense next year, the highest level this century, as concerns over China’s rise and Russian aggression in Europe drive priorities in Washington.
As FP’s Jack Detsch reported on Monday, the spending is part of the Biden administration’s long-term focus on China, even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grabs headlines.
There are also more mundane considerations. “The big takeaway is inflation, inflation, inflation,” Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Foreign Policy. “And so, at first glance, it would appear to be significantly higher, but when you start factoring in the higher cost of everything, it’s actually pretty flat.”
Harrison pointed out the possibility that defense planners, who usually write the document in November, failed to account for how high inflation would become, raising the possibility that the final figure may end up lower than the previous year’s request in real terms.
Unlike U.S. President Joe Biden’s other spending priorities that have run aground over the course of his presidency, Congress is likely to step in and approve the new spending—and perhaps give him even more than he asked for. That happened in last year’s budget, when Biden requested $715 billion for the Defense Department and ended up being handed $756 billion by Congress.
That bipartisan enthusiasm is another reason why the U.S. defense budget keeps going up. “There’s a sense of you can never go wrong pushing for more,” said William Hartung, a defense industry and budget expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Sometimes, defense spending is put forward as a kind of insurance policy, and therefore, what’s wrong with more insurance? But too much insurance can bankrupt you; it could be a bad deal.”
Hartung suggests a combination of cutting the Pentagon bureaucracy—including its large contractor workforce and abandoning high-cost programs like the F-35 and new intercontinental ballistic missile system—as well as reducing the size of the 1.4 million strong U.S. armed forces as ways to rein in the current budget.
That’s easier said than done, Hartung concedes, with such moves needing to come from a different strategy “where you’re not going to go anywhere, fight any battle on the globe,” and then surmount a Congress eager to protect pet programs.
The international picture. Regardless of where the final figure lands, the United States will still be spending comfortably more than any other nation spends on its defense and three times more than China, its closest competitor.
Proponents of higher spending often point to the fact that, relative to the size of the U.S. economy, U.S. defense spending is small: at about 3 percent of GDP. (That rationale is not solely a Washington phenomenon; Beijing uses the same explanation when defending its defense spending increases.)
Part of what rankles progressives about the defense budget is how much of the federal budget it consumes, where it represents about one-sixth of total spending. That complaint is compounded by the fact that the United States is much stingier than other developed nations when it comes to overall government spending—devoting the equivalent of just 38 percent of U.S. GDP in 2019, the lowest in the G-7. (France, the G-7’s highest government spender, spent the equivalent of 55 percent of its GDP in 2019.)
A Ukraine effect? Despite the upward trend, the march toward a trillion-dollar defense budget isn’t yet an inevitability, with events in Ukraine—where Russia’s well-resourced military has so far failed to defeat a highly motivated, albeit far less expensively assembled, Ukrainian force—proving that money is not everything when war breaks out.
There are also changing winds in Europe to consider, where calls for an European Union-wide defense strategy as well as a historic increase in German defense spending may make the U.S. position as the continent’s security guarantor—and all the costs that come with sustaining that commitment—a thing of the past.
What We’re Following Today Ukraine latest. U.S. officials have cautioned that the apparent removal of Russian troops around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, is not a signal that Russia is engaged in a retreat but rather a strategy shift in its monthlong war. “Up until recently, we had still assessed that their plan was was to occupy and annex Ukraine using approaches along three lines of attack,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday. “Now, we think they’re going to prioritize the East.” Despite Russian pledges to reduce attacks near Kyiv, the governor of Chernihiv—just north of the capital—claims that shelling has continued in his district. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is not taking Russian assurances at face value. “We should not lose vigilance,” he said.
China’s Afghanistan diplomacy. Foreign Minister Wang Yi met foreign ministers from five countries bordering Afghanistan (Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) in Tunxi, eastern China, today—a week after Wang made a surprise visit to the Taliban-run country. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is also scheduled to attend and may hold a bilateral meeting with Wang. Acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi is also expected to attend the meeting.
Keep an Eye On Yemen’s cease-fire. The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen will observe a cease-fire beginning this morning, as peace talks continue from Tuesday. Yemen’s Houthis have refused to take part in Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored talks in Riyadh, demanding they take place in a neutral country instead. The Iran-aligned group has also rejected the cease-fire, saying that absent a removal of an airport and port blockade, the two sides remained in conflict.
“If the blockade is not lifted, the declaration of the coalition of aggression to stop its military operations will be meaningless because the suffering of Yemenis as a result of the blockade is more severe than the war itself,” Houthi official Mohammed al-Bukaiti wrote on Twitter.
Odds and Ends
Members of the public can now ride aboard Mexico’s answer to Air Force One, for a fee, after the government failed to find a buyer for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made offloading the $218 million jet, purchased during former Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s 2006-2012 term, a campaign promise in 2018, calling it an “insult” to the people, and has made a point of flying commercial throughout his presidency.
The plane will now be repurposed as a charter aircraft for weddings, birthdays, and corporate events, with proceeds used to cover the plane’s expenses.