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And now the Opinion Page. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates plans to leave next month and delivered what may be his final policy address last week with a warning. The Pentagon will not escape deep budget cuts. That will mean a smaller U.S. military force and diminished U.S. role around the world.

In a column at foreignpolicy.com, Steven Walt endorses that conclusion. He wrote: We should be focusing a lot more attention on long-term capacity building than fighting costly wars in places that don't matter very much, like Afghanistan.

As you look around the world today, what do you think? Should we continue to spend defense dollars at the current rate? Should it be more or less? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation and find a link to his column at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Stephen Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard. He's written several books, including "Taming American Power" He's the co-author of "The Israel Lobby." And he joins us now from the studios at member station WBUR in Boston. Nice to have you with us today.

Professor STEPHEN WALT (Harvard University): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And you point to one line in particular, from Secretary Gates' speech at the American Enterprise Institute, where he said barring a major new threat, military spending won't return to Cold War levels anytime soon, and added nor do I believe we need to.

Prof. WALT: That's right. I think that this was very much Secretary Gates's swan song, his sort of last opportunity to set forth a vision and maybe throw a little bit of cold water, a realistic appraisal on the amount of money that's likely to be available to the Pentagon in the years to come. I think it's also - it's clear, he suggests we need a strong military, that there are various measures we can take to preserve that, but he wants people to be under no illusions that the kinds of increases we've had over the last decade that are associated primarily with the war on terror are not going to last, primarily because A) we can afford it, and B) because we don't need to spend that amount of money.

CONAN: We don't need to, yet we're involved still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, and a new conflict in Libya.

Prof. WALT: That's right. But one thing to do is put this in a little bit of historical perspective. Back in 1986, near the end of the Cold War, the United States and its allies together spent about 50 percent of global military spending, and our various adversaries had about 42 percent. So we were ahead, but not by a lot. Today, the United States plus its allies is about 70 percent of global military spending. You add up all of our possible adversaries, it's really only about 12 to 15 percent.

So we do actually have an enormous cushion compared to where we were at in the Cold War. And I think in part that's what Secretary Gates is pointing towards.

CONAN: Yet there will be opposition to this proposition. And I would just read this excerpt from an editorial in The Wall Street Journal: In the Gates' term, resources were focused on the demands of today's wars over hypothetical conflicts of tomorrow. This approach made sense at the start of his tenure in 2007, when the U.S. was in a hard fight in Iraq. Yet this has distracted from budgeting to address the rise of China and perhaps the regional powers, like a nuclear Iran that will shape the security future. The decision to stop producing the F-22 fighter and to kill several promising missile defense programs may come back to haunt the U.S.

And that will certainly be a point that many in Congress will make as well.

Prof. WALT: There's no question that we're going to face some political fights. Despite the fact that the Pentagon and the Obama administration didn't want the United States to continue buying two different engines for the F-35, Congress has managed to approve that, mostly because people in places like Massachusetts, where that engine was going to be built, wanted to make sure that those dollars got spent in their district.

So there will be politics involved in this process. And as Gates makes clear in his speech, there are some places where we need to rebuild the American military, after 10 years of being at war. He's not suggesting slashing of the budget by anywhere near the amount that it was cut between 1989 and 1998, after the end of the Cold War, where we cut things, you know, 20 to 30 percent. Nothing like that is in the cards.

In fact, the base budget is probably going to go up slightly, just not as much as we might have otherwise. And we're going to be spending some of that in recapitalizing the force and rebuilding or developing some new weapons systems. What he makes very clear, however, in his speech - and I'll quote him here -you know, we need to be honest. A smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things. And he makes it clear that a smaller military is what we're going to have in the years to come.

CONAN: As you look at the paradigm of Libya, where the United States played the major part in opening operations and taking out Libya's air defense systems but has since stepped back to let Britain and France take the primary load, provide support in the form of refueling and reconnaissance and that sort of thing. Well, they couldn't do it without us. Nevertheless, they are in the lead role and we are not. Do you see that as a paradigm?

Dr. WALT: I do see that as a harbinger of things to come. I mean, one of the things about having lots of allies around the world is that it's supposed to enhance our security. Allies are supposed to be able to contribute to what we're trying to accomplish, and particularly when it's even more in their interest than it is in ours.

I think Europeans had a much greater concern for what was happening in Libya because events there could affect them in a variety of ways. And for the United States to play a primarily supporting role and expect them to take the lead is both the right way to proceed here, but also likely to be a bit of a harbinger of what we try to do at least in some parts of the world in the years to come.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Rich is on the line with us from Houston.

RICH (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

RICH: I'm going to preface by saying I'm also a civilian Air Force employee. I normally work up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. But my concern is that Congress won't allow the Pentagon to cut the budget logically or sensibly. As your guest said - mentioned the second engine for the F-35. They have this history of insisting on buying things, hardware that the Pentagon says we don't want or need so that they can keep the jobs or keep the benefits going to all the different districts that they spread - the manufacturers now know to spread the benefits of - out across all the different congressional districts.

And now instead they're going to cut into family programs for the soldiers, soldiers' benefits or - yes, I know that there will have to be cuts in the civilian workforce, but it can't all come from there. They can't keep, you know, insisting on getting things like the second engine or - as they did with the Osprey.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. The V-22 aircraft for the Marines, yeah.

RICH: Right. You know, they can't keep insisting on buying these expensive systems and then look at doing all the cuts elsewhere that's going to hurt the troops' standard of living, hurt the troops' families, and it's going to hurt the readiness and retention even more.

CONAN: And, Stephen Walt, he's talking in part about a phenomenon known as hollowing out the military, where you reduce spending on things like maintenance and fuel for training and ammunition for firing on the grounds.

Dr. WALT: None of these things are mysterious. I mean, these various budget games and defense manipulations have been practiced in the past. They'll be practiced in the future. And what you hope, of course, is that we have a sufficiently, you know, well-trained, well-prepared civilian leadership in the Pentagon to keep that sort of thing to a minimum.

The other part of this problem, of course, is thinking very clearly about our priorities as a country and what parts of the world matter. What are the places where the United States is going to want to maintain a significant military presence? What are the places where we can allow local allies to carry the principal burden? And can we avoid sort of getting dragged in or, in some cases, leaping headlong into conflicts that actually don't, you know, contribute much to our national security or to anything else?

If you just consider the amount of money that was spent over the last decade on Iraq and Afghanistan, and you imagine some of that money being spent on other aspects of national security and some of that money being spent on measures that would enhance the long-term productivity of American economy, I think the equation you get there is a United States that would actually be both wealthier and more secure had we not squandered a lot of resources there. That's the kind of thing we're going to have to be much smarter about in the future.

CONAN: Rich, thanks very much for the call.

RICH: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email along those lines from Jack in Cherry Hill, New Jersey: I've been told the U.S. spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. Why have we become the world's policeman?

And this an email from Laurie in Astoria, Oregon: Saving money in the military? How about changing the frequency with which military personnel and families are moved around? Instead of every two years, change it to every three, four, five years. This would help the military unit cohesion, as well as family stability, especially for children.

And let's see. If we can go next to - this is Ken, and Ken is on the line with us from Minneapolis.

KEN (Caller): Yeah. Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KEN: You know, I looked back at what investment America made in previous wars, and I've got to say that I really don't feel on this Memorial Day that this war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan have really cost me anything. We keep kicking the can down the road and expecting others to pay for this war - our children, our grandchildren - and we keep borrowing and borrowing to pay. And I really wonder how long we would remain in Iraq, how long we remain in Afghanistan if we had to sacrifice as well as the soldiers, and we had to actually pay for this war as we went.

CONAN: Stephen Walt?

Dr. WALT: Yeah. Well, I think that there are several things would make it less likely that we would do things like this. Certainly, the fact that we managed to fight these two wars without raising taxes, without expecting immediate sacrifices from every American, and basically borrowed the money to do, it has made it more comfortable for people here at home. And, of course, there's now lots of recognition that the debt that the United States is facing, if not corrected soon, is going to cost us real economic problems that we will actually feel. And this is, of course, why Secretary Gates is saying, get ready, get used to living with less.

The other part of the equation, of course, is the all-volunteer force. And one can make a good economic, purely economic argument in favor of an all-volunteer force. But the fact is we now have a military that it consists entirely of volunteers, and that is an easier military to send all over the world than one that might draw any American from any social class into it as happened in previous periods of our history.

And I think we have to ask a larger question as a country, do we really want a military which where the burdens of fighting overseas is concentrated on a small group of self-selected people, and the rest of us can sit back here and sort of pretend it's not really happening.

CONAN: Ken, thanks very much for the call.

KEN: Thank you.

CONAN: This is from Michael in Philadelphia: The recent wars depleted the military's equipment and other resources, and now we must make it a priority to replenish them. Not to do so will undermine our service people come the next conflict, and there are plenty of potential ones out there.

So we'll give him the last word on that. But, Stephen Walt, before we let you go, how would you evaluate the tenure of, well, I guess, one of our most longest-serving secretaries of defense, Robert Gates, as he prepares to retire?

Dr. WALT: I think he's going to be regarded as a remarkably effective secretary of defense. And he is helped by the fact that his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, is now regarded as one of the worst in history. But he came into a situation where we were not doing well in Iraq, and we had lots of problems in Afghanistan, and I think he has managed both to turn things around in Iraq -not leading to victory, but allowing us to get out finally. And he has managed to ride herd in a sensible way on the military and on the Pentagon itself, which is probably the world's most difficult bureaucracy to manage.

Nobody performs 100 percent. He wasn't right about absolutely everything, but I think overall, his tenure was mature, realistic and sensible. And I hope most Americans will read that final speech and take a lot of what he had to say to heart.

CONAN: You were the big fan of his when he came in.

Dr. WALT: I had my doubts. I had never been a fan of his earlier incarnations as - by his own admission, very much a hard-lying cold warrior who got some things sort of badly wrong about the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he's actually performed quite well in a number of other roles since then, and he seemed to have been the right man for the job this time around.

CONAN: Stephen Walt, thanks very much.

Dr. WALT: My pleasure.

CONAN: Steve Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard University, and joined us today from our member station in Boston, WBUR. You can find a link to his column at our site npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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