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Will "sequestration" lead to a more isolationist U.S. foreign policy?

Question submitted by Andreas Maldener, from Trier University, April 19, 2013

Answered by: Carla Anne Robbins, Adjunct Senior Fellow

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After more than a decade of war and several years of a deep financial crisis, many Americans are asking whether the country should focus more of its attention—and more of its resources—at home. That said, the impulse to lead is still strong in both political parties and most polls show that Americans still feel both a moral and strategic imperative to remain fully engaged in the world. Recently, for example, 55 percent of Americans polled by Gallup said that U.S. military forces should help defend South Korea against a North Korean attack; and 34 percent were opposed. There was no talk about the sequester when the United States sent two B-2 stealth bombers in late March to South Korea, part of a show of force intended to warn off Pyongyang. The cost of the 6,500-mile trip was $2.1 million.

The sequester does mean that the Pentagon will have less money—nearly $50 billion less—to spend this year, meaning that the base budget (not counting the cost of the war in Afghanistan) will decline to around $480 billion, or about the same in real terms as in 2007. The budget is unlikely to rise again for several years to come. There are certainly savings to be found in procurement, overhead, and entitlements, although one can expect a political battle with Capitol Hill on all of these fronts. The Pentagon has already committed to shrinking the Army and Marines back to pre-2001 levels and there may be pressure for further cuts. But even with a smaller force, the United States will not have to abandon any key military or humanitarian missions, so long as the President and his top aides are committed.

An informed debate over defense spending should address deeper questions about America's role in the world: the responsibilities it is still willing to shoulder and pay for and the risks it is willing to accept for the sake of savings. So far, that debate has not happened. I fear it will not.