Wellesley Professor Contextualizes Military Budget Cuts in 'Foreign Affairs'

March 24, 2014

Paul MacDonald Coauthors Article That Points to Historic Precedent for "Retrenchment"

Pentagon building at night

Paul K. MacDonald, assistant professor of political science, recently coauthored an article in Foreign Affairs in which he argues that the military retrenchment signaled by the cuts in the American military budget announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel follows a historical trend, rather than representing a drastic change. Foreign Affairs is the leading magazine for analysis and debate of foreign policy, economics, and global affairs.

In “The Banality of Retrenchment: What Secretary Chuck Hagel Gets Wrong about This Year’s Defense Budget,” MacDonald and co-author Joseph M. Parent of Miami University refute claims that the military budget cuts are either drastic or novel. Instead, they point to a multi-year trend of spending decreases and restructuring, begun under previous defense secretary, Robert Gates. The authors, who work together on a long-term project about great powers in decline, also emphasize that these decreases still leave the U.S. military much larger than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

“The most important finding to take away from our piece is that retrenchment is likely to remain the norm in American foreign policy over the next few years, but that this retrenchment is not as dramatic as some critics have portrayed,” explains MacDonald. “The post-Iraq defense drawdown is consistent with similar reductions, such as those that followed the Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War.”

MacDonald specializes in American foreign policy. This fall, he will teach a new first-year course entitled POL3 121: After 9/11. “The course is designed to give first year students a broad and practical overview of U.S. policy during the ‘War on Terror,’” he says. “We’ll discuss the rise of Al Qaeda and the events of September 11th; the evolution of U.S. counterterrorism policy and the use of torture; the causes of the Iraq War and the failures of the occupation. We’ll ask why did U.S. policy evolve the way that it did? What were the alternatives? And perhaps most importantly, what lessons does this contentious period have for the future role of the U.S. in the world?”

Meanwhile, in the coming months, MacDonald encourages interested observers to pay attention what to happens in Congress. “The President has asked Congress to do a number of things—start another round of base closings, alter certain military benefits, retire particular weapons systems—that are likely to be very unpopular,” he says. “If Congress rejects these requests, then retrenchment becomes much more complicated and potentially risky. The Pentagon might be forced to slash funds for training and maintenance, because Congress takes other more logical options off the table.”


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