THE more Washington spends on military defense, the less it has to respond to other-than-military challenges to United States security. In the post-cold-war world, this leads to the paradoxical conclusion that the higher our military budget, the less secure we may be. It is not hard to understand why US leaders continue to identify national security with military defense. For a half-century, the main threat to US security came from the military prowess of a hostile superpower. Now, however, the main dang ers we face come not from a military adversary but from a more complex array of challenges. Military outlays are irrelevant in addressing these problems.
There is little risk that any nation or group of nations will launch an armed attack against the US in the foreseeable future. To be sure, some of our security problems are still military in nature. Saddam Hussein reminded us that the collapse of the Soviet Union did not end aggression. Several US allies in the third world are vulnerable; Washington should be prepared to help defend a Kuwait or a South Korea against aggression, and aid friendly democratic governments against local insurgent forces (thoug h guerrilla wars are a declining phenomenon).
Other military hazards include the spread of nuclear weapons technology and new and old forms of terrorism. But even taken together, these concerns do not add up to any clear and present dangers for the US.
Moreover, US military operations may not provide the best response to armed conflicts or threats in today's world. Multilateral peacekeeping is more effective in many cases. United Nations brokered settlements have ended many civil wars - and UN forces are helping to structure new political orders in places as different as Cambodia and El Salvador. Yet UN peace efforts are starved for funds, while Congress refuses to fulfill basic US commitments to the UN. Making good on these commitments would take less
than one-fifth of 1 percent of the Pentagon's budget, and surely enhance our security more than another fighter bomber or nuclear submarine.
Nor can US armed strength halt the instability caused by the breakup of the Soviet Union, or reduce the likelihood of violent conflict in or between new republics. The most effective help is economic and best comes from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The president and Congress, however, have failed to approve any new US funding for the IMF.
The truth is the greatest international danger to US security has little to do with military issues. Yet the dollars we spend on defense deprive us of resources needed to deal with them. The greatest threat may come from the steady deterioration of the global environment. This is an issue the president and Congress have decided to postpone action on for reasons of economy.
MOST importantly, it is more evident that the main sources of our insecurity in the post-cold-war world will be domestic, including such critical concerns as:
* Whether the US economy will provide good jobs and satisfactory incomes for American citizens. This depends on our ability to invest in needed infrastructure, education, and scientific and technical research. Most dollars that go to defense are lost for these other activities.
* Whether we can make the investments needed to save our environment and keep our water mains, highways, ports, and electric facilities in shape.
* Whether we can stop the violence that has overwhelmed our urban areas. No one has an easy formula, but there is wide agreement that we must invest more in children, schools, housing, and drug treatment facilities.
Circumstances have changed. Our security is no longer at risk from foreign forces. Our own military cannot do much to shield us from the dangers we face. The dollars we spend on defense - some 1.5 trillion over the next five years - are not available to confront these other dangers. This does not mean the Pentagon should be closed down. It does mean the defense budget should compete for national security dollars - not have automatic, privileged access to them.
The US debate on the defense budgets is cast much too narrowly. It should not be limited to how much to spend on the military, but should focus on how to use scarce resources to deal with the full range of threats to national security - military and economic, social and environmental, domestic and international.