America’s Split Views On Its International Military Power

There’s no denying that the powers in the world are shifting. Growth in places like China and India are internationally recognized, and people are taking notice. Couple that with a shift in politics at home, and America isn’t certain about its military might anymore.

The Numbers

In a Gallup poll released on February 15, 2016, 49% of those surveyed, less than half, would rank the US military as number one internationally. The question was posed to 1,021 adult Americans, and the results are split near even. The yes answers accounted for an additional 49%, leaving two percent unaccounted. The group that views US military as No. 1 is the lowest percentage Gallup has recorded in its 23 year trend, down some ten percent from the previous year when 59% believed the US to be the world’s top military power. Still, in a separate question some 67% of those surveyed stated that they think it is important that the US be the top military power in the world.

In addition to perceptions of military power, Gallup posed a question about military spending, to which 37% of those surveyed believe that the US federal government is spending too little on national defense and military purposes. This is the highest number recorded since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On the other side, 32% of those surveyed state that the federal government is spending too much on the military, while the remaining 27% think spending is about where it should be. According to the poll, those who identified themselves as Republicans were more than three times more likely to think that spending was too low than those who identified themselves as Democrats.

The Current State of The US Military

So do perception and reality align? Start with spending. The US spends around $610 billion on its military and defense operations. That’s more than the next seven top spenders combined, and near $2,000 per person. China, by contrast, had a 2015 defense budget equal to around $144 billion, making their spending per person around $105. While this doesn’t necessarily speak to whether the US is spending enough on military and defense, there’s certainly no one else on the global scale outpacing America in that regard.

Measuring power is a bit more difficult. By most measures, though, whether it be manpower or firepower, the US still comes out ahead. What the Gallup poll seems to reflect is the shift in rhetoric that comes with a shift in politics.

As a recent VOX article explains, Presidents Clinton and Obama, both preceded by a Republican President, H.W. and W. Bush respectively, with strong beliefs of US military power and terms marked by use of US forces. Clinton and Obama were, on the other hand, far more hesitant to start wars and enter large numbers of troops into engagements. Mind you, they both still did, they simply were not of the opinion that military was the defining power of America. America sees this, they see other countries building up their military power, and they make the interpretations that they can - in this case that a hesitant military doesn’t want to engage because it is not strong enough, rather than because it is risky, costly, or other such factors.