PARIS. — The Defense Department's new effort to justify continued high military spending is a more imposing job than the last one. In February, scenarios of ''illustrative future wars'' became known, prepared under the auspices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All were reruns of past wars, often several at once: North Korea attacking South Korea while Iraq goes on a new rampage, or Panama taken over by rogue policemen linked to narco-terrorists -- who ''threaten to close the Panama Canal.'' The United States has to spring into action.
It was not an exercise long in imagination, and found little favor in the Congress. It did disclose a new Pentagon acronym, ''REGT'' -- ''resurgent/emergent global threat,'' meaning a new Soviet Union or equivalent, requiring return to the comfortable old days of the Cold War and reliably high and regular military appropriations.
The new Pentagon program for the post-Cold War world, leaked to the New York Times by an official who thinks the matter deserves more debate than it has received, says that the United States should now make it its policy to ''convince'' everyone else not to challenge ''our leadership or seek . . . to overturn the established political and economic order.'' Internationalism and collective security are not part of the program. ''Benevolent'' and permanent world domination by the United States is the aim.
According to this draft Defense Planning Guidance -- an internal Bush administration document meant to serve as the basis for force structure development, military budgets and strategy for the rest of this decade -- Japan and Europe are to be ''pre-empted'' from becoming substantial military powers or .
global competitors by keeping them inside U.S.-dominated security zones. An independent European security alliance is to be blocked because it would undermine NATO, considered the instrument of continued American predominance.
Potential competitors are to be deterred ''from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.'' Nuclear proliferation is to be prevented, if necessary by unilateral military intervention -- even in Europe and former Soviet states.
Russia would continue to be targeted by American nuclear forces, as the sole potential nuclear threat to the United States, and American policy would be directed to preventing that country from again becoming a first-rank technological power.
This Defense Department document obviously expresses the interests of the institution which produced it. It is a program to justify high budgets and large military forces and national security bureaucracies for as long as the eye can see or the imagination stretch.
It cannot, however, be dismissed as mere bureaucratic paper-propagation, since the policies advocated already have made themselves felt. U.S. hostility to independent European defense, vigorously expressed during the past three years, clearly comes from exactly these assumptions about what America's future relationship to Europe should be.
Current rumblings in Washington about the need to destroy Iraq's and North Korea's nuclear capabilities must be seen, in the light of this document, as having more behind them than the mere need of a desperate president to get reelected.
Still, there are two fundamental obstacles to such a program. The first is that the U.S. public is unlikely to wish to pay for it. The U.S. public may not even want it. Global hegemony is an idea which may please conservative publicists and the national-security intelligentsia, but it can still be counted on to raise hackles in Middle America.
Middle America in any case is on a tax strike. The United States suffers an enormous overhang of public deficit and private debt, declines to pay its current obligation to the International Monetary Fund, to the United Nations or U.N. peacekeeping forces; has offered, in proportion to its wealth, only a derisory level of assistance to the ex-Communist countries and virtually none at all to the Third World; and has both Republican and Democratic challengers to President Bush campaigning to cut ''foreign aid'' -- as if there were any left to cut. This does not seem a public mood in which a five-year, $1.2 trillion spending program to achieve world hegemony will win cheers -- or is even politic to propose.
Finally, as a moment's reflection on geopolitical history would suggest, this is a program which will generate its own antithesis. Western Europe alone is today a substantially larger industrial agglomerate than the United States and a more populous one. Japan is a much more dynamic industrial power than the United States, with much more rapid rates of growth. Neither are major military powers today, but they certainly were in the past and could become so again if they felt that necessary.
This American plan tries to substitute military primacy for the industrial and economic predominance the United States enjoyed between 1945 and 1975 but now has lost. It disregards the fact that America's political leadership in the postwar years came from industrial and social accomplishment and from the moral authority of disinterested policy making, rather than simple military power.
It is a plan for American world leadership through intimidation. It is a politically and morally stunted program whose logical outcome would be to make of the United States itself that ''resurgent/emergent global threat'' the Pentagon foresees. Is this what we want? To finish in a burlesque of empire?
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.