PARIS — Paris.-- Washington has just backed off again from cuts in the Defense budget, which in the United States has become a system of industrial and employment welfare payments. National defense now seems an afterthought.
The impregnability of the military budget to any serious reduction is also a cause of Washington's present tendency to make military power the primary measure of national influence and leadership. Those who say the United States should become the armed keeper of a ''new world order'' are tacitly acknowledging the country's loss of the political leadership that in the past came from American economic and industrial strength.
The Bush administration had proposed a $281 billion military budget for the fiscal year that begins in October. This was $10 billion less than in the current year. Congress demanded much more of a ''peace dividend,'' but in the four months since the administration proposal was made Congress backed down, unwilling to face the political consequences -- in an election year -- of more severe spending cuts, meaning job losses in thousands of communities.
Military spending is a highly inefficient form of Keynesian state stimulation of the economy. Military goods have a comparatively small multiplier effect on the overall economy, unlike an equivalent federal expenditure on civilian research, plant and manufacturing.
Civil aircraft, high-speed trains, computer research and manufacture, all generate additional wealth. Military goods do so only marginally, if at all. Mighty aircraft carriers plow the seas, and fleets of Stealth fighter-bombers cross the skies in peacetime exercises, to no economically productive purpose. The country needs such forces -- some of them -- but it certainly does not need them in the quantities in which it has them today.
This has, however, become the national way of life. The United States devotes very high levels of public investment and subsidy to a sector of the economy which generates low civilian benefits, while it refuses, for ideological reasons, to concern itself with the financing or direction of civilian industry.
A foreign observer might think this odd, aware of how the United States' Japanese and continental European rivals order their industrial economies. Such is the American way. Many other forms of life are also profligate. Consider the lilies in the field.
An upheaval of opinion in Washington and the academy could change this. Industrial policy is all the rage among the Democrats this year. However, Democrats were prominent among the congressmen and senators who in recent days found themselves unable to support further cuts in military spending, and the obstacles that blocked them will not disappear if Bill Clinton (or Ross Perot) improbably manages to be elected to the White House in November. Too many jobs in too many places depend on military spending.
For the foreseeable future the U.S. military establishment will be that nation's principal instrument of world influence -- given that American industrial leadership has faltered and the national economy experiences a heavily indebted stalemate. The policy choices available in these circumstances are limited.
The easy thing to do is to pretend that military power is what counts, use it conspicuously to claim international leadership, and attempt to associate others with the political rationales and financing of one's actions. This is what President Bush did last year in the Persian Gulf war, and it is what his elusive new world order seems to come down to.
The Democratic (and Perotist, for that matter) alternative envisages a generous peace divided applied to the education of America's young, the rescue of its poor, the redemption of its credit, the dynamization of American industry, etc., with regained world influence the result. This has little practical chance of realization for exactly the same reasons that block military cuts today -- plus the budget constraints otherwise created by the deficit and the electorate's refusal to pay higher taxes.
But if military power is destined to remain the United States' principal government resource, could it not be used in more creative ways? In the Great Depression, and again during World War II, the military were employed on civilian projects of public utility: in manpower education and professional training, public infrastructure creation, industrial development. The Army Air Corps even flew the mail for a while -- if not very successfully.
The United Nations has never had so many demands for peacekeeping troops and the kind of humanitarian actions military organizations are very good at. It recently began a Cambodian peacekeeping effort which is the most important and expensive in its history. The United States -- above all -- should surely help, having been a prime disturber of Cambodia's peace. It would be a salutary shock to Serbia's leaders if U.S. troops joined the U.N. force now in Bosnia-Herzogovina.
There has been a plaintive call from ex-Soviet Central Asia for U.N. forces to keep the peace in the new republics there. Somalia, in West Africa, needs 500 armed troops to protect relief workers. The United States has blocked a U.N. plan to furnish them. Why? Washington doesn't want to pay its agreed share of the $22 million required. Why doesn't it simply send an infantry battalion?
The United States not only is in arrears on its peacekeeping payments but also in its dues owed the United Nations itself. This is a disgrace for a country that claims world leadership. If the United States is too poor to pay its dues, while possessing troops to spare, the least it can do is send the troops. Influence has to be paid for in some way.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.