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American Power Projection

New Strategies to Confront 21st Century Reality

AMERICAN leaders have misunderstood American power,” writes Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, in his recent book Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. Power in the 21st century is really about “psychological and political pressure,” not just military force. What does this mean for the world’s largest army? How will the role and function of the armed forces change? How should the Pentagon’s budget reflect the new realities? I sat down with two Yale professors to discuss these questions.

The strategic challenges confronting the United States in the next century will undoubtedly change. As the world’s lone military superpower, it is unlikely that any nation will challenge its very existence. Threats, therefore, will most likely confront its access to resources, influence over regional conflicts, and the security of its civilians against terrorism. Does a large, standing army, designed to defeat the Soviets in a global conflagration, address these concerns in a cost-effective manner? Or will our threats be more asymmetric in nature, requiring not conventional warfare but counterterrorism, special operations, and intelligence?

The scholarly opinion on this matter is divided. Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University, insists that conflict and power struggle are an inevitable result of human nature, and that large, conventional warfare is historically cyclical and lucidly foreseeable. He cites Israel, South Korea, and Taiwan as defense obligations of the United States that could require the dispensation of large and immediate force. Jolyon Howorth, a Visiting Professor of Political Science at Yale University, disagrees, insisting that “the overwhelming evidence – statistical evidence, empirical evidence – is that war between major powers is massively on the decline.” With the notable exceptions of the two world wars, Howorth sees a distinct trend within the past 200 years away from major war, with the sixty years since the Korean War as an era characterized largely by peace.

The M1 Abrams tank was designed to defeat Soviet armor, not car or suicide bombs.

“That’s a very short period of time in the grand scheme of things, but not only nuclear weapons but also the nature of sophisticated modern technological conventional weapons make the thought of war between consequential states absolutely horrific. What is the object of war??

The peace of the past 60 years, however, is not one devoid of violence and armed struggle. Civil war has constituted the vast majority of armed conflict in the post-WWII era, often in the context of post-Colonial anarchy, in nations with underdeveloped political institutions. Though the U.S. and Soviet Union never fought a conventional war during this period, many civil disturbances in Central America, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa were essentially proxy wars between the two powers, who backed opposing groups. Whereas the equilibrium of international relations has remained largely stable, the political balance within certain states has not.

Yet the absence of inter-state war is certainly an indication of progress. This raises the question of how this “peace” has been acquired. Have nuclear weapons caused a fear of conflict escalation that has placated major powers? Has economic interdependence made the cost of war too high? Have international institutions enhanced cooperation between states and mitigated would-be conflicts?

Howorth insists that they have, claiming that today’s arena of global politics is a more mature one than under the League of Nations. “The United Nations exists in a completely different international framework, where the norms of internationalism, the norms of institutionalism, the norms of multi-lateralisms, the norms of consultation, the norms of all sorts of arms control, regimes, have become pretty much internalized by the international community.” In response to this, Kagan makes a surprising and provocative claim, that the UN undermines global stability and encourages conflict. Instead of forming alliances and interstate agreements to maintain the balance of power, nations turn to a deliberative, powerless body. Halden Libby (JE ’15) son of a prominent official in the Departments of State and Defense, views the UN as not necessarily powerless, but certainly causing entanglement and interventionalism: “the UN creates a sense of international responsibility to involve yourself in foreign injustices.” Ultimately, while the UN might facilitate cooperation between willing states, it is largely powerless to deter unwilling states, as evidenced by the continuation of the Iranian nuclear program in spite of economic sanctions. Perhaps only military action can stop such national resolve.

A final question to consider is the role military will play as a guarantor of security. Regardless of the likelihood of large-scale conflict, Howorth acknowledges that the maintenance of an advanced and capable military is still important, and perhaps itself deters war. “Militaries can serve purposes other than those of prevailing in battle. They can act as offshore balances, they can act as messages, they can act as discourse, you know, an aircraft carrier fleet in the Taiwan straits doesn’t have to do anything to exert its power; it’s just a message.”

The maintenance of this power projection, however, is not without cost, as Howorth notes: “When the United States has a national debt approaching $15 trillion, there is no way in which Washington can continue to justify to the American people the maintenance of that degree of [Military] expenditure.”

Indeed, the Department of Defense requested a budget of $708 billion in FY 2011. Whereas a previous generation of policymakers could write off these expenses by selling treasury bonds, the national debt has become an intense burden on the American taxpayer and can no longer withstand such massive borrowing. Cuts must be made somewhere.

The overwhelming likelihood, however, is that defense spending will not substantially decrease in the United States. Eisenhower’s warning of the military-industrial complex and its implications for the American economy is just as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. Defense is something of a sacred term in American politics, whose value cannot be quantified. And rightly so; drastic reduction in spending would greatly destabilize global politics, as the United States essentially underwrites the security of the NATO countries, Japan, South Korea, Israel, and Taiwan. The removal of this guarantee would force these states to invest more heavily in their own defense, leading to regional arms races and further insecurity. American power projection is an asset that cannot be relinquished, though this responsibility must somehow be reconciled with the fiscal reality confronting the nation. Perhaps the best approach is for the United States to increase the capacity of its armed forces while decreasing their size, a transition from power extension to power projection. Rather than involving itself in occupations led by costly ground forces, the United States should invest in aircraft carriers, precision strike capability, and intelligence gathering.

Austin Schaefer is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College.

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