US strategy in the 21st century

When I first saw that the cover on The Weekly Standard was bemoaning Obama’s “big squeeze” on military spending, claiming that he was “underfund[ing] the military,” my first reaction was a sneer: the administration has sent more troops to Afghanistan, and we still have the biggest defense budget by far (increasing in Obama’s first budget, I believe).  It’s my understanding that our military spending makes up over 40% of the world’s military spending (a few links).

But I should know by now that my first reactions to an opinion shouldn’t be a sneer; it’s neither gracious nor wise.  The article by Gary Schmitt and Thomas Donnelly is actually a pretty well-reasoned argument for continuing the US effort to shape the world stage and argues that defense spending is not really the political and fiscal threat that is often charged.  “Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and service on the debt” cost us three times as much.  They downplay Eisenhower’s warnings, echoed by current defense secretary Robert Gates, of a “military-industrial complex.”  I still think that those warning are wise, but they provide some good counterarguments.

Schmitt and Donnelly’s vision for US strategy is this:

The challenge is to preserve the global international order built and guaranteed by the United States. Though Americans seem habitually averse to thinking strategically, we have actually behaved in a broadly consistent manner since the end of World War II, including the uncertain period following the Cold War. As President Obama put it in his Nobel lecture, “The plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” Now, however, the prospect of additional reductions in the size and capacity of U.S. military forces calls the “strength of our arms” into question: Will America continue to underwrite the great-power peace and the surge in human freedom and prosperity that it has secured?

The strategic success of the United States rests on achieving three things: the defense of the homeland, including all of North America and the Caribbean Basin; safe access to and the ability to exploit the “global commons,” including the seas, the skies, space, and cyberspace; and a favorable balance of power across Eurasia. For all this to work as a “system,” each piece must be in working order.

The most expansive component of this expansive vision is the idea of the “global commons”:

The security of the commons—an awkward but nonetheless useful term—has long been regarded as an essential element in American strategy. But the protection of the realms outside the sovereign territory and waters of states is not just a strategic end in itself. It is the linchpin in America’s capacity to keep the great-power peace and, in times of conflict, to dominate particular parts of the ocean, the sky, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum.

This is not a task that can be passed off to others or assured by treaties. To draw an analogy from city life, families and businesses need to know that police are present in order to feel confident that the streets are safe for routine activity; but they also need the police to be able to physically control the streets in emergencies or during spasms of illegal behavior. Compare life in most American cities with that in many northern Mexican towns, and the high cost of losing control of the urban commons becomes obvious. So, too, the international commons—be it the sea lanes to and from the Middle East or the atmosphere and cyberspace on which we depend for secure and instantaneous communication with our forces anywhere in the world. We would be foolish to take the peace of the commons for granted, along with the benefits we and others derive from it. Once we lose it, it will be extremely costly to regain.

Check out the whole article if this is a topic that interests you.  I find it interesting that they openly state that the US needs to guarantee global security and the global economy, and they argue that our military superiority is tied to “maintaining, or where possible expanding, “a balance of power that favors freedom”—a Bush administration phrase, but one fully consonant with America’s grand strategy since the end of World War II.”  They never call the US a global hegemon or an empire, but it’s pretty darn close.

Like I said, it’s a well-written article, not a screed.  But it leaves me with several concerns:

  • There’s hardly a mention of the difficulties that have come with the implementation of this strategy since World War II: blowbacks from CIA-sponsored coups, the domestic political divides that have come from controversial wars like Vietnam and Iraq, alliances with brutal regimes that lined up with our perceived strategic interests, the rise of the national security state (not all bad and probably somewhat necessary, but still), and the lives lost in countries in which we have been involved.  Please understand me: I don’t think that this bullet point encapsulates the entire history of US foreign policy.  We have much to be proud of.  But certainly the difficulties deserve to be grappled with, don’t they?
  • To highlight contemporary developments, the War on Terror and the Bush freedom strategy have proven quite difficult and seem to have dashed a lot of the over-the-top optimism about transforming the Middle East.  It seems to be fairly obvious that some of these realities forced the Bush administration to change its goals over its final two years (here’s an example from Marc Lynch’s praise of Obama’s National Security Strategy).  Yet Schmitt and Donnelly seem to reflect the same type of thinking that got us into the Iraq war in the first place.
  • Do the American people want to embrace the kind of commitment and sacrifice that it would take to maintain the strategy that they advocate?  A small segment of society has paid the biggest costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Schmitt and Donnelly admit that they have taxed the military.  Will more people want to serve in the military?  Can wars continue to be waged without more sacrifice being called for?  Will a consumer society want to make sacrifices?  I don’t know.
  • It’s probably helpful to remember that at the end of World War II, there were really no other great powers or even regional powers outside of a few European countries and Japan.  And all of them except the US and the USSR had been depleted or defeated by the war: France and Britain lost their great empires over the coming decades.  Now, an incomplete list of great powers and regional powers would have to include the US, Russia, the EU, China, India, Iran, and Japan (and Brazil?  I don’t know).  Plus, you have the evolution of guerrilla warfare and terrorism that have proven difficult to combat.  My point is this: it’s a more complex world than it was in 1945.  Should we assume that a strategy crafted at the height of US dominance relative to the rest of the world is operative today?

It seems in these times where we have the two major approaches to the projection of American leadership and influence in the rest of the world that the one that’s out of favor can always tally up the failures of the other until it comes back into favor and runs into it’s own problems.  Maybe I’m relying too much on my own thoughts, but I think that a lot of people (including me) thought that Obama’s foreign policy sounded smart and nuanced compared to Bush’s blunt but clumsy-seeming policies.  It seemed so easy: you engage the other countries and build relationships with them, and things will get better (I’m oversimplifying some for effect).  Now, I imagine, Bush’s unapologetic commitment to American strength and righteousness probably seem to have regained their appeal to many.  We need to remember that our actions don’t always determine what other governments will do: they have their own concerns too.

But maybe the problem is that we’re lurching between two views of foreign policy that assume American global leadership.  People who advocate anything else usually aren’t taken too seriously, but maybe we need to realize that we’re in a different world than we often recognize.



  1. Being an Empire requires us keeping peace at all times everywhere. Every corner of the globe is part of our vital interest. You either police everything or end the Empire. I favor ending the Empire.

  2. That’s a pretty good way to put it. How do you respond to those who argue that the world would become chaotic?

  3. I agree with them that it would, but this is not a reason for US citizens to die all over the world. Perhaps Japan, South Korea and Europe would do a better job of keeping the peace regionally than we do.

  4. It took US leadership and intervention in Bosnia to end the civil war there. Europe is so scarred from WWII, they would have let the genocide continue rather than take the lead in stepping in. Maybe that is partly a result of them being accustomed to the US taking the lead in military affairs, but when it is in their own backyard, that should not be the case. There’s little doubt in my mind the world would become a much more chaotic place if the US were to end it’s tendency toward militaristic intervention in other people’s business, though I honestly think that is probably what we should do. Japan is about as weird as Germany regarding their military, making them a highly unlikely regional peacekeeper, not to mention their lack of support in asia at large due to past abuses of power.

  5. I meant to respond to these comments earlier. There’s an interesting book called Of Paradise and Power by neoconservative author Robert Kagan where he contrasts the European and American foreign policy. He basically says that Europeans don’t have the capacity to initiate a war; as Douglas mentioned, it took US leadership to end the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. He argued that European troops can do peacekeeping, but can’t begin the operation without American strength.

    Retreating might lead to some chaos but it might even lead to better solutions in the long run by allowing the people most affected by conflicts to solve them.

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