Here’s Your Future
What are the plausible futures for the U.S. defense posture? Regardless of how the budget shakes down, change seems afoot. But adequately grappling with its consequences requires more clarity about how the broader international system is shifting, and the utility of power within that system generally. As I’ve said elsewhere, not only is power not over, but it’s not shifting, necessarily, in the ways many expect. Nevertheless, while I would hesitate to claim that state power writ large is in noticeable decline, insofar as coercive ability goes, it’s hardly disputable that the U.S. is in a position of relative decline, as are the western world’s military powers generally. As in cases of weak states suffering from insurgency, however, generalizing a claim about the international system from the specific case of relative U.S. decline is often greatly misleading.
Take, for example, Panetta’s claim that sequestration would render the U.S. a “second-rate” military power. Regardless of the effects of sequestration, we can disprove this claim rather easily by asking, second to who? Even under the worst scenarios, the U.S. would retain unparalleled military capability by any reasonable measure of power projection and sophistication.
The problem is that focusing on aggregate military strength, even if it does remain first in the world, fundamentally misses the point. As Laswell reminds us, political power is the ability to produce the effects we desire over others, to determine “who gets what, where, how, and when.” When we talk about relative power in the international systemic sense, we’re referring to which powers are capable of producing the greatest intended effects on the international system.
Even in relative terms, our decline is not nearly as precipitous as it may seem. What is probably more troubling is that our expectations for intended effects so frequently put themselves at odds with our actual capabilities. This is compounded when we take any measure of cost-efficiency into account.
Fears that the U.S. is going to become second rate, or that some other power is going to be able to replicate its global posture, are clearly unfounded. Simultaneously, though, the opportunity cost of global power is increasing, and this reduces the yields of primacy. The plausibility of simultaneously managing relative decline, redoubling U.S. hegemony in East Asia, managing Iran and the civil wars of the Arab Spring, and continuing to prosecute wars against al Qaeda and its affiliated movements from Mali to Pakistan is fading (indeed, even the task of providing strategic intelligence on all these subjects is daunting).
More significant than the possibility of one power out-matching the U.S. either in aggregate military capability or global military presence, which is respectively unlikely and near impossible for the plausible future, is a future in which rising powers and disseminating military capability raise the potential costs of U.S. power projection in multiple theaters simultaneously. As the relative power of states and military capability of non-state actors increases on multiple continents, the opportunity cost of an intervention in any one region increases.
With relative power redistributing and the U.S.’s fiscal fundamentals groaning, a posture and outlook demanding simultaneous military engagement across the globe is unsustainable. Continuing U.S. military predominance vis-a-vis any specific enemy in any specific theater becomes increasingly detrimental to maintaining predominance in other theaters. The smaller your military, and especially the more strained the assets most necessary for power projection become, the more implausible a defense posture which involves multiple simultaneous conflicts becomes.
The debate over the “two wars” and “win, hold, win” concepts are illuminating in this respect. If your defense posture requires you to fight two major conflicts simultaneously in two parts of the globe, then the “hold” conflict, and indeed, the ability to manage multiple simultaneous conflicts generally, is going to require an exceptionally robust power projection component, which will require exactly the kind of airlift, sealift, and standoff fire capabilities most in demand even by our limited footprint wars. This is hardly a novel concept – it is easily apparent by the late 1990s – but the fact that even “light footprint” operations such as Libya, the initial toppling of the Taliban, and, retrospectively, Bosnia and Kosovo, still required significant amounts of air and sea power should give us pause that simply downsizing our involvement in wars adequately mitigates the opportunity cost issue.
The easy solution to the rising difficulty of simultaneous power projection is to engage in burden-sharing. Yet the compromises this entails need clarifying. Firstly, the potential negative effects of the security dilemma problems of burden-sharing are significantly understated. As Kindred Winecoff points out, cashing out on U.S. defense expenditures through burden-sharing not only entails a logical non-U.S. military increase, but an increase that is far more likely to result in destabilizing security dilemmas.
The marginal returns of building up to engage in security competition with the U.S. are relatively low. Beyond engaging in what is necessary for an adequate deterrent against U.S. forces, trying to build a large offensive capability is a much more risky gambit, since making U.S. intervention costly enough to keep Washington out and actually overpowering Washington’s forces in theater to establish regional dominance are two entirely different military propositions. You are likely better off investing in a nuclear deterrent or a variety of asymmetric capabilities that aren’t likely to be of much use for offensive power projection in and of themselves.
These calculations change when the U.S. delegates more security to local partners. For Chinese planners, deterring or defeating, say, fully-rearmed Japanese or fully-modernized Indian military forces is still a daunting task, but it is still easier than the same for the U.S. More importantly, at the margin, spending on modernization or expansion of military capability has greater returns for states vis-a-vis their neighbors than against the U.S. So, shifting security burdens to local states not only exacerbates the arms race dynamics of the security dilemma, it also creates dyads where the outcome of a conflict is much less assured.
Indeed, it is far more logical for regional powers to engage in their own military buildups or external balancing through new alliances against other regional powers than to do so against the United States. As Levy and Thompson pointed out, offshore powers are less threatening than regional continental powers, and thus more likely to produce stable security environments, decreasing the salience of local security dilemmas. Encouraging military buildups and heightened security competition between regional powers across the Eurasian rim is highly likely to rekindle some of the conditions for increased conflict. Today’s current distribution of great powers is relatively lightly armed, and there is very little significant balancing behavior against a distant U.S. A situation where,South and East Asia engage have increased incentives for security competition will produce more military power and balancing behavior with a higher geographic density.
Not only that, but it expands the range of plausible options for raising the blood and treasure costs of entering a regional war for the U.S. If a regional power can achieve early dominance over U.S. local partners, this seriously complicates the U.S.’s already heavy reliance on forward-staging and easy access to local basing – one diminishing resources for expensive power projection systems will further complicate. As Robert Farley pointed out, the ABDA powers’ disastrous showing in Java Sea provides a necessary warning for future concepts of burden-sharing.
In addition to the possibility that burden-sharing produces more intense security competition and, as Winecoff points out, higher potential global aggregate military expenditure, it may also be more likely to produce dynamics that increase the U.S.’s price of forcing entry or maintaining presence in a major war theater. The peacetime expenditures for military forces would be lower for the U.S., but on the off chance a war does occur, it is likely to be more difficult and of a higher intensity initially.
Even if burden-sharing is a far less rosy prospect than we might prefer, the best alternative is hardly the current unsustainable hegemonic posture. The exhortations for American leadership and primacy that involve leaving as many troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as possible for as long as necessary, taking a larger share of combat operations in wars such as those in Libya or now Mali, embarking on new wars in Syria, and refusing to liquidate or redeploy untenable commitments all serve to actively erode fundamental components of what actually works about the U.S. defense posture.
Firstly, the opportunity costs of ramping up military forces for Iraq and Afghanistan-style operations is actually quite high. Occupation and large-scale counterinsurgency forces lack fungibility and have low marginal returns for U.S. power. Beyond the obvious question of whether long-term occupations of such countries best serves U.S. interests given the costs, even redeploying them is an expensive and lengthy process. Not only that, but given reduced fiscal resources, it is much easier to stand up ground forces for such operations than to do the same for conventional naval or air assets when they are needed in a pinch. Additionally, as Jonathan Caverly’s research suggests, large land forces of comparable or at least acceptable quality are much easier for local or partner states to furnish than the kind of capital-intensive power projection and standoff fire assets naval and air forces provide (of course, I don’t want to emphasize a simplistic landpower/seapower binary here – amphibious forces and land forces capable of making or exploiting forced entry into a theater are also a fundamental component of power projection).
Secondly, insistence on taking a larger role in conflicts where our allies are actually willing to pick up slack needlessly raises the opportunity cost of interventions. While I was outright opposed to Libya, at least the significant participation of European forces mitigated its costs. If a conflict is discretionary both for our allies and ourselves, devoting disproportionate resources to it actually distracts from core U.S. interests to the primary benefit of partners. The costs this potentially imposes to power projection elsewhere is highly likely to outweigh any minor pyschological benefits from demonstrating our capability in a peripheral area.
Thirdly, undertaking new wars in the context of ongoing conflict becomes increasingly costly to core interests as the number of ongoing conflicts increase and the new conflicts become more discretionary. Many proposed interventions have unpredictable and quite possibly unfavorable effects not simply for their costs, but for their likely systemic effects. As alluded to earlier, “light footprint” approaches only mitigate, but do not solve, this opportunity cost issue, an issue I will explore more fully at Abu Muqawama. Particularly at a time when our ability to recapitalize the force or redouble our efforts in the event of unintended consequences, even supporters of a global U.S. military posture ought make skepticism the rule.
A final lesson for the future U.S. defense posture, regardless of what form it takes, ought be to rediscover the virtues of prioritization. To talk about defense in an age of limited resources is well and good, to craft a meaningful policy response requires sobriety not simply about the degree of force we put into a war or a military commitment, but where they are worth having and what for. The “Pivot to Asia” provides a useful microcosm of this issue. First a slew of new conflicts and security concerns in Africa and the Middle East questioned its geographic reality, then budgetary constraints questioned its fiscal sustainability. Though the U.S. will obviously maintain interests in simultaneous theaters, it must start to think which areas present the most concern, in which areas might redeployment or liquidation present a viable option, and if there are possibilities for leveraging presence in one region for systemic effect. Nevertheless, hazy commitments to universal principles and global engagement no longer seem sustainable. Selectivity and restraint are not simply attitudes, but must have real geopolitical expression, if debates about burden-sharing, offshore balancing, and light-footprint approaches are to move from platitudes drawn from selective historical cases to viable policy planning concepts.