Friday, October 26, 2007

Inflection Points and Strategic Solvency

I was preparing to summarize and comment on an excellently-argued piece by Richard Betts in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, but it would seem that Ilian Goldberg at Democracy Arsenal beat me to the punch with a great summary, so I'll try not to be overly redundant. The article argues that U.S. defense expenditures need to be "strategically solvent" and appropriately matched to reasonable and achievable international goals. He argues that the half-trillion plus dollars that we currently spend on defense is both much more than is necessary to provide basic security, and much less than is necessary to achieve global imperial dominance. Particularly in an environment of economically-burdensome public debt that grows by the minute, our current defense posture, Betts argues, makes little sense. Without going into too much detail (again, just read the article, or at least the excerpts, which I promise are worth your time), he advocates a reorientation of U.S. security policy towards increased special forces and intelligence to combat trans-national threats, coupled with the ability to mobilize superior conventional forces should we enter into the sort of environment that requires them. Thus, spending on military research and development is important, and should perhaps be increased, but the maintenance of a large army and navy in peacetime makes no sense in a post-Cold War world. The United States should maintain a technological edge over, for example, China, such that we could mobilize to defeat it if and when the threat it poses becomes real as opposed to theoretical, but we need not be perpetually and fully mobilized to fight at the drop of a hat.

The article brings to mind two related points that are worth considering. The first is related to an essay by Robert Kelly posted by Seth Weinberger at Security Dilemmas; namely, the conceptual tendency of U.S. leaders to 'state-ize' threats, and then deal with them as such. In other words, because the U.S. military has enjoyed considerable success defeating other states, we have a tendency to want to view new threats as state-like organizations that can be defeated with a vigorous application of military power (I would argue that Israeli leadership has suffered from the same conceptual problem since the end of the 1973 war). For a more light-hearted, but still intelligent treatment of the issue, take a look here. Instead of adapting our capabilities to relevant threats, we try to adapt relevant threats to our capabilities, with problematic results.

For example, recent proposals to add additional divisions to the army are being treated as practical, hard-headed responses to the array of security threats the United States now faces. I have yet to hear a convincing explanation, though, as to how another armored division will help combat shadowy, trans-national terrorist groups. These additions are likely to come too late to make a difference in Iraq or Afghanistan, so I fail to see what they will accomplish, unless (perish the thought) we intend on repeating the Iraq experience any time soon. Increasing the size of our military, though, is the historically standard hedge against emerging security threats, so it is the knee-jerk response of American leaders, whatever its objective merits. National security would be improved if decision makers could lift such cognitive blinders, and commit scarce resources in a more holistic and appropriate way.

Taking a wider view, Betts's article also raises the issue of America's geopolitical standing in the 21st Century. I have argued elsewhere that the United States is likely to see it's relative power decline precipitously over the next hundred years. Though America will almost certainly remain a major player in the global system, its position will likely be akin to that of 19th Century Great Britain - the most powerful state in a group of powerful states - and unlike the hegemony that it now enjoys. The transition to an international system of "asymmetric multi-polarity," though, will not go smoothly if the United States bucks against a sensible reorientation of its global posture to reflect the increasing political and economic power of nations like China, India and Japan.

Particularly in Asia, America will almost certainly have to accept a reduction in influence and military dominance, as the aforementioned states increasingly take control of their own back yards. The sensible way to do this would be for the United States to use its remaining influence to head off serious disputes and build up regional, multilateral institutions to manage economic development, trade and (increasingly) environmental policy. The foolish way would be to continue to claim regional military hegemony and to enforce American will through domineering bilateral relationships until the strategic, political and economic solvency of such an approach collapses, leaving a divided, tension-ridden region behind as we slink back across the Pacific.

Drawing on the work of political scientists such as A.F.K. Organski, who proposed what is known as Power Transition Theory, and Charles Doran, who introduced the notion of "inflection points" in nations' relative power, I would argue that there is at least some relationship between the relative trajectory of nations' power and the likelihood that they will come into conflict. As the events of recent years have demonstrated with painful clarity, there is a temptation for U.S. leaders to confuse U.S. predominance with omnipotence, and overreach the bounds of its long-term capabilities. Meanwhile, leaders of a state like China, the economic and political power of which is growing with astonishing speed, could overestimate their own power (particularly if some part of the U.S.-maintained political regime in Asia is dissatisfying to them) and spark conflict. As the dominant power in Asia, it is incumbent upon the United States to give China sufficient room to flex its muscles, while drawing boundaries around core interests (such as the security of South Korea and Japan) and creating an environment that gives China no incentive to foment international discord. Turning back to the question of defense spending, then, engaging in a de facto arms race with the Chinese in Asia is both economically unsustainable and strategically unwise.

Viewed in such a way, Betts' call for a bit of sanity in American military outlays is a breath of fresh air. He even has the political acumen to propose a slogan that U.S. politicians can use to launch the debate: "Half a trillion dollars is more than enough."



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Anonymous said...

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Steven said...

Hey Matthew, I stumbled across your blog from a link form an article I was reading in one of the 15 tabs I have open in Firefox. I'm glad I dropped in. Your analysis seems sensible and well-written. I'll bookmark ya.

Since you dropped Organski's name and theory out there, I suppose your also familiar with Hegemonic Stability Theory as well - Mr. Keohane's contribution. It's certainly been something on my mind as well. I recently did an interview with an Asian International Relation's student (I live and study in Asia). One of her chief "concerns" regarding the future of Asia is a power conflict between the United States, its allies, and China and its allies. She dropped Keohane's name in there, adding that he's being taught a lot these-days in Asian political studies.

This, in turn, got me thinking even more about the rise of Chinese power in the Asian region and what seems to be the making of a Chinese Monroe Doctrine. []

The battleground for the next major power struggle will more than likely take place in East Asia. Hopefully it will remain largely a political and economic one.

Anonymous said...

Great post, I have been waiting for something like that???

-Sincerest Regards