And we should not be terrified. Here’s why.
Key point: The U.S. military’s advantages may only be large, rather than overwhelming…
Last week, Air Force General Frank Gorenc argued that the airpower advantage the United States has enjoyed over Russia and China is shrinking. This warning comes as part of a deluge of commentary on the waning international position of the United States. The U.S. military, it would seem, is at risk of no longer being able to go where it wants, and do what it wants to whomever it wants. Diplomatically, the United States has struggled, as of late, to assemble “coalitions of the willing” interested in following Washington into the maw of every waiting crisis.
Does this mean that U.S. global power in on the wane? If so, should we blame this decline on specific policy decisions made by this administration, or the previous administration? As Dan Drezner has argued with respect to who is “winning” the Ukraine crisis, the answer depends crucially on the starting point.
In the early 1990s, the United States established a degree of military and political supremacy rarely, if ever, glimpsed in the history of the modern state system. This supremacy was built on a degree of long-term economic stability and growth that rarely endures in advanced economies. An extremely advantageous geographic situation abetted this advantage, along with the near collapse of America’s premier strategic competitor. The rest of the world’s major players decided to go along in order to get along.
The successful U.S. embrace of standoff precision-guided munitions (PGM), combined with effective and well-financed investments in training and force protection, made the U.S. military effectively unbeatable in conventional conflict. This did not always mean that the United States military could achieve its political objectives through the use of force, but it generally meant that the U.S. could put in other military in check.
The idea that this level of dominance might wane was hardly alien to the conversation on U.S. foreign policy in the early 1990s. Liberal internationalists suggested that this represented a moment, not unlike the immediate wake of World War II, in which the United States could establish a rule-based system that would endure beyond the dwindling advantage enjoyed by American military power.
Neoconservatives, on the other hand, rejected the idea that American military power needed to decline. The draft Defense Planning Guidance document of 1992, for example, proposed a set of military, economic, and political steps designed to maintain U.S. power and preclude the emergence of peer competitors. Although dismissed at the time, many of these idea have persisted, in bipartisan form, though several Presidential administrations.
Both of these perspective had to contend with serious problems. First, even in the 1990s, very few analysts denied the potential for China and India to enjoy long-term economic growth exceeding that of the United States. While both nations had endured severe economic hardships during the Cold war, by the 1990s both were experiencing sustained growth in excess of U.S. rates, and both were becoming deeply integrated in the global economy.
Thus, the U.S. needed to either convince the Chinese and Indians to play nice, or develop a means of preserving presumptive military advantage over each. Both of these things are very hard. Moreover, the United States needed to ensure against a resurgence of traditional military powers in Eurasia, including Germany, Russia, and Japan, either through containment or co-option.
The New Baseline:
Surprisingly, many of these things worked out. Germany and Japan remain (relatively) docile and harmless. India is feeling its way to closer alignment with the United States. Russia is struggling to maintain control over borderlands that it had ruled for centuries prior to 1990. Even China, which has enjoyed nearly uninterrupted high economic growth (at least until a few weeks ago), and which has engaged in a remarkable military buildup, has only begun to probe the political and military weaknesses of the existing order in the East and South China Seas. As a variety of theorists pointed out in the early 2000s, some kind of US unipolarity might endure for a while.
So why the concern?
In the Science of Muddling Through, Charles Lindblom suggested that organizations and decision-makers rarely revisit core assumptions when making decisions. Instead of examining the roots of a problem, organizations settle on two or three easily understandable options, then base their decisions upon a set of pre-established metrics. Decision-makers rarely look at the big picture, in part because looking at the big picture only rarely tells them something useful about the day-to-day decisions they need to make.
As a strategic framework, muddling through has its merits. It refrains from deep theorization, and allows an organization (in this case, the United States) to evaluate decisions based on intelligible, readily available evidence. Muddling through can lead to altogether better outcomes than an effort to impose a grand theoretical framework on the world.
But muddling through is particularly susceptible to bad choices in baseline. If we lack an intellectual framework that can help us understand the huge, enduring advantages that the United States possesses, we will likely overstate the importance of short run trends. Conversely, if we choose as a baseline a moment that was essentially ephemeral (the zenith or nadir of national power, for example), we run the risk of completely misunderstanding foundational shifts in the international balance of power.
The Weird 1990s:
And this is where we find ourselves now. The theorists and analysts who expressed concern about the long-term viability of U.S. power in the 1990s were right; predictable long-term trends were going to lead to the diminishment of U.S. superiority over potential challengers. The advantages that the U.S. enjoyed over China, Russia, and others in the 1990s were ephemeral, and the shrinking gap is the consequence of a return to a more “normal” balance of international power.
The question isn’t whether unipolarity will persist, or whether U.S. primacy will endure. “Unipolarity” and “primacy” do not necessarily include the military, economic, and diplomatic capability of dictating terms on Russia’s borders, or at China’s twelve mile limit. The United States will never feel as invulnerable as it did in the 1990s, mostly because the 1990s were a deeply weird period in the history of modern geopolitics.
A wise man once pointed out that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view. Relative to the 1970s and 1980s, the United States is almost incomparably powerful and secure, enjoying presumptive military advantage over any opponent or plausible coalition of opponents. We sometimes forget, for example, that there is some history to the idea of Russian troops freely operating in Ukraine.
And the point is not that the United States deserves some kind of comeuppance for its arrogance. Geopolitics isn’t a Shakespearean drama, or a morality play. Noting that Russia, China, and others have the growing capability to act independently in their regions does not imply that they will act justly, or that they have any special right to torture their neighbors.
Nor is it to suggest that the Bush and Obama administrations deserve no blame for their foreign policy choices. Allowing that they are not responsible for U.S. relative decline is different than suggesting that neither President has made serious mistakes. Moreover, there’s nothing wrong with the steps that the United States has taken designed to ensure future military superiority. The “third offset” won’t bring back the 1990s, but it will help keep the United States more than competitive against potential challengers.
But the appropriate question should be “will the offset (and various other policy initiatives) help maintain U.S. military superiority?” not “will it help ensure U.S. military supremacy?” Moving forward, the U.S. military will need to navigate a world in which it enjoys advantages that are merely large, but not overwhelming. That’s not such a bad place to be. For better and worse, the 1990s are gone.