TCS Daily

Dominance Lite

By Melana Zyla Vickers - November 11, 2002 12:00 AM

Those who thought the "arms are for hugging" school of foreign policy went out of fashion with the end of the Cold War, think again. In response to the administration's new National Security Strategy, an effort to weaken the U.S. military is gathering steam in Washington, driven largely by Clinton-era National Security Council staffers and their acolytes. What's troubling about this new effort is that they have in their sights not just nuclear weapons, as in the Cold War, but also conventional weapons and as-yet unbuilt, transformational weapons.

"If the American military appears able to win victories at low cost, war might become a preferred instrument of diplomacy rather than an instrument of last resort. This situation would lead to an unhealthy militarization of American foreign policy," warns Clinton-era NSC director for defense policy and arms control Hans Binnendijk, in the preface to a book he has edited on military transformation.

"The Bush Administration's recently enunciated national security doctrine with its emphasis on... the pursuit of permanent military dominance does not serve American interests," cried a press release last week from the New America Foundation and the New School University, in an effort to promote a speech on the topic by another out-of-power Clinton NSC staffer, Charles Kupchan.

These dire warnings, not surprisingly, were followed by a lengthy piece on the topic in the newspaper of record for the Clinton NSC, The New York Times. Its headline questioned "Is It Wise?" for the U.S. to maintain military dominance.

The fact that these critics dislike U.S. preeminence suggests they'd prefer something else. Military parity with another power, perhaps? In the Cold War the United States' intense competition with the Soviet Union produced numerous negative consequences, not least of which was the long shadow of nuclear war. There was a constant risk that regional crises and conflicts in Cuba, Central America, Southeast Asia, Korea, Africa, and the Middle East would escalate into superpower clashes. Even on the human-rights front, there was a frustrating degree of U.S. inaction in the face of enslavement of millions of people under anti-democratic, repressive, pro-Moscow regimes, and in the face of repression by right-wing regimes that allied themselves with the U.S.

That's not all. A difficult struggle with another military power is far worse for diplomacy than U.S. dominance could ever be. For the duration of the Cold War, the U.N. Security Council was deadlocked, sticking to pro-Moscow, pro-Washington lines. There were no diplomatic breakthroughs anywhere in the world outside the context of superpower relations (with the notable exception of the Camp David Accords.) Western European powers occupied themselves wholly with defending against the threat of conventional and nuclear attack from the communist East, and with preventing power vacuums in their former colonies, not with new diplomatic initiatives. Democratization in Latin America and Southeast Asia was unheard of, and neighbors did not seek to mend fences.

This may have looked like diplomatic comity to today's critics of U.S. dominance, but it was in fact a diplomatic chill.

If military parity didn't yield the roseate diplomatic climate sought by today's critics, and military dominance doesn't suit them either, all that's left is U.S. military subjugation to another power - a neo-imperial Europe, perhaps, or rule by the unelected United Nations? Surely not even the most committed among the blame-America-first crowd would admit to wanting that. Rather, it seems the critics such as Binnendijk and Kupchan - whose new book is called "The End of the American Era" - would feel best if the U.S. continued to dominate, just not by much.

Call it "dominance-lite." A less-caloric U.S. military would not be as noticeably powerful. It would be dependent for some things on other countries, and therefore would have to make its terms more palatable to them. (Less filling, tastes great.) They argue such a U.S. would engender a climate with more diplomatic, and fewer military, solutions to conflicts.

The trouble with dominance-lite is that it's fanciful. Among the problems:

These critics tried dominance-lite and failed. In the 1990s, Binnendijk, Kupchan and their NSC pals led by Sandy Berger gave dominance-lite a whirl. Their diplomacy was unbacked by credible threats of force. More importantly they employed militarily "proportionate responses" to various international outrages. This prompted greater violence and global danger, not greater diplomacy.

To name a few failed proportionate responses: the missiles flung after the Iraqi assassination attempt on President Bush in 1993, the missiles flung after the Al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, the complete inaction after the U.S.S. Cole bombing, the missiles and airstrikes that followed Saddam Hussein's ejection of weapons inspectors in 1998, and the carrots-only package of incentives to North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, which was met with bald disregard.

Dire warnings about U.S. military dominance going out of control have proved empty in the past. In the 1940s and 1950s, as the U.S. lurched from a period of world war into a period of nuclear-armed Cold War, the country's seemingly constant preparedness for military conflict led critics, inspired by the writings of political scientist Harold Lasswell, to warn that the U.S. would become a "garrison state." All power would flow to the "specialists on violence" in the military and police as well as their civilian backers, and authority would be "dictatorial, governmentalized, centralized, integrated." All economic and scientific development would serve national security, to the detriment of regular civilian life, Lasswell argued. His views were widely echoed in the media and political circles.

But as Princeton political science professor Aaron Friedberg writes in his excellent new book "In the Shadow of the Garrison State," that outcome never came to pass. The American people and their political leaders supported a strong military. But they did not carry that support to extremes because they were too committed to the Founders' wariness about government control. They were "reluctant to pay higher taxes, remained ambivalent about accepting conscription, and showed a strong preference for defense strategies that promised to impose in peacetime the lowest possible human and financial burdens." As a result, the U.S. adopted a Cold War strategy of containing the Soviet Union, but not expending every last resource on trouncing it militarily.

Today's military spending is a fraction of the Cold War's, and today's military engagements are modest - if more numerous - than Cold War deployments of personnel and nuclear and conventional weapons. If history is any guide, the Bush Administration's current National Security Strategy will not "militarize" the country and its policies as Binnendijk and the others fear.

Dominance-lite doesn't allow for military transformation. For all the criticism of today's military posture, the U.S. military is not devoting enough resources to preparing for a future, serious threat. It is insufficiently reformed from its Cold War posture of preparing to fight a large enemy in a set-piece battle on European soil. A generous estimate of U.S. spending on research, development, and procurement of high-tech, transformational weapons would be 15%. Yet such transformational programs are the ones that would put the country on a path to be able to secure victory if, in the coming decades, a powerful new adversary were to challenge U.S. military strength. If Binnendijk and the dominance-lite crowd continues to see the technological advances that make the U.S. "able to win victories at low cost" as the real danger facing the country, transformation will fall even farther behind.

Dominance-lite assumes other powers, such as the Europeans, have calibrated their defense spending correctly. The main beef of those who criticize the Bush National Security Strategy seems to be that it harms relations with U.S. friends in Europe. But to propose that falling in line with the Europeans - on defense spending, say - will better serve U.S. interests assumes that the Europeans' own post-Cold War strategy has been calibrated right. That's a flawed assumption. The Europeans have virtually halved their defense spending since the end of the Cold War. They've so cannibalized their militaries that in the Balkan conflict on their own European territory, they were unable to carry out the military action. U.S. fighter aircraft had to wage the lion's share of both the Bosnia and Kosovo air wars, because the Europeans lacked - and still lack - the precision weaponry and communications technology needed. Never mind that falling closer into line with European defense postures would harm U.S. interests - it would harm Europe's perennial interest in getting the U.S. to carry out its work.

The critics may respond that they don't mind if the U.S. dominates, they just want it to act as though it doesn't. Such a proposal assumes a degree of gullibility on the part of other countries that is both insulting and chauvinistic.

None of this is to say the U.S. should reach for a military option when it has a diplomatic one. But the idea that U.S. inferiority to another power, parity with another power, or self-handicapped dominance-lite would bring about a global pax diplomatica flies in the face of history, recent experience, and good sense.



TCS Daily Archives