Stephen M. Walt
Why we (keep) fighting
A few months ago, I offered up Five Reasons Why the U.S. Keeps Fighting All These Wars. One of those reasons was: "Because We Can." In today’s guest post, Nuno Monteiro of Yale University offers an extended structural explanation for this tendency, attributing it primarily to the current condition of uni-polarity and the incentives its ...
A few months ago, I offered up Five Reasons Why the U.S. Keeps Fighting All These Wars. One of those reasons was: "Because We Can." In today’s guest post, Nuno Monteiro of Yale University offers an extended structural explanation for this tendency, attributing it primarily to the current condition of uni-polarity and the incentives its creates for the United States and for its various weaker adversaries. For the full version of his argument, consult the forthcoming issue of International Security.
Nuno P. Monteiro writes:
Twenty years ago this week, the Soviet Union was dissolved. Two years before, Moscow had dropped its geopolitical ambitions, allowing the Berlin Wall to fall peacefully. The United States had won the Cold War.
Since then, U.S. military power is unmatched. Because enemy airplanes rarely come close to U.S. jets, no active American pilot has achieved the five kills necessary for the honorific title of "ace". Likewise, the U.S. Navy is larger than all the other seventeen high-seas fleets combined. The two most effective non-U.S. land forces (the British and French armies) are roughly the size of the smallest branch of the U.S. military machine, its Marine Corps.
Has this unparalleled power allowed the United States to enjoy the much-touted peace dividend it earned by winning the Cold War? Is the United States better able to impose its will peacefully today than when Stalin blocked Berlin or Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba?
Many seem to think so. Writing in the New York Times a week ago, Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker argued that "war really is going out of style." In what concerns the United States, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The last two decades, less than ten percent of U.S. history, account for more than 25 percent of the nation’s total wartime. Between the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the Soviet demise, great powers were involved in wars on average one every six years. Since it became the sole superpower, the United States has been at war for more than half the time, or twelve out of twenty two years.
These wars in Kuwait (1991), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001-present), and Iraq (2003-11) all resulted from other states not complying with U.S. demands. When threatened with U.S. military action, Slobodan Milosevic did not fold, the Taliban did not give in, nor did Saddam Hussein roll over. In contrast, the Soviet Union always took U.S. threats seriously. Despite its tremendous might, it refrained from taking West Berlin and withdrew its missiles from Cuba.
Why were U.S. threats heeded by the Soviet bear but now disregarded by secondary powers? Two explanations are commonly offered. The first is that the United States is militarily overextended. The second is that while the Soviets were evil but rational, today’s enemies are irrational.
Both these views are wrong. The war in Afghanistan does not prevent the United States from badly damaging any non-nuclear state that defies it while suffering relatively little itself. And the U.S.’s new enemies are no less rational than its old ones. If U.S. threats were able to deter shoe-slamming "we will bury you" Khrushchev and his hundreds of intercontinental nuclear missiles, why is the United States unable to stop North Korea and its handful of rudimentary warheads — not to mention Iran, which has none?
Because threats are not the problem. Backed by the mightiest military in history, U.S. threats are eminently credible. In fact, the absence of another great power capable of deterring Washington gives the U.S. a free hand abroad. As Saddam’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz lamented after Iraq’s humiliating defeat in the Gulf War, "We don’t have a patron anymore. If we still had the Soviets as our patron,none of this would have happened."
The problem lies elsewhere. During the Cold War, mutually assured destruction kept the peace. The prospect of an unprovoked U.S. attack, which would ultimately lead to the U.S.’s own destruction, was unthinkable. But now that the Soviet Union is gone, America’s enemies feel vulnerable even if they comply with Washington’s demands. They know that the United States has the wherewithal to take them down if it so decides, so they are unlikely to accept any U.S. demands (to abandon a nuclear program, for example) that would leave them in a position of even greater weakness. This is what explains U.S. involvement in so many "hot" wars since the Cold War ended.
As the world’s sole superpower, the United States is often seen as an aggressive behemoth. To make its threats effective, we are told, it must restrain itself through a less aggressive military posture, a commitment to multilateral action, or even a pledge to eschew regime change. But even if it does all this, as long as U.S. power remains unmatched, Washington will continue to face difficulties having its way without resorting to war. This should come as no surprise. It follows from the unparalleled power of the United States.
Nuno P. Monteiro is an assistant professor of political science at Yale University. His article "Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity Is Not Peaceful" is out this month in International Security. His website is http://www.nunomonteiro.org.