Stephen M. Walt

What I told the Navy

I spent Tuesday at the Naval War College’s annual “Current Strategy Forum” and participated on a panel on “Strategic Challenges and Opportunities” with John Ikenberry of Princeton and Mitchell Reiss of William and Mary. I thought the panel went very well, with interesting contributions from the other panelists, adroit management by moderator Jonathan Pollock, and ...

of the New York Yankees of the Texas Rangers on May 25, 2009 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.

I spent Tuesday at the Naval War College’s annual “Current Strategy Forum” and participated on a panel on “Strategic Challenges and Opportunities” with John Ikenberry of Princeton and Mitchell Reiss of William and Mary. I thought the panel went very well, with interesting contributions from the other panelists, adroit management by moderator Jonathan Pollock, and some excellent questions from the large and responsive audience.

I occurred to me that FP readers might be interested in what I had to say on our panel, so what follows is a slightly truncated version of my remarks.  

The global balance of power is and will remain very favorable for the United States, and that the main dangers to U.S. security in the near-term are various self-inflicted wounds. In other words, the United States can do more to harm itself through misguided policies than our adversaries can do to us through deliberate acts of malevolence. We shouldn’t drop our guard, in short, but we should also take care not to shoot ourselves in the foot.

This view is at odds with a lot of contemporary writing about America’s international position. Over the past several years, for example, several prominent books and studies have concluded that America’s position is deteriorating and that a new MP world is rapidly emerging. For example, both Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World and the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2025 study argue that the rise or resurgence of Russia, China, the EU, Brazil, and India are recreating a multipolar world, and that this will have profound implications for U.S. foreign policy.

This prediction is mistaken, or at least premature. To begin with, the U.S. economy still dwarfs the other major powers. According to the World Bank, US GDP was $13.9 trillion in 2007, compared with $4.3 bn. for Japan, $3.3 bn. for Germany, $3.2 bn. for China, and $2.8 bn. for Great Britain. In 2007, therefore, the US economy was bigger than next four powers combined.  It’s true that the U.S. economy took a big hit in 2008, but so did everyone else, including China.

Second, U.S. military power dwarfs all others, despite our difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only does the United States spend more on national security than the rest of the world combined, but no other major power spends as large a percentage of its GDP on national security as the United States does. Not surprisingly, no country has the global reach of the United States or the capacity to operate with near-impunity over most of the world’s common spaces.

Third, this situation isn’t going to change very much, because the United States is the only advanced industrial power whose population will grow significantly over the next few decades. Most European countries have low birth rates, which means their populations are both shrinking and getting older. This trend is especially evident in Russia and also in Japan. China’s population will projected to increase slightly over the next twenty years and then begin to decrease, as the effects of the “one-child” policy kick in. China will also have a very large demographic bulge of retirees, which will be an increasingly costly burden over time.

The United States, by contrast, is going to continue to grow, in part because U.S. birth rates are higher and also because legal (and illegal) immigration to the United States will almost certainly continue. The United States will have the youngest population of any major power in 2030, therefore, which is good news for our long-term strength.

If you project out to where these various economies are going to be in 2030, U.S. prospects look good and the chances for true multipolarity seem remote. My Harvard colleague Richard N. Cooper projects that by 2030 the US share of world economy will decline only slightly–from 28 percent today to 26 percent — while China will rise from 5 percent today to roughly 14 percent. The shares controlled by Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Brazil, or India will remain in the low single digits.

So we aren’t going to see a true multipolar world anytime soon. We might see a bipolar world in 20 or 30 years, but it will still be a fairly lopsided bipolarity with the United States still leading China by a wide margin.  Moreover, the United States will continue to enjoy a highly favorable geopolitical position. It is the only major power in the Western hemisphere, while the other major powers share the Eurasian landmass. This situation means these states tend to worry more about each other than they do about the United States — even though the United States is a lot stronger — and it gives many of these states a powerful incentive to try to stay on good terms with us in case they need help to deal with one of their neighbors. So in addition to being materially stronger than anyone in Eurasia, the United States also has long-standing alliances in Europe and Asia and new strategic partnerships emerging with countries like India.

This is not to deny that states like China, Russia or Iran have been acquiring a somewhat greater capacity to defend their interests near their own borders, especially when compared with what they could do back when unipolarity first emerged in the early 1990s. This trends will constrain U.S. freedom of action slightly, give other states additional options, and complicate U.S. diplomacy somewhat. But in no case do these trends pose a mortal threat to vital US interests. Even in 2030, none of these states is going to want or be able to take the United States on in a direct test of strength.

Thus, although it is easy to identify a number of vexing foreign policy problems — such as North Korea, Iran, Sudan, the Somali pirates, or Afghanistan — none of them actually threaten truly vital U.S. interests. In fact, the only threat that could directly threaten the American way of life would be a nuclear terrorist attack on U.S. soil. We know that al Qaeda would attack us if it could, but so long as they do not acquire nuclear weapons or other WMD, they cannot do significant harm to the United States directly. Even 9/11, tragic and shocking as it was, did not threaten our global position significantly. It follows that reducing the danger of WMD terrorism remains a top priority, but that task is best accomplished by continued efforts to secure existing nuclear arsenals and potentially usable nuclear materials.

Given the balance of power in our favor, therefore, the biggest threats we face are self-inflicted wounds. And our biggest opportunities involve exploiting our favorable position in order to preserve our current position as long as possible. What are some obvious mistakes to avoid, and what are the opportunities we should take advantage of?

The first self-inflicted wound the United States could make would be to spend too much on national security. A country can also get into trouble by spending too little on defense, of course, but that doesn’t seem very likely at present. As noted earlier, the United States spends more on national security than the rest of the world combined (and most of the other significant military powers are our allies) and we still devote a larger percent of our GDP to national security than any other major power does. Military superiority is a good thing and we ought to keep it, but we all know that too much of a good thing is usually bad for you. As Kenneth Waltz once wrote, “more is not better if less is enough.” The United States is expected to face a budget deficit of 1.8 trillion (!) dollars next year, and there’s more red ink in sight. We have critical needs in national infrastructure, education, and health care, and our long-term strength depends on these elements of national power too.  

A second self-inflicted wound is the recurring tendency to view allies as liabilities rather than assets. As its array of allies has increased, U.S. strategists tend to see this trend as simply increasing the number of areas we are committed to protect, instead of adding to our combined capabilities and therefore making it easier for us to achieve our national security goals.  The United States has become accustomed to letting allies free-ride, and to supporting allies even when they do things that are not in the U.S. interest  The lesson here is that America ought to take advantage of its favorable geopolitical position and play hard-to-get a bit more. We aren’t going to get greater cooperation from our allies if we keep insisting on doing it all ourselves, or if we aren’t willing to play hardball with them when they do things that we think are foolish or wrong.

The third self-inflicted wound is forgetting what the U.S. military is and isn’t designed to do, and ending up in costly efforts to remake the politics of areas that we do not understand. U.S. armed forces are extremely good at deterring or reversing large-scale conventional aggression, at preserving balance of power in key regions, and contributing to other aspects of global stability, like putting teeth in programs like the Proliferation Security Initiative. But the United States is not good at governing other societies — who is? — particularly when it lacks detailed knowledge of the societies in question, has insufficient language skills within the national security and foreign policy establishments, and when the prerequisites for democracy are absent from these areas. It follows that our current preoccupation with counterinsurgency — which is largely an artifact of the decisions to occupy Afghanistan and Iraq on a long-term basis — is a strategic misstep.
And that brings me to the opportunity side of the equation. Given the evolving balance of power and our geopolitical situation, U.S. should gradually return to a strategy of “offshore balancing.” What does that mean?

  • First, the United States should maintain naval, air, and ground forces that can preserve a favorable balance of power in key strategic areas (which mostly means Asia and the Persian Gulf), while minimizing our “on-shore” presence, especially in areas where it generates opposition or fuels anti-Americanism.
  • Second, the United States should maintain its formal alliance commitments in Europe, but devolve more responsibility for European security to NATO’s European members. Apart from occasional exercises, the U.S. should maintain only token forces there. And after nearly sixty years, isn’t it time that a European serve as SACEUR? Europe is democratic, prosperous, tranquil, and united within institutions like the European Union. This is good news for everyone, and it should allow the United States to shift most of its strategic attention elsewhere (a process that is in fact already underway).  We would of course remain willing to intervene in Europe if the balance of power were to break down completely, but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
  • Third, the United States should scrupulously avoid costly and open-ended commitments to “nation-building” in areas of the world we do not understand — which is most of them — and encourage the United Nations and interested regional powers to take on more of this burden. This shift will entail playing “hard to get” with key allies a bit more, so that they do their fair share and so that they understand that American backing is not something anyone should entirely take for granted. Remember: American support is a very valuable asset, and other states should do a lot for us in order to get it.

What’s the bottom line? Although the United States faces a number of foreign policy problems and should — for its own reasons — do what it can to address them, its overall global position is remarkably favorable and most of the challenges it faces are manageable. Put differently, virtually any other major powers would be delighted to trade places with us, and those Cassandras who constantly talk about America’s precarious security position are indulging in dangerous fantasies. At present, the main task is to avoid Pogo’s warning: “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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