Strategies of Poverty


Editor's Note: Yesterday, The Diplomat in partnership with Tufts University, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Fletcher Forum hosted a panel discussion on U.S. Foreign Policy. The following remarks were delivered by our own Naval Diplomat.

The question I’ve been asked to venture a few thoughts on is, can the U.S. military pivot during the sequester? My answer: yes, if it rediscovers habits of mind that come with tight budgets. I am a seaman and view the world through a seaman’s eyes, so my remarks have a saltwater flavor. The good news is that operating on a shoestring used to be second nature for the U.S. Navy. Ours wasn’t a two-ocean navy until World War II, within living memory.

One thing seems clear: if resources are going to shrink, the United States must either shed secondary commitments or keep these commitments through economy-of-force measures. Safe parts of the globe can be entrusted to local allies or to small, low-end military contingents. But here’s a theoretical question for us to ponder: it appears that great powers have a hard time letting go of longstanding commitments, no matter how compelling the logic for doing so appears. Maybe you can help me puzzle out why.

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Let me call in some intellectual fire support. Our patron saint at the War College, Clausewitz, teaches that there is no higher or simpler law of strategy than to concentrate resources at decisive places on the map at the decisive time. This is somewhat less true in peacetime, when we have to disperse forces within theaters to perform a variety of missions. But the underlying logic remains. We should match power with purpose in as few theaters as possible, lest we attenuate our military resources into irrelevance.

How do we know when to shed a commitment? Well, Clausewitz offers two thoughts. First, he notes that the value we assign our political goals dictates the magnitude and duration of the effort we put into obtaining those goals. That is, it determines how many lives and resources, and how much treasure we’re prepared to expend on behalf of our objectives, and for how long. The corollary is that when an endeavor starts costing more than it’s worth, we should look for the exit. We should cut the best deal we can and get out.

Second, he sets a rather high bar for undertaking secondary theaters or commitments. Such a theater should pay off disproportionately without risking too much in the theaters that matter the most. Again, we should be choosy about taking on new commitments, and flexible about shucking off old ones. And indeed, top-level strategic guidance seems to abide by Clausewitzian cost/benefit logic. Our 2007 Maritime Strategy, for instance, focuses attention on the Western Pacific and the greater Indian Ocean.

But if you read it closely, it also instructs the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard to remain prepared to seize control of any body of water on the face of the earth—unilaterally if need be. Again, retrenchment is hard. Why is that? Let me offer a few candidate explanations. First, Thucydides depicts fear, honor, and interest as the prime movers that drive human actions. Interests are largely subjective. Consequently, fear and honor color how we measure the importance of interests as well as ideals. As a result, we may fret about losing credibility with allies, or we may simply worry about the unintended consequences of changing the status quo.

Second, powerful constituencies agitate on behalf of particular regions or commitments. For instance, Europe-first is a tradition with a long pedigree in U.S. foreign policy. Entrusting safe zones like Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to local guardians in order to free up resources for Asia is tougher than Clausewitz makes it sound.

Third, allies fear American abandonment. The concept of free-riding has bad connotations, but it says something true about coalition maintenance. If an external provider of security has been there for decades, it’s hard to ask your taxpayers to take on the burden of supplying this international public good—even if you inhabit a region where threats are minimal.

And finally, bureaucratic culture plays some part. The idea of allocating the entire surface of the globe to some regional command or another is engraved on the culture of the U.S. national-security community. Google our Unified Command Plan if you doubt me. Thus a strong bureaucratic interest may lobby against drawing down in what appears to be—to them—a critical place on the map.

What to do? There are no simple answers. As I suggested up front, one thing U.S. practitioners and pundits should do is rediscover an older way of thinking about strategy and forces. To return to a naval example: before the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940, U.S. decision-makers never assumed they can manage events everywhere. Our fleet was big enough to oversee events in the Atlantic, or the Pacific, but not both. That’s why thinkers like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt worried incessantly about where to station the fleet, and whether to divide it between coasts. They had to think in terms of managing risk. So must we, if our navy keeps shrinking.

Do I wish we had the resources to sustain our current posture as guarantor of the international system? Of course. But Congress makes strategic decisions when it makes budgetary decisions. If lawmakers decide we will have fewer naval and military resources, it only makes sense to cut back on overseas commitments—keeping ends, ways, and means in sync. That will be even more true if climate scientists have it right and a new maritime theater—the Arctic Ocean—opens to shipping in the 2030s. The Arctic washes against our shores, contains natural resources, and will provide convenient shipping routes for part of the year. We can hardly ignore that theater—and it will tax military forces that are already in short supply.

Bottom line, we need to start relearning how to execute a strategy of relative naval and military poverty. And time’s a-wasting!

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