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Global Primacy Denied? Why American Primacy Is Not Assured

The Naval Diplomat enters the U.S. supremacy vs. offshore balancing debate.

James R. Holmes
Global Primacy Denied? Why American Primacy Is Not Assured
Credit: U.S. Navy

Writing over at International Security, Fletcher School professor Dan Drezner wades into the debate over U.S. military primacy. Though not billed as such, this appears to be the latest round in the running death match between proponents of offshore balancing and defenders of American supremacy. Well, insofar as international-relations scholars have death matches. Picture Greek and German philosophers milling around harmlessly on the soccer field in Monty Python's Flying Circus rather than Kal-El and General Zod pummeling each other in Man of Steel and you've got it.

Let me mill around as well. Professor Drezner uses a Wall Street Journal column from conservative pundits Ed Feulner, Arthur Brooks, and Bill Kristol as the hook for his article, making much of their claim that “military spending is not a net drain on our economy.” From this, it seems, Drezner infers that they believe military spending represents a positive good for the U.S. economy, and sets about evaluating this claim.

He considers whether, because of U.S. military primacy: (1) private capital sees the United States as a safe home, and thus flows to American shores; (2) allies and friends help Washington underwrite the costs of the international order it presides over, easing the weary titan's burden of primacy; and (3) whether U.S. military supremacy begets a virtuous cycle in which the world becomes increasingly “secure, peaceful, and prosperous,” reducing the need for costly expeditionary operations.

To oversimplify, Drezner answers the three questions (1) not much, (2) not much, and (3) yes, but only if military supremacy is joined to “economic supremacy that leads to peace and prosperity.” If the liberal international order is to “yield positive economic benefits through systemic stability,” in other words, “it must be full-spectrum unipolarity.” If U.S. military dominance rests on a flimsy economic foundation, it may not long endure. Having concluded that primacy stands little chance of paying for itself, he closes by recommending cutbacks beyond those that are already pinching Pentagon budgets. In so doing, Drezner argues, Washington can keep military in sync with economic means.

This all sounds compelling. If America can no longer afford current levels of defense spending, or if that spending is a waste because primacy provides little return on the investment, then it only makes sense to stop hemorrhaging national resources. But — and you knew there was going to be a but — three quick observations.

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One, a quibble about logic. Feulner, Brooks, and Kristol maintain not that primacy pays for itself but that the United States can afford the expense. The same goes for Professors Stephen Brooks, John Eikenberry, and William Wohlforth, whose articles “Don’t Come Home, America: The Case against Retrenchment” and “Lean Forward: A Case for American Engagement” helped elicit Drezner's riposte. These commentators all point out that the United States spent around 6 percent of GDP on the armed forces annually during the Cold War decades. That's well in excess of recent figures — or, for that matter, of the most hawkish politician's wish list. Why are spending levels that were so bearable for so long suddenly unbearable?

Two, a word about measuring military power and about the relationship between power and geography. All parties to this debate seemingly accept as axiomatic that defense spending equals military power. Pointing to the defense budget, Drezner uses such phrases as “unchallenged military supremacy” and “outsized security capacities.” Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth write of a U.S. military that is “so far ahead militarily in both quantitative and qualitative terms” as to be virtually unbeatable. For both sides, it seems, whoever spends the most wins.

That's of a piece with breezy asides, oft-heard in Washington, that the United States remains supreme because its defense budget exceeds the next X countries' combined, that the U.S. Navy is “bigger” than the next Y navies combined, and so forth. Such assumptions are highly misleading, however, as anyone who's tried to project power across intercontinental distances will attest. Scholar Ken Booth writes of a “loss-of-power gradient” that saps forces' strength once they leave their bases behind As metaphors go, I prefer the inverse-squares law in physics, whereby the intensity of radiation drops off by the square of the distance from the source, not in direct proportion to distance. Power plummets. It takes forward bases, fleets of tanker aircraft and combat logistics ships, and any number of other pricey capabilities to sustain expeditionary forces far from home.

The number and type of commitments matter as well. Clausewitz teaches that the highest and simplest law of strategy is to be strong at the decisive place at the decisive time. (Tellingly, he also observes that the simplest thing is difficult in armed strife.) Concentration of force and effort is a luxury that eludes the U.S. armed forces. Whereas local competitors focus on their immediate surroundings, the United States is attempting to preserve a global status quo against not just pirates, weapons traffickers, and the rest of the Star Wars cantina, against great-power challengers. It faces myriad challenges in multiple theaters far, far away.

Such demands attenuate the power available at any one place. When you try to do everything, everywhere, you're apt to be shorthanded anywhere on the map or nautical chart.

By contrast, a challenger who is content dominating one region or subregion can concentrate its entire defense budget on hardware and manpower geared to local dominance. It can pit all of its strength and effort against an extraregional power, like you-know-who, forced to disperse diplomatic and military effort across many theaters and missions. For instance, the United States mounted a successful – and thankfully peaceful – local challenge to Great Britain in the Western Hemisphere in the late 19th century, an age when the U.S. Navy remained far inferior to the Royal Navy but could mass its whole strength in American waters. Britain's North American Squadron could have preserved its supremacy over the U.S. Navy only by vacating other important seas. Similarly, an inferior but concentrated Imperial Japanese Navy trounced a fragmented Russian Navy in 1904-1905. Examples abound.

The spending mismatch between America and the rest, then, will and must remain lopsided so long as U.S. forces operate on someone else's ground, thousands of miles from their home country, while trying to manage a global order. Spending figures reveal less than you think once abstracted from their strategic context.

And context matters. Both Drezner and the Brooks/Ikenberry/Wohlforth team afford Barry Posen's essay “Command of the Commons“ ample play, and for good reason. But they overlook part of his argument. In that essay Posen repackages an ancient idea under a new title, the “contested zone.” A contested zone is an area on the map where the weak can amass local military primacy, disheartening or perhaps even defeating the strong. A China or an Iran can hope to dominate the seas and skies offshore – even against an opponent that spends far more on its military but is fighting far from home. The contested zone is an idea worth revisiting. More realistic estimates of U.S. military power, as it varies from theater to theater, will permit better estimates of how much Washington should spend, and of how it should allocate forces on the map to achieve decisive strategic effect. To reduce America's margin of military supremacy without careful forethought would be imprudent in the extreme.

And lastly, the question underlying this debate seems to be the perennial one: does international order enforce itself? If so, the United States can pull back. But if not, who will enforce it? It's safe to say no one will take up the mantle of global primacy any time soon, should Washington discard it. No BRICS power – the most obvious candidates – possesses the capability or evinces any desire to oversee the system. So can the United States lead in certain regions while abandoning others? Will regional “policemen” like the ones of which Franklin Roosevelt spoke take charge of their environs? Smaller regional arrangements, or police efforts by coastal states off their own shores? Anarchy reminiscent of Mel Gibson's old Mad Max films?

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Authors
James R. Holmes
Contributing Author

James R. Holmes

James R. Holmes is a defense analyst for The Diplomat and a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College where he specializes in U.S., Chinese and Indian maritime strategy and U.S. diplomatic and military history.

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