First Among Equals

We need to get ready for a time when America won’t be the world’s only superpower. Cutting our overseas commitments would be a good start.

It's the job of military planners to plot future contingencies, which is why the U.S. Joint Forces Command looked ahead in its newly published Joint Operating Environment 2008. Despite obvious foreign threats, America's destiny continues to remain largely in its own hands. No other country could draft such a report with such a perspective.

The Europeans, constrained by the European Union and their memories of World War II, must cast a wary eye towards Russia and have little military means to influence events much beyond Africa. For all of its pretensions of power, Moscow is economically dependent on Europe and fearful of an expanding China; Russia's military revival consists of the ability to beat up small neighbors on its border.

Countries like Australia, South Korea and Japan are not without resources, but they are able to influence their regions, no more. Brazil is likely to become the dominant player in South America, but global clout is far away. India and China are emerging powers, but remain well behind Russia and especially the United States. Every other nation would have to start its operational analysis with America, which alone possesses the ability to intervene decisively in every region.

The main challenge facing the United States will be becoming more like other nations. That is, over time other states will grow economically relative to America. That will allow them to improve and expand their militaries. Washington will long remain first among equals, the most powerful single global player. But eventually it will no longer be able to impose its will on any nation in any circumstance.

That doesn't mean the United States will be threatened. Other countries won't be able to defeat America or force it to terms. But the outcomes of ever more international controversies will become less certain. Other governments will be more willing in more instances to say no to Washington. Especially China.

Much will change in the coming years, but as the JOE 2008 observes,

The Sino-American relationship represents one of the great strategic question marks of the next twenty-five years. Regardless of the outcome-cooperative or coercive, or both-China will become increasingly important in the considerations and strategic perceptions of joint force commanders.

What kind of a power is Beijing likely to become? Chinese policymakers emphasize that they plan a "peaceful rise," but their ambitions loom large. Argues JOE 2008, while the People's Republic of China doesn't "emphasize the future strictly in military terms," the Chinese do calculate "that eventually their growing strength will allow them to dominate Asia and the Western Pacific." More ominously, argues the Joint Forces Command, "The Chinese are working hard to ensure that if there is a military confrontation with the United States sometime in the future, they will be ready."

Yet this assessment is far less threatening than it sounds. The PRC is not capable (nor close to being capable) of threatening vital U.S. interests-conquering American territory, threatening our liberties and constitutional system, cutting off U.S. trade with the rest of the world, dominating Eurasia and turning that rich resource base against America. After all, the United States has the world's most sophisticated and powerful nuclear arsenal; China's intercontinental delivery capabilities are quite limited. America has eleven carrier groups while Beijing has none. Washington is allied with most every other industrialized state and a gaggle of the PRC's neighbors. China is surrounded by nations with which it has been at war in recent decades: Russia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and India.

Indeed, today Beijing must concentrate on defending itself. In pointing to the PRC's investment in submarines, the JOE 2008 acknowledges: "The emphasis on nuclear submarines and an increasingly global Navy in particular, underlines worries that the U.S. Navy possesses the ability to shut down China's energy imports of oil-80% of which go through the straits of Malacca." The Chinese government is focused on preventing American intervention against it in its own neighborhood, not on contesting U.S. dominance elsewhere in the world, let alone in North America.

Washington almost certainly will be unable to thwart Beijing, at least at acceptable cost. China needs spend only a fraction of America's military outlays to develop a deterrent capability-nuclear sufficiency to forestall nuclear coercion, submarine and missile forces to sink U.S. carriers, and anti-satellite and cyber-warfare weapons to blind and disrupt American forces. Washington could ill afford to intervene in East Asia against the PRC so equipped.

Such a military is well within China's reach. Notes JOE 2008: "by conservative calculations it is easily possible that by the 2030s China could modernize its military to reach a level of approximately one quarter of current U.S. capabilities without any significant impact on its economy." Thus, absent the unlikely economic and social collapse of China, in not too many years Beijing will able to enforce its "no" to America.

Washington must reconsider its response. U.S. taxpayers already spend as much as everyone else on earth on the military. It's a needless burden, since promiscuous intervention overseas does not make Americans safer. To maintain today's overwhelming edge over progressively more powerful militaries in China, Russia, India and other states would require disproportionately larger military outlays in the United States. It's a game Washington cannot win.