Does Great Power Military Might Still Make Right?

Does Great Power Military Might Still Make Right?

The days of hegemony reinforced by military might are coming to an end.


The practice of war has integrally shaped human society for millennia. Today, the preparation for war continues to guide national security policy and dominate national spending in the major powers. In the freshly christened period of “returning” great power competition, the United States, China and Russia are pouring a combined trillion dollars annually into enhancing their nuclear arsenals, advancing their conventional capabilities, and weaponizing emerging technologies.

However, this course, and the continued commitment to realist conceptions of military might-makes-right strategies, appears to neglect an ever more apparent reality—the institution of war as an ordering principle among rivals is approaching an end. War itself, in contemporary major power context, is unwinnable under conditions of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Further, the notion of “manageable” lower-level conflict is becoming infeasible due to the high tech, high-paced, and high-risk nature of warfare with modern military capabilities. Furthermore, the calculated threat of conflict in furtherance of deterrence policy, characterized by the pursuit of technological breakthroughs, is dubious in theory and unsustainable in practice.


It seems all but inevitable that military might will not be able to decide the outcome of this current and future bouts of great power competition. Largescale investment in maintaining and cultivating unusable military capability sets, thus, appears misguided, creating gratuitous risk without conferring any offsetting strategic benefit. It is time to collectively acknowledge this actuality and to alter future policy accordingly.

The Historical Arc of Militarism

It has been suggested that ritualism featured prominently in combat among primitive peoples and that early inter-group fighting was comprised of individual duels consisting of mutual insult slinging amid aggressive brandishing of primitive weapon instruments. At some point, such displays would turn violent. Indeed, the earliest physical indications of conflictual violence may date back 13,000 years to pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers excavated at the Jebel Sahaba site in present-day Sudan. Also, the first surviving pieces of evidence involving blunt stone weapons trace back 6,000 years to Mesopotamia.

From these ancient origins, the practice of organized conflict embarked on a trajectory of progressively increasing violence. Over the various epochs, the pursuit of battlefield success involved the ability to project greater force by means of increasingly destructive weaponry. Vaunted military theorist Carl von Clausewitz would formalize the primacy of maximizing force capacity, noting, in the nineteenth century, that victory in war centered around the complete or partial destruction of adversary forces and the breaking of its will to further fight.

The emergence of the Westphalian system and the nation-state from the bloody Thirty-Years War saw the advancement of organized military strategy and weapons capabilities. Nineteenth-century industrial breakthroughs would revolutionize the military sphere and considerably enhance the ability to elevate violence, giving rise to nitrogen-based explosives, machine gun technology, and the weaponization of chemical agents. These new capabilities were put to devastating use in World War I and, despite international efforts to control arms development, continued to be further improved in the interwar period. In World War II, Dreadnought-class battleships, novel aerial capabilities, and submarines featured prominently, resulting in mass carnage. It was at this point that militarism took an unprecedented new step—one that would precipitate the beginning of its demise—by crossing the nuclear threshold.      

Enter The Nuclear Age

The dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in an unparalleled era of destructive weapons. Eager to harness the strategic advantage of this new weapon, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a decade of intense arms-racing to build the hydrogen bomb, and then advanced delivery systems.

By the end of the 1950s, a condition entirely new in the long history of militarism became clear—the potential capacity for increasing violence had maxed out. Humankind had achieved the ominous ability to induce omnicide. With this grave capability, together with advancements ensuring a second-strike ability, came the reality of MAD between the reigning superpowers and, with it, a fundamental disruption in the prevailing approach to war. Vanquishing the enemy on the battlefield and thereby realizing the fruits of traditional military victory was no longer possible.

Instead, a new path of nuclear deterrence took shape. Here too, though, the non-usability of nuclear weapons posed a serious quandary. Deterrence is premised upon the ability to make credible threats to safeguard the status quo. MAD, however, rendered nuclear-based massive retaliation deterrence incredible, as the act of making good on this threat implied similar nuclear annihilation for the deterrer.

Strategists set to work trying to overcome this foundational credibility problem. In the United States, the leading minds of the day grappled with preserving militarism’s strategic centrality in the nuclear age. Their ultimate solution was to reorient the maximization of violence principle away from the highest end of the conflict spectrum to the intermediate or lower side. Total war was now off the table, but lower-level conflict was still in play. The notion of delineable conflict escalation became the new practice.

In the Kennedy administration, this approach manifested itself in the Flexible Response policy. A largescale buildup of conventional capability sets ensued, driving a revolution in military affairs with the “smart” precision-guided munition (PGM). Together with the Reagan administration’s exploration of missile defense technologies and the Strategic Defense Initiative, these prospective capabilities—the ability to strike critical targets more accurately and effectively and potentially blunt the force of retaliatory strikes—threatened to undermine MAD and fueled an enduring arms race with which the Soviets could alas not keep pace.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the model of arms race-based deterrence appeared effective for the United States. But the promised peace dividend that the model was expected to yield was short-lived, as constant maintenance of military advantage is mandatory and costly. After demonstrating the efficacy of PGMs in the First Gulf War and in Serbia, the United States turned to the ambitious Prompt Global Strike initiative at the start of the new millennium, along with a reinvigorated interest in missile defense.

The threat of these programs elicited military responses from Russia and China. While the United States became bogged down in its expansive War on Terror, both Russia and China went about enhancing their arsenals of hypersonic missiles and other capabilities. By the time the transition to today’s great power rivalry took root, the trail to a kind of conventional MAD had been blazed. The great powers possessed the ability to carry out devastating and indefensible sub-nuclear attacks against one another. The practical result being that conventional war now too was growing infeasible.

This present state of affairs is recreating the old credibility problem and frustrating U.S. deterrence postures in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea—regions of significant strategic value to Russia and China, respectively. Both have grown demonstrably more assertive, as exemplified by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and position vis-à-vis Ukraine and China’s increasingly confident salami-slicing tactics. Further, the United States is adapting the old strategy of maximizing force potential in fightable domains—this time seeking dominance in cyber, artificial intelligence, autonomous functioning, super-computing, and other emerging technologies—in the hope of controlling the new high-tech, multi-domain battlefield. Just as with the nuclear and conventional spheres before it, however, the prospect of securing a durable military advantage that will subdue Russia and China and ensure lasting American hegemony is little more than chimeric.

The End of the Road?

A retrospective glance at the phases of militarism reveals a continuity—the indefatigable for unilateral advantage. This competitive drive propelled the progression of weapons capabilities from the simple stone shot to the awesome hydrogen bomb. Ironically, though, thousands of years of monumental military progress has ultimately led armed conflict to a place not dissimilar from its humble origins. Whereas primitive predecessors stood ritualistically brandishing stones and exchanging insults, the superpowers of today stand brandishing atomic weapons and propaganda.

Is the end of the long road of militarism is in sight? War itself can no longer yield Clausewitzian victory. The United States, Russia, and China cannot defeat one another militarily the way the Allied Powers defeated the Axis Powers in World War II. Total war would lead to mutual devastation, demolition of the global economy, and, potentially, destruction of the entire planet. Furthermore, the highly effective nature of contemporary sub-nuclear capabilities makes belligerents engaged in lower-level conflict vulnerable to attack on critical assets earlier in conflict scenarios. In past eras of warfare, leaders could control which assets to employ and, thus, better manage the risks of battle. Today, missile technologies, anti-satellite weapons, and the gamut of cyber and high-tech-facilitated capabilities place vital assets at risk, wherever they may be located and as soon as conflict starts. Additionally, growing automation of weapons and command and control systems promises to appreciably expedite conflict tempo, further frustrating escalation management. As such, lower-level conventional war is ceasing to be a viable option.

Additionally, military might-based deterrence as a means of securing or pursuing hegemonic status is unsound in theory and, accordingly, becoming ineffective in practice. Deterrence is a function of capability times will—capability alone is insufficient. As long as the will-value asymmetrically favors a challenger with sufficient capabilities to challenge the deterrer, deterrence will be unstable. Provided both parties are driving a roughly comparable vehicle, the party with the greater resolve will stay the course longer in the notorious “chicken game” scenario. Both China and Russia have sufficient capabilities to challenge U.S. deterrence postures in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea, and both seem to have the greater resolve with respect to secure their interests in these regions.