The U.S. military currently counts over 1.3 million personnel on active duty, with over 450,000 of these currently stationed overseas. The United States spends more on its military than the next eight states combined, and still twice as much as China and Russia combined. Many continue to identify the period following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 as a “unipolar moment,” in which the United States was the sole remaining superpower. And the U.S. military is invariably referred to as the world’s most powerful by far. The problem is, even in the absence of the increased military spending currently planned, this characterization remains as true as it is irrelevant.
This is not because armed force no longer matters in international affairs. It is because, as neorealist theory emphasizes, no one likes a world in which only one state has the power to, in Thomas Hobbes’s formulation, “over awe” all others. Thus, those opposing U.S. “management” of the existing order have had to innovate a strategy for thwarting a state with the world’s strongest military, greatest geopolitical reach and most robust economy. Given that every strength is at the same time a weakness in different circumstances, we should be unsurprised that U.S. adversaries have been reluctant to challenge the United States where it is strong. But on the contrary, adversaries have worked tirelessly to identify and exploit U.S. vulnerabilities; and to innovate new ways to coerce without provoking an armed response (e.g. Russian strategy in Ukraine, now referred to most often as “hybrid” or “grey zone” warfare).
This process began in the 1940s with Mao Tse-Tung’s efforts to innovate a strategy capable of defeating a major advanced industrial state with only a peasant army. His “revolutionary guerrilla warfare” strategy turned out to have very little to do with Communism, and everything to do with nationalism; and it eventually succeeded in defeating the U.S.-supported Kuomintang with no outside material support. The core features of the People’s Liberation Army doctrine would be adapted by the Viet Minh against first France, and later the United States in Indochina and Vietnam (respectively). In the years since, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China have all proven adept at innovating ways to thwart U.S. efforts without challenging the U.S. military and its alliance partners head on, as Iraq (1991, 2003) and the Taliban (2001) attempted to do in the early 2000s with predictable results: they lost decisively.
What has emerged in the 2010s is a world in which Steven Pinker’s (2011) argument that ‘the world is less violent now than at any time in history’ is both true, and at the same time less relevant: as China’s ongoing transfer of trillions of dollars of intellectual property value from the United States (much by cyber intrusion, and much by forcing U.S. corporations seeking to manufacture in China to choose between short-term profits and long-term corporate and U.S. interests); and Russia’s overwhelming success in interfering with Britain’s referendum on EU membership and the U.S. presidential election in 2016 highlight, states are capable of doing each other massive harm without crossing the traditional ‘act of war’ threshold; without killing.
What then should an ideal U.S. military intervention strategy look like in the 2020s? Just as our adversaries adapted their strategies and associated resources to counter U.S. strengths, the United States must innovate new strategies for advancing its national interests going forward. This can be done by increasing economic and diplomatic power and reserving military power for vital interests—rather than spreading our values. This will result in increased effectiveness even as it also means fewer and fewer military interventions. Ironically, the ideal U.S. counter to Chinese, Russian, Iranian, and North Korean strategies is to avoid the preventive use of armed force (thus repudiating the post 9-11 strategy of offense as defense) and to devote a greater share of resources to resilience: to effective education, infrastructure innovation, health care reform, food security and equitable economic growth. An ideal strategic response to cyber threats would be to reduce our vulnerability by increased public education and regulatory pressure on the private sector to guard against cyber intrusions.
Taken together, democratic states will find it increasingly difficult to both remain open and privilege the rule of law, and secure their citizens from all threats and harm. The 2020s will be a decade in which all hopes rest on building a resilient citizenry here in America, not on a now clearly doomed strategy relying on hyper-threat inflation and the overuse of the sword.
Monica Duffy Toft is Professor of International Politics and Director, Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School of Government, Tufts University.
Image: Flickr / Department of Defense