Military Superiority Leads to Decline

As the twentieth century ended and the specter of the Cold War appeared to be fading into history, political scientists pondered the question of how a new world order would take shape under the direction of a victorious superpower. As John Ikenberry stated, victors try “to find ways to set limits on their powers and make it acceptable to other states.”[1] The United States, having spent a century building its image as military power determined to protect the world from evil and in doing so spread democracy, found itself in a dilemma. While talking heads and braggarts proclaimed U.S. superpower greatness, diplomats faced the harsh reality that yesterday’s protector can quickly become today’s bully and tomorrow’s enemy. Additionally, the economic strain military spending places on a society can become politically detrimental once victory occurs. In the past it was said that to the victor goes the spoils, but in modern times with plundering being frowned upon, the victor tends to win a headache both at home and abroad without seeing any real benefit. Without change in policy, particularly policy pertaining to its military superiority and status, a victorious nation discovers that military superiority can lead to economic and political decline.

Of the many headaches the United States developed as a single superpower in the years following the end of the Cold War, probably the most contentious one was the headache of being asked to intervene in conflicts great and small. Seldom was there a clear right side and wrong side to support. In many cases the crises that prompted the debate over intervention occurred in regions that had been previously under the political, economic, and military supervision of the Soviet Union. Even when using the umbrella of the United Nations, U.S. intervention could stir conflicting emotions in the crisis region. The United States had been both the enemy and possessor of enviable commodities for fifty years. Envy and distrust were not feelings easily eradicated simply because war was over. In a world that seemed to be rupturing in the absence of Cold War superpower dominance, the United States struggled with its expanded role of policeman, banker, and social worker.

Military dominance, which had spurred the U.S. economy in the years following World War II, became a burden following the end of the Cold War. In the wake of international cooperation and the perception of peace, nations could shift away from military technology as a basis of economic growth. Nations which remained entrenched in military development became economically dependent on wars that seldom required Cold War technology. Furthermore, Cold War technology had been all about fighting a war from a distance, and the conflicts of the twenty-first century required boots on the ground. When President Truman and President Eisenhower put their support behind the development of nuclear technology and behind the technology to deliver nuclear weapons from a distance, part of their justification was that it would save U.S. casualty and hypothetically shorten, if not prevent war. Their reasoning was based predominantly on the notion that nations would fight nations, and that the days of tribal warfare were becoming part of the past. When the theories and perception of modern war shifted after the attacks on the United States in 2001, the world powers seemed taken by surprise. When the Second Gulf War did not produce the results predicted, when peace did not flourish, and when terrorism spread rather than diminished, the United States seemed not only surprised but confused. The U.S. war strategy and military development, so honed during the twentieth century, did not work in the twenty-first. A nation which had grown powerful through military superiority, found itself the targeted enemy rather than the celebrated hero. Furthermore, it found itself struggling to justify increasing national debt, made larger due to wars that seemed to have no end. Like many great powers which had come before, the United States faced decline despite continued military superiority. In fact, it could be argued, the United States faced decline because of its military superiority.

 

 

Endotes

[1] John G. Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), xi.

 

Further Reading

Hixson, Walter L. The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

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