Security Studies Program Seminar
The Power Problem: Why Having More Than We Need Makes Us Less Safe
Director of Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute
February 27, 2008
- Why does power sometimes not work? Our power did not intimidate the 9/11 attackers, Saddam Hussein, or North Korea. Our threats against Iran have been equally counterproductive.
- We do not have enough power to dominate the world, but American is being corrupted by our power. Thus we should reduce power to be more secure.
- Military power is a means, not an end in itself. In recent times, we have seen it held out as an end. What helped us win the Cold War was that we did not do what the Soviets did (lots of military acquisition at the expense of taking care of the people). In the last 18 years, we have largely forgotten these lessons. Diverting too many resources to military power erodes strengths in other areas.
- The problem is deeper than monetary cost; it also includes the way in which power is used. Since the end of the Cold War, we have reduced military spending by 25%, but that has not had much impact on our capacity or propensity to wage war — which has actually increased since the end of the Cold War.
- Fewer than 1 in 3 non-Americans see us as playing a positive role in the world. President Bush wore his willingness to ignore international public opinion as a badge of honor in November 2004. The world looks upon the American superpower as a bull in a china shop – meaning no harm, but unable to help itself.
- If anything good comes out of Iraq, it will be the opportunity to reassess the nature of our power. Every proposal to increase force size or to send troops abroad should be subject to a far higher degree of scrutiny. We should not be everywhere and do everything, especially when the enemies are non-state actors. The most successful operations against Al Qaeda have relied on intelligence and cooperation with foreign militaries. Blunt military force, by contrast, is often counterproductive. All the military power we had did not deter the 19 hijackers on 9/11, and twice that power would have been equally irrelevant.
- What does our power get us?
- The most physical security in the history of humankind. We should not do anything to undermine that element of our power. But we do not need much power to achieve this end. We have invested decades in R&D to create an unmatched weapons portfolio. Even ships built in the 1980s are vastly superior to those of our competitors. The investments we have made are going to pay dividends for a long time. In addition, our military personnel are adaptive and highly motivated.
- In addition to this deterrent effect, our power allows us to defend long-time allies who have decided to divert their attention to other things, and it allows us to give humanitarian aid.
- Also, our military is prepared to defend the global economy.
- Despite events in Iraq, few people question our military's abilities to accomplish these essential tasks. However, our military has come up short in recent years — unable to enforce a modicum of rule of law in many parts of Afghanistan and Iraq. We have also come to appreciate the limits of our power in that our best people and the best gadgets can be cut down by rudimentary tools (IEDs, infield rifles).
- What does our power cost?
- The simple answer, “It costs a lot in dollars,” does not express it well enough. The sheer size of the defense budget ensures that many projects escape careful scrutiny. Meanwhile, Congress asks, “What's in it for my district”? That has allowed the defense budget to grow 12% every year since 9/11.
- There are also opportunity costs. Eisenhower's Chance for Peace speech (1953) articulated quite well the tradeoffs. He always believed that wasteful military spending was harmful to the American economy.
- An even more fundamental cost is the shifting balance of power between the branches. The Founders, especially James Madison, worried about the ways in which wars would give rise to more power for the executive. The legislature is entrusted with the power of war for that very reason. Tragically, Madison's system for constraining executive power has failed. He presumed that the president would not have the ability to wage war without Congressional authorization. The Military Powers Act has changed that. Usually Congress learns of military action on CNN.
- Another cost: The existence of our power and the presumption that we will use it encourages our own overconfidence, and invites others to appeal to Washington for assistance. While we do not always intervene, the impulse to do so is understandable. The notion of obligation flowing from great power is biblically rooted. But our desire to do good does not always translate into a capacity to do good.
- A final cost: stirring up resentment abroad. Our ability and propensity to wage war fuels resentment, animosity, even violence. This is not a controversial thesis.
- But we do have a choice. Most Americans recognize that power is costly but believe we would be less secure if we spent less; others believe we should be spending more, imagining the Founders could not have envisioned the threats we are facing today. In reality, our capacity for waging war actually far exceeds any urgent threats to national security.
- If the problem is the propensity to intervene, the natural solution is to intervene less often. But it is not that simple; capability leads to propensity. Madeline Albright once said to Colin Powell, “What is the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if you can't use it?”
- A Vietnam syndrome in late 1970s/early 1980s tempered the American appetite for intervention. Similarly, there will likely be an Iraq syndrome in the years ahead.
- Why is power a problem? Because it cannot be withheld. We literally cannot help ourselves. Metaphorically, the U.S. military is standing on the edge of every single pier, near every drowning man. We do not appreciate that someone is trying to drown him, and that throwing him the ring will not save his life. And how can we be so sure that the drowning man is the aggrieved party?
- The alternative: Move beyond foreign policy predicated on the U.S. as the sole superpower, to a policy based on this country as a world power. That change must come from within
- It will begin with the recognition of the paradox of world power — that it engenders fear but rarely respect.
- We must ask what we truly need to be secure. We can perform all of the essential functions of security (see above) with a pre-Cold-War military. A few hundred nuclear weapons is a sufficient deterrent.
- If we use our military power less often, other countries will increase their own capabilities. If these governments act in defense of their own citizens, a better, less costly, more sustainable and more peaceful world order will result.
- This is not to suggest that we should never intervene. What we need is a new set of guiding principles on intervention. These four criteria are suggested:
- A compelling U.S. national security interest should be at stake. There rarely is one; humanitarian missions generally do not count.
- There should be clear national consensus behind the mission, durable enough to survive temporary setbacks.
- There should be a clear and attainable military objective.
- Military intervention should always be the last resort.
- These criteria for intervention are hardly revolutionary. But we have lost sight of them, because our capacity to wage war has enabled us to avoid discussions of necessity. Resolving our power problem will shift the burden of proof from anti-interventionists to pro-interventionists.
- A similar warning was heard during the closing days of the Cold War. George Kennan said, “The greatest service this country could render to the rest of the world is to put its own house in order.” We will, as long as we do not define the strength of our civilization by our capacity to wage war.
Q. You left out one other cost of military power: the talent of the people devoted to this enterprise, which is largely a waste of time.
A. Eisenhower's Chance for Peace speech is a remarkable document that touches on this issue of opportunity costs.
Q. Your argument invokes structure at the expense of agency. There is an element of truth to that, but it implies that structure is destiny when there is actually room for policy.
A. Structure is not the only thing the matters, and we should not let policymakers off the hook.
Q. Would we be having this discussion if we did not have the second Iraq War? Interventions in the 1990s were on a different scale, and some of them were successes. There were a lot of things we did not do.
A. Because of irrelevant interventions, our criteria for intervention have come into question. Case studies suggest that if we do not act, others will.
Q. How much do you want to reduce military forces? Simply reducing them, but giving them the capability to go abroad, leaves choice in the equation.
A. It will also be important to rebalance the tools of statecraft. In addition, most of the beneficial interactions Americans have with the rest of the world have nothing to do with the government.
Q. What should the appropriate size of our military forces be in 3-5 years?
A. 3-5 years is not a realistic timeframe. That said, we should have less than 1,000 nuclear warheads and should do away with the land-based deterrent (keeping maybe 10-12 SSBNs). We should reduce the number of ships in the Navy, though not by a lot. The types of ships we build makes a huge difference — we need 6 super-carriers, not 11. As for the Air Force, many fighter aircraft could be put on reserve status, leaving maybe 1,000 on active status. The Army and the Marine Corps will probably be cut the most, but they should be the last to be cut. (Otherwise we will get what has already happened: troop cuts and increased deployments.) Ultimately, we should see half as many soldiers on active duty and smaller reductions in the reserves.
Q. What do you think about the size of the intelligence community?
A. The problem there is not capacity. We have put some artificial constraints on our ability to gather intelligence, by deemphasizing open-source methods and overemphasizing security-cleared personnel. We are keeping out a lot of people who could be contributing. Intelligence plays the most important role in fighting non-state actors, but success is not strongly tied to spending.
Q. Many people in the international community now say that we should have intervened in the genocide in Rwanda.
A. The key thing to note is that lack of intervention makes us look bad, but not any of the other major industrialized states. Our behavior has made it our fault, because our standards are unclear. In the case of Darfur, we could intervene and this would probably be interpreted favorably at first, but what if we unraveled the north-south peace agreement? Our imperative to intervene in the wake of natural disasters is clear, but vis-à-vis manmade disasters, even clear-cut humanitarian cases are not that clear cut.
Q. Might a smaller, more effective military force actually spur more intervention?
A. No, because state-building (an interventionist action) is dependent on security, which requires large-scale military hard power.
Q. Should we have gone into Afghanistan? Why has it gone the way it has? What is the solution based on your theory?
A. The situation in Afghanistan is really difficult, and it is exacerbated by the fact that their neighbor to the east professes to have no control over a large swath of territory. When Kandahar fell, there were 500 American personnel in-country. We sent in a lot of troops soon after that, trying to get Osama Bin Laden. Some military power will be needed to continue that process, but there are limits to what the military can do in that country. There would not have been an Afghanistan syndrome if not for Iraq; the national security rationale in Afghanistan was clear.
Q. If we have a smaller military, but we still have the same far-reaching capabilities because we still need them, how is intervention really going to be restrained?
A. Our decreased capacity will increase the capacity of other countries. Our power is meant in many instances to discourage the development of military capabilities. Part of the process is to be explicit about a change in this stance.
Q. You mentioned several reasons that the U.S. cannot restrain itself from the self-ruinous use of power. What else is there? The domestic politics of foreign policy is an underemphasized field.
The way to deal with the domestic politics of foreign policy is similar to the way the Cato Institute approaches similar policy issues. There will always be some lobby making the case for a particular policy. The benefits flow disproportionately to them and the costs are diffuse. The key is making people more aware of the diffuse costs.
Q. What would you say to the counterargument that the problem is not the scope and size of the military, but rather the shape of it — the policies it prefers? We marry our power to a rhetoric of intimidation instead of reassurance.
A. The U.S. should be a status quo power; there is no reason for us to be a revolutionary power. But that is not just a conceit of President Bush; there are many on the left who feel that way too.
Q. Your argument is path-dependent, with our level of military power at the origin. Aren't there ways — with military power constant — to increase the role of public diplomacy, and so forth?
A. Military power is different from the other instruments of power. Doubling our diplomatic corps would not have the same effect as shifting power away from the executive.
Q. Building on the drowning analogy: If you see two people thrashing around in a pond, what do you do?
A. The costs of throwing in a life ring are zero. The people who make the case for humanitarian intervention imply the costs are low, and that is where their argument breaks down. It will take more in Darfur than sending 15 C-130s. Food in Somalia became a weapon.
Q. You say there are external and internal pressures to intervene. Is the military the only type of power that leads to these internal and external pressures? If not, why not diminish these other types of power as well?
A. A smaller military would require us to prioritize. There is something different about military power that is more likely to engender suspicion and resistance than other forms of power. It is better to have impulses that you cannot act on. Currently policymakers have less demand placed on them for judgment, because the power is there. Iraq planning was actually quite good; the problem was that the Bush administration was not interested in that. We should not relieve the burden on our policymakers to make sound decisions.
Rapporteur: Nathan Black
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2008