Security Studies Program Seminar

The Power Problem: Why Having More Than We Need Makes Us Less Safe

Christopher Preble
Director of Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute

February 27, 2008



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.
A. 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