An All-Powerful Military Isn't What It Used to Be

Photograph by Patrick Baz/AFP via Getty Images

As the U.S. government debates what to do about Syrian chemical weapons use—and the stated aim threads the needle between nothing at all and a strike that would markedly affect the course of the civil war—it’s a good time to reflect on the declining utility of overwhelming global military dominance. The good news is that this declining utility is likely to apply beyond the U.S., to any other country that might one day rise to military superpower status.

Brookings Institution scholar Robert Kagan has noted that the U.S.’s current military and economic position looks like Britain circa 1870, when the empire was at the height of its power. Of course, many people in 1870s Britain will have had distinct memories of the country’s disastrous invasion of Afghanistan. Even today on Kabul’s Chicken Street you can buy a Lee Enfield rifle with VR—Victoria Regina—engraved on it, copied from examples left over from the rout of the British army’s inglorious retreat in 1842. Being the top nation militarily or economically hasn’t ever meant you would always get what you wanted everywhere.

Nonetheless, a century ago the U.K. followed a two-power strategy: Its naval forces would be as large as the next two largest navies in the world. That was part of a successful effort to control one-quarter of the world’s land area. Compare that with the U.S. today. The latest data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute suggest the U.S. has the same military expenditure as the next 12 best-funded militaries worldwide combined.

But long gone are the days when being the top nation militarily meant you could invade half-continents, get countries to adopt your national sports, and set up global economic institutions to your preferred design. There’s an irony that a U.S. military system that has the power to wipe civilization off the face of the planet through thermonuclear Armageddon is considerably less capable of actually imposing its political leaders’ will on the world than were the British armed forces of 150 years ago that gave pride of place to a cavalry using lances.

World War II was almost the end of an era of national states being able to invade, occupy, and then leave another country as an ally. It (sort of) worked in Cambodia after Vietnam’s invasion, and with Tanzania in Uganda—but the cases since 1945 are rare. In fact, the number of instances where a country has even tried to militarily occupy another country for the long term has dramatically shrunk—it’s one reason Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the U.S.’s more recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan looked so anachronistic. The more common way to use military force or supplies in the recent past has been in the limited support of one side or another in an ongoing civil war—the model followed by Russia and Saudi Arabia in Syria and by most of its neighbors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

More positively, foreign militaries have played an important role in peacekeeping, and sometimes even peacemaking, in the past 15 years: various United Nations missions, from Côte d’Ivoire to Lebanon, the French in Mali, the British in Sierra Leone. But these operations were all comparatively small-scale and with limited aims—the largest UN operation worldwide involves fewer than 20,000 troops drawn from 50 different countries.

Meanwhile, two things that unilateral attempts at direct military dominance do appear to accomplish more than ever are to make countries worse off and less popular. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It’s cost about $1.7 trillion so far—or more than $5,000 per person in America—and led to cratering opinions of the U.S. abroad. A quarter of the Jordanian population had a favorable attitude toward the U.S. in the summer of 2002, according to Pew Foundation surveys. By 2004 that measure had dropped to 5 percent. In Russia, meanwhile, U.S. favorability fell from 61 percent in 2002 to 41 percent in 2007. The fall in Japan was from 72 percent to 50 percent, and in Germany it dropped to 30 percent from 60 percent.

A recent YouGov poll suggests Americans are well aware where global influence comes from these days. Asked which single factor mattered most among cultural attractiveness, the economy, and military strength, only 26 percent suggested it was a country’s military strength. Forty-five percent said it was the size of the economy. There are trade-offs between military expenditure, economic performance, and a country’s “cultural attractiveness”—between hard power and soft power. Popular opinion and recent military history both suggest those trade-offs are increasingly not worth making.

But there’s a considerable silver lining to the cloud of U.S. armed forces with lower military utility for all of their increased cost and killing power. The same formula will most likely apply to any country that overtakes the U.S. in terms of number of aircraft carriers or long-range bombers. The idea that China, as it might be, will be snapping up neighboring countries like a child devouring candies by midcentury just doesn’t fit with the realities of modern military power. And that suggests some real hope that the Pacific Century may live up to its name.

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