The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics

The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics

by Michael C. Horowitz

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The Diffusion of Military Power examines how the financial and organizational challenges of adopting new methods of fighting wars can influence the international balance of power. Michael Horowitz argues that a state or actor wishing to adopt a military innovation must possess both the financial resources to buy or build the technology and the


The Diffusion of Military Power examines how the financial and organizational challenges of adopting new methods of fighting wars can influence the international balance of power. Michael Horowitz argues that a state or actor wishing to adopt a military innovation must possess both the financial resources to buy or build the technology and the internal organizational capacity to accommodate any necessary changes in recruiting, training, or operations. How countries react to new innovations--and to other actors that do or don't adopt them--has profound implications for the global order and the likelihood of war.

Horowitz looks at some of the most important military innovations throughout history, including the advent of the all-big-gun steel battleship, the development of aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons, and the use of suicide terror by nonstate actors. He shows how expensive innovations can favor wealthier, more powerful countries, but also how those same states often stumble when facing organizationally complicated innovations. Innovations requiring major upheavals in doctrine and organization can disadvantage the wealthiest states due to their bureaucratic inflexibility and weight the balance of power toward smaller and more nimble actors, making conflict more likely. This book provides vital insights into military innovations and their impact on U.S. foreign policy, warfare, and the distribution of power in the international system.

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Winner of the 2010 Edgar S. Furniss Book Award, Mershon Center for International Security Studies

Winner of the 2011 Best Book, International Security Studies Section of the International Studies Association

Winner of the 2011 Harold D. Lasswell Prize, Society of Policy Scientists

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The Diffusion of Military Power

By Michael C. Horowitz

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2010 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-14395-8

Chapter One


Innovations in the production, deployment, and application of military power are crucial to international politics. Unfortunately, most assessments of the international security environment fail to incorporate either the relevance of military innovations or the importance of their spread. For example, in a thirty-year period, from 1850-80, the French Navy became the first to develop shell guns, and the first to deploy a steam-powered warship, an ironclad warship, a mechanically powered submarine, and a steel-hulled warship. These developments should have helped the French Navy gain superiority over its bitter rival, the British Royal Navy, but they did not. Moreover, barely a decade after the introduction of the steel-hulled warship in the 1870s, a new innovative school of naval theorists in the French Navy argued that the future of naval power lay with emerging technologies like torpedo boats and submarines, not the battleship. France was going to jump ahead once again. Yet despite this foresight and demonstrated initiative, most people generally do not consider France a great naval innovator of the period. Why is this? What advantages did it get from its introduction of a series of useful technologies into naval warfare?

The real answer is that the French Navy received no advantage. Unlike the U.S. Navy, whose mastery of the technology and organizational practices associated with carrier warfare provided it with a sustainable edge in naval power in the second half of the twentieth century, the French could not institutionalize their advantage. While the French excelled at inventing new technologies, crippling organizational debates prevented the integration of those technologies into French naval strategy. In each case, the French were the first to introduce a new naval warfare capability, while the British Admiralty appeared, in public, disinterested in French developments. Yet in each case the British, who had been carefully studying French advances in private, quickly adopted the new capabilities, improved on them, and used Great Britain's superior industrial production capabilities to eliminate France's ability to gain a relative power advantage from its inventions.

A prescient analysis in 1902 of submarine warfare by Herbert C. Fyfe, the "Sometime Librarian of the Royal Institution, London," includes an appendix on the French Navy that expresses French feelings on the matter:

"We have seriously believed," says a writer in the Journal de la Marine, "that in all the great modifications that have been brought about in the construction of submarines is the result of the important changes which the last fifty years of the century have produced in the art of naval warfare. All these changes have been sought out, experimented upon, studied, and finally realized by France, who has also been the first to apply them. These results have established in a brilliant and incontestable manner the skill of our engineers; but our rivals have not only appropriated the results of our labours, but they have not been slow to place themselves on equal terms with us, and finally to excel us in the application of these discoveries.... We have been only the humble artisans working for them to establish their superiority." (Fyfe 1902, 281)

While France was the technological first mover in several cases, it failed to harness its advances into an actual war-fighting innovation in a way that increased France's relative naval power. Instead, it was the British Royal Navy that came to exemplify naval power in the mid- to late nineteenth century as it entered an era of naval superiority.

The failure of the nineteenth-century French Navy to exploit its technological inventions in sea power yields two important lessons for a general understanding of military power and international relations. First, inventing technologies or even being the first to use them does not guarantee advantages in international politics. There is a big difference between the introduction of a technology on to the battlefield and the full integration of that technology into national strategy, including warfare and coercive diplomacy. It is the difference between the two, in fact, that often determines success or failure in international politics. It is the employment of technologies by organizations, rather than the technologies themselves, that most often makes the difference.

Second, in contrast to most prior work on military innovation, which has tended to focus on who innovates and why, it is the diffusion of a military innovation throughout the international system that most determines its influence on international politics. The study of military power is incomplete at best without a theoretically coherent understanding of how states respond to major military innovations, and how the pattern of their responses helps drive the rise and decline of nations as well as the patterns of warfare frequently analyzed by other scholars. By developing a theoretical framework that can bring together empirical topics like suicide bombing and carrier warfare that scholars have tended to study separately, this book presents a new, more efficient, way to think about approaching the diffusion of military power.

The introduction and spread of new means of generating military power, sometimes called major military innovations (MMIs), have played a critical role throughout history in determining the global balance of power along with the timing and intensity of wars. The infamous Mongol armies, with their mastery of the composite bow and a new form of cavalry strikes, toppled nations from China to those in the eastern part of Europe because of their leaps in technology and strategy. Hundreds of years later, the German debut of blitzkrieg warfare at the outbreak of World War II helped them rout French forces and consolidate control over Western Europe. But despite their significance in terms of driving change in international politics, the processes that govern the spread of innovations and their effects are little understood in the field of international relations. Several questions about military power remain unanswered: Is it best to be the first mover, to borrow a term from economics, and the first to figure out how to effectively employ new types of military power, like the Germans with blitzkrieg? Or is it better to be a follower, learning from the leader, and trying to extend and improve the original ideas, like the Germans with all-big-gun battleships responding to British innovations? How do nonstate actors fit into this story? Insurgent and terrorist groups have to make decisions about military strategy just like nation-states. How do they decide whether or not to adopt new innovations in how they use force like suicide bombing?

This book addresses the broad puzzle of why some military innovations spread and influence international politics while others do not, or do so in very different ways. These patterns are explained with a theory of the spread of military power called adoption-capacity theory.

Nation-states have a number of possible strategic choices in the face of military innovations. These include adoption, offsetting or countering, forming alliances, and shifting toward neutrality, as noted in the preface. Adoption-capacity theory posits that for any given innovation, it is the interaction of the resource mobilization challenges and organizational changes required to adopt the new innovation, and the capacity of states to absorb these demands, that explains both the system-level distribution of responses and the choices of individual states.

As the cost per unit of the technological components of a military innovation increases and fewer commercial applications exist, the level of financial intensity required to adopt the innovation increases. The rate of adoption decreases and alternatives like forming alliances become more attractive. Similarly, if an innovation involves large-scale organizational changes in recruitment, training, and war-fighting doctrine, the innovation requires a high level of organizational capital for adoption, and fewer actors are likely to adopt it. Some states will have the necessary capacity and interests, while politics will prevent adoption by others. If capacity and interest are lacking, no matter how intrinsically compelling a new innovation may seem, it will not diffuse throughout the system. Accurately measuring these variations in diffusion also more effectively explains shifts in the balance of power and warfare than traditional theories alone can do. While higher financial requirements generally mean that the adoption patterns will benefit preexisting wealthy and powerful states, higher organizational change requirements can handicap the wealthiest states and upset the balance of power toward newer and more nimble actors.

The question of how states deal with periods of uncertainty about military power is of special interest today. Significant global economic turmoil now accompanies ongoing debates about the future of warfare in the information age. International relations scholars have demonstrated that uncertainty about the current and future security environment can be a primary cause of conflict (Fearon 1994a; Powell 1999; Smith and Stam 2004). Sharp debates exist between those who believe that the United States should optimize its military for future counterinsurgency campaigns like Afghanistan and Iraq, and those who believe that the United States should focus instead on its conventional capabilities (Gentile 2008; Mazarr 2008; Nagl 2009). An important wild card for both perspectives is the role of the information age in international conflict.

The information age is popularly described as the application of information technology to enhance the productivity of businesses and government, increasing the ability of societies to rapidly create and disseminate large amounts of information anywhere around the globe in real time. The information age, like the Industrial Revolution before it, will eventually have a large-scale impact on warfare.

While some degree of change is likely inevitable, the details of that change and the consequences are still very much in the air. In particular, the United States currently appears to lead the globe in developing and integrating information age advances into its military forces. But software-heavy developments may come to dominate the information age, rather than expensive physical hardware. The declining cost of computing technology, Internet access, and devices like personal GPS units, along with the dual-use nature of many information age military technologies like precision-guided munitions, mean new capabilities may become available to an increasing number of countries over time. While the United States has led the way in utilizing information technology in its military operations, its lead is far from assured. Peter Singer (2009) has described the way that the robotics revolution will impact the future of warfare, contending that there are risks for the United States as well as potential benefits.

In that hypothetical case, the U.S. government's devotion to its tanks, bombers, and carriers could become an albatross that drags down the U.S. military, which might face organizational challenges in transforming itself, in favor of states that figure out new and better ways to organize their forces to take advantage of information age technologies. Countries like China and India could end up leapfrogging a U.S. military that is increasingly focusing on irregular forms of warfare like those in Afghanistan and Iraq. Such an outcome is not on the immediate horizon and is far from inevitable, but it is a mistake to think that the United States is guaranteed to have the strongest conventional military forces in the world. These changes will also potentially empower nonstate actors attempting to find new ways to mobilize and fight against nation-states. Terrorist groups are already shifting the locus of their education, recruitment, and training operations to the "virtual" world of the Internet (Cronin 2006, 83-84; Hammes 2004, 198-99). The empowerment of nonstate actors means that a world of information warfare could substantially increase the capacity of terrorist groups and insurgents to deliver disruptive strikes on the major powers. Potential examples include taking down electricity grids or reprogramming satellites, which would further increase security challenges. While adoption-capacity theory cannot purport to provide exact answers, it can help us predict future trends and know the right questions to ask.

In sum, different military innovations spread throughout the international system differently, and the way they spread has a large effect on key issues in international politics like the balance of power and the probability, intensity, and length of wars. Understanding the spread of military power is therefore important not just for international relations theory but also for policy analysts interested in the future of global power and U.S. strategy as well.

Why the Spread of Military Power Matters

Military power is the measure of how states use organized violence on the battlefield or to coerce enemies. It represents the combination of the technology used to fight-"hardware" such as rifles, artillery, and bombers-and the organizational processes used to actually employ the hardware-"software" like recruiting and training. It is tempting, however, to view the spread of military power as simply the spread of military technology, the tools and devices used to prepare for or fight armed conflicts (Zarzecki 2002, 74).

In contrast, in this book I am concerned with the spread and impact of changes in the character and conduct of warfare. While technological change often accompanies the innovations we remember in history, technology alone is rarely enough. Instead, building on work by Emily O. Goldman and others, it is the way militaries take raw technologies and use them that creates military force and influences diffusion patterns (Goldman and Eliason 2003a).

My approach draws on evidence from the business world that shows studying technology alone is not enough to capture the essence of how innovations matter and what makes successful change more likely. For example, in the 1990s, Dell Computers pioneered a model of production that relied on made-to-order computers based on customer specifications, leading to lower inventories and overhead costs than its major competitors. Th is innovation in its organizational structure improved Dell's ability to integrate exogenous, or external, changes in personal computer technologies. When a technological change occurred, like the release of a new microprocessor from Intel, Dell could integrate it into its consumer production lines within a matter of days and without significant outdated warehouse stock; it generally took weeks for its competitors to do the same. This gave Dell an enormous advantage in its ability to deliver top-notch products to its customers, leading to more sales (Brynjolfsson and Hitt 2000, 29-30). While the technology mattered, since new microprocessors produced changes in computers in ways that altered costs and orders from customers, every computer company received the same chips from Intel. It was Dell's ability to integrate the new technology more efficiently than its competitors that produced its market advantage.

Another example of why both technological and organizational resources matter comes from survey data on business productivity. In 2001, the McKinsey Corporation and the London School of Economics surveyed over one hundred businesses that implemented technological changes, changes in managerial practices, or changes in both areas. The results showed the discontinuous impact of combining organizational and technological change. Businesses that implemented exclusively technological changes experienced a 2 percent increase in productivity, which paled in comparison to the 9 percent increase generated by exclusively managerial changes. Yet businesses that adopted both managerial and technological changes experienced 20 percent productivity increases, almost double the total from adding together technological and managerial change (Dorgan and Dowdy 2004, 13-15). These results explain why companies like Dell succeeded in the 1990s and Apple has done so over the last decade.

Many international security researchers rely on measures of national power like iron and steel production, the numbers of troops or the defense budget of leading states, and their populations. The National Material Capabilities data gathered by the Correlates of War (COW) Project includes information on the military, industrial, and demographic capabilities of each state, which is summed into the Composite Index of National Capability (CINC). CINC-based research has become the standard way to measure power in international relations scholarship. The use of CINC data has produced a number of important insights into international politics, including evidence that materially stronger and wealthier states are more likely to win wars, all other things being equal, and that system power concentration is significantly related to militarized disputes (Bennett and Stam 2004).


Excerpted from The Diffusion of Military Power by Michael C. Horowitz Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

In The Diffusion of Military Power, Michael Horowitz explains how and why military innovations are adopted by state and nonstate actors. These insights are particularly valuable at a time of rapid technological, strategic, and organizational change such as we are living through today, and have immediate implications for the balance of power and the international system. Highly recommended.
John A. Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security and author of "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife"
Emily Goldman
This book makes an important contribution to the scholarship on military diffusion and international power. It will be of much interest to scholars of international security, strategic studies, and military affairs. The book's greatest theoretical contribution is its discussion of the systemic consequences of diffusion.
Emily Goldman, United States Central Command
Dan Reiter
Michael Horowitz's The Diffusion of Military Power is a model for twenty-first-century security studies: an important question (how do military innovations spread), interdisciplinary theory, solutions to important historical puzzles, insight into contemporary policy problems, and the use of rigorous qualitative and quantitative methods. A triumph.
Dan Reiter, Emory University
At the core of this valuable piece of work is the notion of 'adoption capacity,' a concept that Horowitz develops and explores in a set of well-chosen case studies that he examines using a variety of methodologies. In cases as diverse as the introduction of carrier-based naval warfare and suicide bombing, he explores the ways new forms of warfare are adopted, and the systems-level consequences that result. An original, thoughtful, and useful piece of scholarship.
Eliot A. Cohen, Johns Hopkins University
Glenn Palmer
Horowitz makes an excellent contribution to the international relations literature generally and work on military innovations particularly. His theory has immediate relevance to discussions about the future of American military strategy, and is helpful in understanding the decisions states face in threatening environments. This is a very good book.
Glenn Palmer, Pennsylvania State University

Meet the Author

Michael C. Horowitz is assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

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