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Strategy is about ends and means. During the Cold War the end—national survival—was quite clear, even though it was much less clear whether we could actually win the war in a finite time. The Cold War largely defined U.S. interests. Whenever a crisis arose, it was relatively simple to decide how the United States should act: which outcome was better for our side, or worse for the Soviets? Moreover, the Soviets were only the latest in a line of potentially mortal enemies, whose threats defined U.S. strategy: the British; then various European powers, which might have tried to seize access to the New World and against which the United States would have been a barrier; then the Germans and the Japanese in various combinations. The Soviets have had no successor. It will probably be decades before any threat comparable to that posed by the Soviet Union emerges.
There are enough tensions in the Third World to cause wars virtually everywhere. We are unable to predict them, or to decide which ones merit U.S. intervention. That is quite natural, and it is unlikely to change until (and unless) another great-power enemy appears. Strategists can set down criteria for intervention, but this is pointless unless they describe what the U.S. government actually has done and will do. It is relatively easy to explain intervention in Kosovo (to preclude a wider European war), but much more difficult to explain why the United States intervened in Somalia but not in Rwanda, or to explain just why the United States acted when and as it did in Sierra Leone. It is,of course, entirely possible that intervention in Somalia was driven by press reports of the horrors there, whereas few reporters ventured inland to Rwanda until after the disaster had occurred. In the case of Sierra Leone, the key may have been ignorance of the personal connection between a friendly head of another state, Liberia, and a local warlord. Both explanations suggest that U.S. foreign policy will often turn on decidedly case-by-case considerations. There is no particular reason to imagine that future administrations will be more consistent, or indeed that they should be; other countries have not done much better. All we really know is that, as a superpower, the United States will often find itself involved abroad.
Over the next few decades, we will inevitably face numerous armed challenges, none of which in itself probably suffices to threaten our well-being in any major way. We cannot fight every challenger, but if all the challenges go unmet, the world will gradually become a much more dangerous—and much less friendly—place. Ultimately, then, the mass of minor security challenges can add up to major one. To the extent that we periodically crush challengers, like Saddam, others may be discouraged, and we may find it easier to keep a fragile peace. That suggests that it is very much in U.S. interests to maintain the ability to fight—or to threaten to fight—at our choice, far from home.
For Americans this is an unusual and confusing situation. American history is a poor guide, because we enjoyed a world order before World War II that was maintained in unruly peace by another superpower, the United Kingdom, mainly through the agency of the Royal Navy. This connection was largely ignored in the United States. As a consequence, Americans imagined that they could limit their peacetime involvement abroad, and that their military forces could be shaped almost completely by the prospective needs of major war. The situation was comfortable because, to a remarkable extent, our needs in the world paralleled those of the British and we were quite furious when they did not. That cushion no longer exists, but the Cold War clearly justified a worldwide engagement and delayed recognition of American security needs separate from major war. Without a Cold War, we have to face the fact that we still need engagement. Isolationism is no longer a realistic possibility.
Strategy and Ideology
U.S. foreign policy has always had a strong ideological component. One of the ironies of the Cold War was that our adversary, the Soviet Union, was explicitly an ideological power, yet the United States was every bit as determined to spread its own ideology, which might be described as flee-market democracy. This aspect of American power is reflected in recent claims, both by politicians and by academics, that democracies do not fight each other: a democratic world would be a peaceful, stable one. Many Americans, if pressed, would say that this country has a mission of spreading democracy throughout the world. Probably many Americans would go so far as to say that undemocratic governments are per se illegitimate. These ideas go back to the founding of the United States. They are only rarely expressed as a national ideology, probably because they are so widely accepted and understood within the United States. Without a major enemy, our ideology often takes center stage. We have, for example, used our power to force several African governments to abandon one-party rule in favor of open multiparty elections.
Given the U.S. ideological sense of mission, despotic governments often see the United States as a natural enemy, to be feared and resisted—and fought. As a variation on this theme, the United States is widely seen as the prime mover of modernization, the capital, if you like, of the twentieth (or twenty-first) century. Many people and governments throughout the world find modernization frightening. By our existence, we are their enemy; in their view, we are attacking them. Thus there is little or nothing the U.S. government can do to avoid all challenges. Moreover, those who dislike us sufficiently are likely to try to attack us at home, using terrorist techniques. We cannot, then, avoid engagement in the Third World.
There is also a pragmatic goal: to safeguard our economic interests, which now often involve foreign countries. For example, we wish to maintain our access to reasonably priced oil, which often involves the United States in Middle East countries. Our country has a real interest in maintaining some degree of world order, not least because without it the U.S. economy, which is based on world trade, would suffer.
The two drivers of American policy necessarily collide at times. The Gulf War is a good case in point. The Gulf matters because it is the main source of the world's oil—and oil is still the world's lifeblood. If Saddam been allowed to keep Kuwait, he would have dominated Saudi Arabia, and with it much of the world's oil supply. Saddam presumably would not have cut off oil entirely, but he would have reduced the supply. The resulting sharp rise in the price of oil would have sapped the Western economies, as the oil shock did in the 1970s. He would surely have tried to use the resulting leverage to gain further goals, such as U.S. acquiescence in the destruction, for instance, of Israel. It was to avert such disasters that the United States backed the Saudis and Kuwaitis. We were embarrassed, however, that the regimes we were protecting in the Gulf were, to put it mildly, undemocratic. We appeared to be abandoning our fundamental principles in the service of the big oil companies or, at the least, American consumers. Many Americans were convinced that the enterprise was acceptable only because it was moral: it would destroy the most evil ruler in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein. Whereas the coalition achieved enormous success in ejecting Saddam's army from Kuwait, and thus stabilizing the region, Saddam retained his power. To many Americans, that undoubtedly felt like defeat, and this defeat may help explain the catastrophic loss of popularity President George Bush experienced in 1992, which cost him that year's election. The tension between ideology and economics—which is, after all, an important national interest—will surely bedevil us more, rather than less, as the Cold War recedes from view.
To the extent that the Iraqi regime was contained, the war could be seen as far more successful. That success has made for an open-ended commitment, however, and no such situation can be very popular. A future administration may want to limit the forces it uses in a second Gulf War, to avoid the sort of issues raised before the first Gulf War. In this sense the scale of the buildup that seemed necessary to fight the Gulf War was ultimately quite counterproductive. Overall, the more mobile and deployable the forces, and the more quickly they can act, the easier it may be to use them without invoking outsized and unrealistic expectations.
The current defense decision-making process, which dates from the 1960s, uses a series of set scenarios to test alternative kinds of forces. Such a process automatically prefers forces optimized for the chosen cases, whereas the very uncertain future would seem to make maximum flexibility, which is difficult to measure, more valuable. Thus the process is inherently self-deceptive. For example, one of the two main planning scenarios, a possible war in Korea, is a Cold War holdover. If, as seems possible, the two Koreas unify peacefully, this particular scenario will no longer be valid. Yet the United States will retain major interests in the Far East because Korea is one of our largest trading partners. Many of the tensions in the area, for example, between Korea and Japan, were not consequences of the Cold War, and they will not dissipate quickly or, probably, easily. It is difficult to say what our position should be if such tensions worsen.
An Historical Analogy
Tense international situations are not new. Our present situation is not too different from what the British faced after the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. Like them, we are now the only world power with a truly global reach. Like the British in 1815, we have to find a new way to identify our national interests. Although we would hardly recognize that country as a U.S.-style democracy, it is clear from histories of the period that British foreign policy had U.S.-style components. There was a real desire to spread liberal democracy (or at least to support those fighting for what they considered democracy).
Because Britain was the greatest trading nation in the world, she also had strong commercial interests, which sometimes demanded military support. Commercial demands sometimes clashed with the needs of British military, particularly naval, forces. For example, as the leading sea power, Britain was clearly the leading exponent of blockade as a wartime weapon. Yet to many British liberals, who lived by trade, blockade was anathema. In 1856, as part of the Crimean War settlement, Britain voluntarily surrendered important blockade powers by international treaty. Americans interested in parallels may note that the U.S. military is currently the world's leading user of the electromagnetic spectrum. American businessmen feel that this scarce resource absolutely must be made available on a commercial basis; therefore portions the military wants and probably needs are being auctioned off. To some extent the British paid in 1914 for the loss of blockade power they had accepted half a century earlier. However, to the extent that free trade, and the prospect of free trade, so enriched Britain that she could more easily weather the 1914-18 hurricane, perhaps the trade-off was worthwhile. Will the loss of spectrum result in some future disaster? Or will it result in the creation of capabilities that we will find extremely useful in some future war?
Similarly, in the mid-nineteenth century many in Britain saw little possibility that commercial arrangements could ever be disrupted by war. That was one reason the British were initially quite content to leave the Suez Canal, surely one of the most vital links in their seaborne empire, under largely French control (later they bought a controlling share from the Egyptians).
The British government also sought little say in arms sales to foreign powers. Undoubtedly the British reasoned, as we have, that the close relationship forged by, for instance, a mission modernizing a country's navy would translate into a more generally friendly relationship. Also, arms sales helped pay for a larger British arms industry than the Royal Navy could afford in peacetime. During this period of free arms trade, British shipyards produced the bulk of the world's export warships. When war came in 1914, several important ships already under construction for foreign buyers were taken over. Equally important, the industrial capacity built up to supply both the buyers and the Royal Navy was available for mobilization. In some important cases, foreign sales could finance new developments. A central question, which is still relevant, is whether a foreign country can make particularly good use of the advanced hardware it buys. Sometimes it could even be asked whether arms sales were not preferable to encouraging the growth of a local arms industry, which would ultimately cause even more trouble. Americans who see trade with China as a double-edged sword will surely see parallels.
With the defeat of Napoleon, France—Britain's longtime enemy—was prostrate, although not as prostrate as the Soviet Union is now. The end of the Napoleonic wars shattered what had been, for more than a century, the basis for British national strategy. Generations of Royal Navy officers had been brought up to understand the details of blockading the French coast, because for so long France had been the main enemy. After 1815 that knowledge was effectively obsolete. It took the British almost a century to come completely to terms with their changed strategic environment, in which France became a wartime ally rather than an enemy. Not until the end of the nineteenth century, about ninety years after Napoleon had been banished from Europe, did the British once again find themselves facing a potential mortal enemy, Germany. In the interim, they had numerous security challenges, and their forces experienced considerable combat, but always of a limited type.
The Balance of Power Concept
The fundamental fact of British strategy was that any mortal threat would have to come by sea. The British theory was that no single continental power had the wherewithal to maintain a sufficient army to stand off its neighbors and to build a fleet powerful enough to take on the Royal Navy. It would take domination of the entire continent, or at least its most productive countries, to mount a mortal threat. Hence the classic British policy evolved: to keep any single country from uniting Europe against Britain. Britain generally backed the weaker continental power against the stronger, unless facing a country that might, in itself, destroy the seapower that precluded invasion. Thus the fight against the Netherlands, a sea power, occurred during the seventeenth century. When Spain was the principal European power, she was the main enemy, and the British backed her rivals. When Spain was eclipsed by France, France became the main threat. When Germany eclipsed France, Britain backed France against Germany. These choices were never ideological; they were matters of national survival. For example, in 1914 France was clearly more democratic than Hohenzollern Germany, but not nearly enough to justify the choice of allies on ideological grounds. Only after war broke out did the Germans demonstrate just how brutal they could be. The British choice, to ally with France, was not preordained; it grew out of German ambitions, and also out of a direct German threat to British seapower.
On the other hand, on a year-to-year basis, at least after the defeat of Napoleon, Britain felt reasonably safe; the Royal Navy insulated the British from problems within Europe. Thus British statesmen spoke of "splendid isolation," which in effect meant that they could limit any commitment—they could limit the price that Britain had to pay, particularly in blood, in any struggle on the Continent. That was not isolationism; the British were well aware that what happened across the channel and the North Sea affected them. Rather, it was a determination to keep their power to choose when and whether to become directly involved. For example, in 1854 the British did become involved in the ongoing war between Turkey and Russia, because it was important to maintain a balance of power in Europe. They nearly went to war for much the same reason in 1878. On the other hand, despite considerable domestic sympathy with the French, the British carefully avoided involvement in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Conversely, British involvement with France before World War I seems to have grown out of a sense that Britain could not afford isolation, which British statesmen feared would be the outcome if the French did not feel British support in the face of German antagonism.
A modern American can see suggestive parallels. The basis of U.S. foreign policy, at least since World War I, has been the recognition that the only mortal danger is likely to come from a hostile power that is able to unite other main productive centers of the world. Only then can an enemy gain sufficient strength to turn the natural barrier of the oceans into an invasion route, and to use that route to place a decisive force in North America. In 1914 the kaiser certainly had that potential, if ever he defeated France and Britain. Much the same could be said of Hitler after the 1940 blitzkrieg. The great Soviet threat was always that, by overrunning or cowing the nations of Western Europe, so much hostile strength would be built up that the United States would be directly threatened. In each case, merely to stave off the threat would require the United States to militarize to such an extent that our society would be ruined.
In neither case did the potential winner already possess sufficient maritime power to expand into the New World. Many have taken that lack to suggest that the supposed threat was not real. However, the issue was not whether Hitler or Stalin could immediately invade the United States. It was whether either could gain enough raw economic power to convert into future maritime power. It seemed far better to face such threats before they could mature. There is evidence that the Germans hoped to build the ability to expand into the New World.
For the British, the Napoleonic wars marked the end of an era in which Europe was the center of world power. By 1815 the British could see the United States as a possible future power, albeit an embryonic one. The War of 1812 had shown the British that they could not dominate the United States militarily. It may also have been clear that eventually the United States might seek to eject the British from the Western Hemisphere, including both Canada and the more informal empire then emerging in South America. These were clearly distant prospects. The British, however, did have to decide just how to deal with the Americans. They might opt for an ability to contain the United States in wartime, using naval forces based offshore, for example, in Bermuda. They might opt for a degree of cooperation, perhaps based on a more or less common culture. A growing United States also attracted British investments, but it must have been clear that no U.S. government would brook British political interference: the country could never become part of an informal British empire. Through the nineteenth century there was an uneasy combination of cooperation (for example, in supporting the Monroe Doctrine or in demilitarizing the border with Canada), and friction (for example, during the American Civil War). The tension never quite dissipated; during World War II, when the two countries were closely allied, the United States tried to break up the British empire in Asia.
For an American, this history recalls (but clearly does not mirror) the current relationship with China. When an administration calls for a "strategic partnership" it hopes that the Chinese will ultimately be friendly. When the Chinese seek hegemony in the East, is that posturing (like the United States when it announced the Monroe Doctrine in 1823), or is it another assault on us? Currently Chinese power is far more limited than Chinese appetites. What happens when (if?) the power grows to match? Clearly this is not 1815 or 1823. The Far East is much less a power vacuum than the New World was at that time. China is a far more massive power than the United States of the early nineteenth century. Even so, the parallels are worth noting. Should we be inspired by the way the United States allied herself with the British in two world wars and during the Cold War, or dismayed at the price exacted for those alliances?
Although in a sense Britain—the only state with truly global reach—was the only superpower of the late nineteenth century, in many other ways she was hardly preponderant. For example, without a massive army (the development of which was precluded by investment in the Royal Navy), the British could not overrun any other European country. When needing to act in or around Europe, Britain needed friends, at least temporary ones. Statesmen developed the skill of building and maintaining peacetime coalitions. To prospective partners Britain offered peacetime versions of the inducements that had proven useful in the Napoleonic and numerous earlier wars: the access guaranteed by the Royal Navy and financial backing guaranteed by an economy enjoying unparalleled access to the world. To some extent the fact that Britain was not a major land power was also an attraction, because she was unlikely to swallow up any partner.
Modern U.S. power is also limited. We lack an army on the scale of many in the Third World. We are most unlikely to exercise the ability, developed during the Cold War, to destroy a medium-size country completely using nuclear weapons. Like the British, however, we alone have truly global reach on an effective scale.
Thanks to seapower Britain could intervene overseas at will, without help from coalition partners. Paradoxically, such a solo ability tends to attract partners, as the U.S. government has found several times since the end of the Cold War. A potential partner who has an inherent veto on U.S. action is open to considerable pressure to exercise that veto. If it lacks an explicit veto, however, it can follow its natural self-interest and combine with the United States in a given operation. The Gulf War was a case in point. After Saddam Hussein overran Kuwait, he told the Saudi government not to welcome U.S. troops, on the ground that admitting infidels to the most sacred soil in Islam would destroy its legitimacy. The Saudis found the threat quite compelling, even though they knew that without U.S. help they might well fall victim to the Iraqis. U.S. carrier-based aircraft, however, could provide a degree of defense without Saudi agreement, because they were based in international waters offshore. Once the carriers were in place, the Saudis were in the happy position of having to accept protection whether or not they formally requested it; they were free to welcome U.S. troops. It is an interesting but unanswerable question whether the known U.S. ability to mount a major amphibious assault (using marines in the Gulf), in the event that base area had been denied, helped the Saudis agree to provide the base area from which the attack on Iraq was ultimately launched.
Naval-based theater missile defense may be an extension of such practices. Many potential victims of missile attack cannot possibly afford massive national missile defenses. Nor, in many cases, are they likely to welcome substantial U.S. ground-based forces bearing such defenses. However, the situation is far simpler if they can be defended from the sea. The option of offering a defense then falls entirely on the United States. That may be useful if the threat is mounted by another U.S. ally. Our access from the sea uniquely favors the United States to act as peacemaker.
Excerpted from Seapower as Strategy by Norman Friedman. Copyright © 2001 by Norman Friedman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
|2||The Flavor of Seapower||40|
|3||The Geopolitics of Seapower||55|
|4||Using Naval Forces||78|
|5||The Rise and Fall of Mass Forces||101|
|6||Seapower versus Land Power||113|
|7||War with Limited Sea Control: Britain and World War I||130|
|8||World War II as a Maritime Campaign||158|
|9||The Cold War as a Maritime War||180|
|10||Seapower in Continental Warfare||208|
|11||A New Strategy||219|
|App. A||Naval Technology||233|
|App. B||The Shape of the Fleet||271|