LANGUAGE
Due to translations, the other language editions of NATO Review go online approximately two weeks after the English version.
About NATO Review
Submission policy
COPYRIGHT INFO
Editorial team
 RSS
SEND THIS ARTICLE TO A FRIEND
SUBSCRIBE TO THE NATO REVIEW
  

Is military power still the key to international security?

Steven Everts versus Gary Schmitt

Dear Gary,

The question of the relative importance of military power in achieving foreign policy goals in today's world is crucial. Achieving transatlantic consensus on this strategic, overarching issue is perhaps even more important than getting agreement on policy towards Iraq, Israel-Palestine or the International Criminal Court.

It is clear that tackling the vast majority of today's global problems requires a careful mix of hard and soft security instruments. We can probably agree that the international security environment has moved on decisively from the bad old days of the Cold War, with its familiar lexicon of détente and deterrence. In this post-post Cold War era, we have moved from risks to threats: from the single risk of a thermo-nuclear exchange to the multiple threats of globalised insecurity. As a result, we have a much more diffuse security environment to contend with. Between black and white, there are now a thousands shades of grey. One of the consequences of this transition is that military power has become less important, because it is often ill-suited to solve the complex political and security problems we face.

Whether the issue is messianic terrorism, weapons proliferation, failed states, managing regional conflicts or whatever other international problem one may care to name, the conclusion is always the same. Solving these problems is hard. But states that can draw on the full spectrum of available instruments and which have a demonstrable desire to work with like-minded partners, stand a much greater chance of success. It is for this pragmatic reason that I am concerned with the current trend towards over-militarisation in the United States. Unlike some on the European left, I have no problem with US power. Constructive and multi-faceted US international engagement is clearly needed in a world beset by rising levels of international tension. But I do believe that the trend towards spending ever more on defence - now comfortably over $1 billion a day - while allocating pitiful sums of money to non-military forms of international engagement is unhelpful, because it means that fewer resources are directed at actually resolving international problems. To illustrate: the percentage of the federal budget devoted to international affairs excluding defence spending - such as the excellent Nunn-Lugar programmes aimed at preventing Russian nuclear weapons and materials getting into the wrong hands - has fallen from four per cent in the 1960s, via two per cent in the 1970s, to just over one per cent today.

Of course, overwhelming military force can be necessary and effective in certain circumstances, as in the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But military force alone rarely works, even in the medium-term. Just consider Afghanistan today. More broadly, I don't think that "full-spectrum dominance" alone will help the United States win its war on terror. Defeating terrorism is essentially a job for intelligence and police authorities and of winning hearts and minds, as Europeans have learned - usually the hard way. Nor will it help anchor Russia in a West-leaning direction, manage the integration of China into the global system, or promote a peace settlement in the Middle East.

The instruments states have at their disposal inevitably have a knock-on effect on their "world view". Increasingly, US behaviour reminds me of the saying: "If the only instrument you have is a hammer all your problems start looking like a nail." The rather Hobbesian worldview of the new National Security Strategy, with a doctrine of pre-emptive strike as its centre piece, has added ammunition to European fears that on the all-important question of global strategy Europe and the United States are drifting apart.

In response to European gripes about US unilateralism, Americans often point to Europe's pathetic levels of defence spending. Clearly, there is a strong case for Europe to improve its hard security capabilities. Thankfully, some countries - like France and the United Kingdom - are now increasing their defence spending. Like many analysts I subscribe to the mantra that without more, and smarter defence spending Europe will fail to realise its foreign policy ambitions. In debates among Europeans, I argue for boosting European military capabilities, not to "please" Americans but so that Europe can fulfil the tasks that it has set for itself - both in NATO and the European Union.

Military power is often ill-suited to solve the complex political and security problems we face

But there are three perfectly sensible reasons for Europe's reluctance to prioritise defence spending. First, US choices in these matters are leaving a security vacuum that Europe must fill. Put simply, if the United States is not doing conflict prevention or post-conflict reconstruction, who will? Second, many Europeans are sceptical whether more defence capabilities will, as some analysts argue, get them more influence in Washington. The tendency in the United States, particularly with this administration, is first to decide strategy and then to push and cajole allies to support it. The phrase used in Europe - only partly tongue-in-cheek - is that the United States is not looking for coalitions of the willing and able but of the willing and compliant. Third, we come back to the question of effectiveness. If military force is only useful for a small and perhaps shrinking set of international problems - and often only for a short period of time - then what is the point, many Europeans wonder, in spending much more on defence?

Clearly we need a frank transatlantic debate over what counts as the most important global problems (the "mad men and loose nukes" agenda versus the dark side of globalisation), and over which strategies work best (unilateral military force and pre-emptive strikes or broad-based coalitions and a mix of hard and soft security).

These days it is almost mandatory in Washington to lambast Europeans for their failure to spend adequately on defence. But upon reflection it should be clear that the imbalance on the US side is greater and more troubling. I look forward to the day when the United States realises that it has got its spending priorities wrong. US-style military supremacy may make the country feel important - but it does little for solving the growing problems of a troubled world.

Yours,

Steven

Dear Steven,

Before I respond to your comments, I should set out my answer to the specific question we've been asked to address: "Is military power still the key to international security?" The short answer is "no". The key, as it always has been, is the character of the regimes that make up the international order. And, in modern times, the key to international security is whether a state or states are liberal democracies. By far, the greatest advancement in international security theory has been the "discovery" that international peace and prosperity is directly proportional to the spread of liberal democratic governments throughout the globe.

That said, is military power the next most relevant key to international security? Here my answer is "yes". Is it the only key? No. Can it solve all problems? No. But it is the next best explanation of why most states behave the way they do, why they don't behave as they might, and why being superior in this element of statecraft paves the way for making other tools more effective. Indeed, the only reason we are having this debate is, ironically, because US military power is so omnipresent that the benefits it provides in terms of global stability get taken for granted. A good example of this is your remark that military force can't "help anchor Russia in a West-leaning direction, manage the integration of China into the global system, or promote a peace settlement in the Middle East". Military power can't "solve" these problems obviously but predominant military power in the hands of the United States or Israel does in fact preclude Russia, China and the Palestinian Authority from adopting policies that are more ambitious and disruptive of the international order. Military power, in short, matters not only because some problems are "nails" (Milosevic, Bin Laden, et al.), but also because having the upper hand militarily can keep a host of other problems at bay. All one has to do is imagine a situation in which the United States did not have its global military capabilities to see just how different (and more dangerous) a world this would be.

In contrast, your overarching point is that the United States has not recognised that, with the passing of the Cold War, "military power has become less important" in this supposedly more "complex political and security" environment. Putting aside the fact that your characterisation of the security problems the United States faced during the Cold War - "black and white", reducible to a "thermo-nuclear exchange" - is not accurate (and I might add very Euro-centric), it is also wrong to describe current US statecraft as one of "over-militarisation".

Since the end of the Cold War, America's military budget has declined, just as it has in Europe. A decade ago, US defence spending was just short of 5 per cent of GDP. When George Bush took office, it was barely 3 per cent. And, indeed, until 9-11, the Bush Administration had made it clear that it did not intend to increase defence spending in any significant way. Of course, given the size of the US economy, 3.4 or 3.3 per cent of GDP (which are the estimates of the defence burden for the next two years) still buys you quite a bit. But given the United States' global security responsibilities - in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and now at home - it is arguably barely enough. Moreover, having a military-second-to-none has not led the United States to be quick on the draw. For example, there was no hurry to jump into Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo. Nor did the United States take decisive military action against Bin Laden until after 9-11, despite the fact that al Qaida had killed hundreds in strikes on US targets in previous years. Even the looming conflict with Iraq comes after more than a decade of Baghdad's failure to live up to its cease-fire obligations. And I don't see Washington rushing off to address the crisis on the Korean Peninsula with surgical air strikes.

The key to international security is whether a state or states are liberal democracies

You continue with this cartoon version of American statecraft by stating that the new National Security Strategy is guided by a "Hobbesian worldview", and has "as its centre piece" the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes. First, if it were truly Hobbesian, the strategy would not put such a heavy emphasis on the need to expand liberal political and economic principles around the globe. And, second, any fair reading of the document would conclude that the option of pre-emptive strikes is not central to the new strategy. Does it have increased relevance in a security era in which weapons' proliferation has got dangerously out of hand? Yes. Is it the defining element of the overall strategy? Hardly.

Finally, to support your claim about US statecraft being "over-militarised", you assert that Washington allocates "pitiful sums of money to non-military forms of international engagement". Now, one can argue about whether the United States allots enough money ($12.7 billion in 2000) for foreign assistance or whether foreign assistance makes much difference at all, but to call the US levels of aid "pitiful" is simply hyperbole. Besides Japan, no other country spends as much on government foreign assistance as the United States and, next year, no one will be spending more. Even now, the aid provided by the United States is done on more generous terms. (Japan provides much of its assistance in the form of loans - over grants - and requires, like several European states, that its aid be spent on buying goods and services from it.) The fact is that the US government is the world's largest bilateral donor to the developing world: providing $11 billion in official development assistance and over $17 billion in all forms of assistance. It is also the world's leader in humanitarian assistance; the largest donor to the multilateral development banks; the leader in private charitable donations; and the greatest source of private capital to developing states. Indeed, well over $30 billion in private remittances alone go from the United States to the developing world each year - a sum equal to or larger than the defence budget of every NATO state except France, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Europeans like to tell themselves that they have, as you argue, a more balanced and nuanced sense of what is required to handle today's security problems than those "cowboys" in America. But the facts indicate that the United States not only carries the biggest "hammer" in the world but also retains the most generous "pocket". It strikes me that this is far more in balance than, say, in Germany, where, when you add up the monies spent on foreign assistance and the military, the total still falls well short of 2 per cent of GDP. Frankly, this is not surprising since Germany and, more broadly, Europe relies on the United States to do most of the heavy lifting in managing the globe's biggest security concerns. Fine. But Europeans should stop trying to turn this point of weakness into some new insight into what is key to international security in the post-Cold War world.

Yours,

Gary

Dear Gary,

Let me make three points in response. They are about the nature of the transatlantic security agenda; the effectiveness of military force; and budgetary choices.

I am glad we agree that the key to international security is not whether states have abundant military power, but whether they are liberal democracies or not. The finding that liberal democracies don't fight each other is indeed the closest we have come to establishing an "empirical law" in international relations. The question now is: how can we expand the democratic peace? I suggest that building liberal democracies is best done through the kind of conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction that Europeans (and others) so often do - and which Americans often reject or belittle. Higher defence spending is great if the United States wants to extend its military lead even further. But what will it do to prevent fragile or failing states from descending into anarchy? How will it help to prevent Afghanistan from becoming - yet again - a playground for warlords and fanatical Islamic groups?

Rebuilding war-torn societies is difficult and unglamorous. It is also much more expensive and time-consuming than the war-fighting phase. It would be great if the United States rethought its opposition to "nation building" and offered the necessary financial resources and political commitment. On the military side, the United States could join its European Allies in contributing more forces to UN missions. At the moment the United States has one - yes one - soldier involved in UN-run peace operations (out of a total of 36,000). Both the United States' international image and global security would benefit enormously if it did.

Rebuilding war-torn societies is much more expensive and time-consuming than war-fighting

Clearly, using military force is sometimes necessary. Diplomacy not backed up by the threat of force can be ineffective, as we saw, for example, in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. But military force without a diplomatic or political strategy is often worse and can create more problems than it solves. Take Somalia in 1991-92. Or consider the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, where violence declined after the start of peace negotiations not because of British military supremacy. Your point that predominant military power in the hands of Israel has precluded "the Palestinian Authority from adopting policies that are more ambitious and disruptive of the international order" is, at a minimum, debatable. Israel's (self-image of) military supremacy has led to a disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and is now feeding the illusion that if only its military crackdown were implemented more decisively all suicide bombings would stop. Regardless of where one stands on the Israel-Palestine question, only a tiny, extremist minority (on both sides) believes there is a military solution to this problem.

Finally, budgetary choices. You valiantly defend the US record on development aid and trot out some deceptively impressive figures. But they do not stand up to scrutiny. First, the term "pitiful" is not mine, nor is it European hyperbole. It is Joseph Nye's characterisation of the sums of money the United States is devoting to "soft security" today. Second, the $11 billion the United States provides in overseas aid looks less impressive if you realise that more than $5 billion of that money goes to Israel and Egypt alone. Of course the United States is often, but not always, the largest bilateral donor and of course it makes significant contributions to the budgets of the United Nations, IMF, World Bank and other international organisations. But if you group what Europeans are doing together, their contributions dwarf that of the United States - and relative figures bear this out. As Chris Patten never tires of saying: "The European Union and the member states account for 55 per cent of all international development assistance and some 66 per cent of all grant aid. They finance 50 per cent of all aid to the Palestinians, over 60 per cent of all aid to Russia and more than 85 per cent to the Balkans".

The point here is not to win a "foreign aid beauty contest", but to argue that changes in the global security agenda require a multi-faceted approach and a blending of hard and soft security instruments. Clearly, Europeans need to improve the coherence and effectiveness of their foreign policy performance. But global security governance probably requires more significant changes in the United States. The mindset of some of the administration's hawks and the instruments the United States has at its disposal, are often ill-suited to today's security agenda. The guiding principle of transatlantic debate on contributions to global security should be: first redefine, then rebalance.

Yours,

Steven

Dear Steven,

OK, we agree that the key to international peace and security is whether a state or states are liberal democracies. But your response to the question "how can we expand the democratic peace?" is telling. "Building liberal democracies," you write, "is best done through conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction that Europeans (and others) so often do - and which Americans often reject or belittle."

First, the democratic peace depends not only on expanding the number of democratic states in the world. It's also about preserving and protecting existing democracies. You argue as though the peace and security the world's democracies enjoy today is self-sustaining. But of course it isn't. In a multitude of ways, that peace rests on the kind of military capability you seem so eager to pass over. Do you really think that absent the United States' military power South Korea's democracy would be safe from North Korea's vast arsenal? Do you really think absent US aircraft carrier groups Taiwan's democracy would last for more than a week in the face of China's stated goal to acquire Taiwan by force? Do you really think absent US military superiority Iraq would not have gained control of the vast oil reserves Western democracies depend on? Do you really think that democratic Israel would exist today if its military were not vastly superior to that of Syria? Iraq? Would Egypt have ever signed a peace treaty with Israel if it had not been decisively defeated twice on the battlefield? For that matter, why is it the case that the first thing the new democracies of Europe strive for is NATO membership, and then membership in the European Union? Isn't it because they know the first order of business is establishing security? And security rests on being associated with the dominant military power?

Having the upper hand militarily can keep a host of other problems at bay

As for your other points, I never claimed that there is a military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. However, it is obvious that if Israel's military capability were on the order of, say, Lebanon's, there would be even less chance of a "peace process", since Arafat and his friends have only trimmed their goals - which has included the destruction of Israel - in the face of Israel's ability to defend itself. Along the same line, you seem to want to jump to "post-conflict reconstruction" without acknowledging the obvious: In case after case, until you get rid of the thugs in power - who, by the way, do not seem especially troubled by your "pre-conflict" admonitions - you can't expand the democratic peace. Whatever problems we face in bringing decent and stable self-rule to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, the very possibility of establishing decent regimes in each exists because predominant military power was exercised first. Even your reference to the conflict in Northern Ireland proves this point. Although violence might have declined after peace negotiations began, it was the successful application of British military-intelligence-police power that forced the IRA to realise that it could not accomplish its goal through terrorism.

Finally, you continue with your cartoon version of US statecraft. Your latest fact: the United States has only "one - yes one - soldier involved in UN-run peace operations". What you omit is that the United States pays for more than a third of those operations (more than twice what any other power in the world contributes) and that, in addition to all its other global military responsibilities, the United States in 2001 remained the largest contributor to multilateral peace operations.

Now, it's true that Europe as a whole spends more on government-funded international development assistance than the United States. But there is also the question of effectiveness. US development assistance from the private sector totals $36 billion a year. That figure far surpasses any comparable figure from the European Union and reflects a judgement in the United States that most assistance is more effective and more effectively managed in the hands of private non-governmental organisations. It's a tad ironic that Joe Nye, the guru of American "soft power", would be oblivious to that "soft power" fact. In the meantime, Europe, collectively and individually, has been the overwhelming provider of development assistance to pre-9/11 Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the Palestinian Authority and Syria. Maybe Chris Patten can explain how these hundreds of millions of dollars have made the world more peaceful and expanded the democratic peace. But I doubt it.

Yours,

Gary

Dear Gary,

In bringing this debate to a close, let me reiterate my main argument: to solve the vast majority of today's security problems, countries, or rather groups of countries, need a multi-faceted approach - blending hard and soft security instruments - and a demonstrable willingness to stay the course. I will let others decide whether I have repeatedly presented a "cartoon version" of US policies - reading back the debate you may find I was a bit more subtle. At the risk of repetition, let me stress again that I strongly favour active US involvement in world affairs. To give just one example: US policies in the first decade after the Second World War were far-sighted, generous and spectacularly successful. And I recognise that there will always be differences in emphasis in the contributions that Europe and the United States will make to global security.

The more the United States relies on hard power and coercion, the less successful it is in deploying soft power and persuasion

But what really concerns me is that while Europe is hesitantly and imperfectly trying to address its weaknesses, I see no comparable developments in the United States. If anything, the imbalances, in mindset and resources, are increasing. This matters because the painful truth is that the more the United States relies on hard power and coercion, the less successful it is in deploying soft power and persuasion. There is a huge danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy here. And the world is a less secure, less peaceful place as a result.

Yours,

Steven

Dear Steven,

I also agree that international problems require a multi-faceted approach. That said, it is interesting that you think the policies adopted by the United States in the decade following the Second World War "were far-sighted, generous and spectacularly successful". I agree with that judgement, as well. But what were those policies? Principally, they consisted of the creation of an international economic and financial system, the establishment of a network of alliances with democratic states around the globe, aid to rebuild nations destroyed by war, and a massive re-armament programme. Allowing for changes in circumstances and, hence, how they are used, these remain the basic elements of US statecraft.

Until you get rid of the thugs in power, you can't expand the democratic peace

Frankly, the real problem Europeans have with the United States today is not that Washington doesn't have a multi-faceted approach to world affairs, but that the United States is not interested in expanding that approach to include a new set of multilateral institutions and treaties designed to tie power down. For a variety of reasons past and present, it appears that many in continental Europe have lost faith in the ability of liberal democratic states to hold power, and to use it wisely. That is not the case in the United States. We still believe that the world's peace and prosperity ultimately rests on the democrats of the world maintaining more firepower than the thugs of the globe.

Yours,

Gary

Share this    DiggIt   MySpace   Facebook   Delicious   Permalink