“Everything can collapse. Houses, bodies, and enemies collapse when their rhythm becomes deranged.”
Military adventure and military disaster are in many cases synonymous. Great defeats abroad more often then not mark ebbs and flows in power in subsequent historical consciousness. Because of the great expense of war, especially offensive power projection, such great military defeats often influence thinking far beyond the extent which they marked any absolute change in overall situation. The social sciences which influenced the Annales school taught us that events and dates (battles, deaths, revolutions) are mere ephemera; not the meat of history, but simply the blemishes that marked larger and longer lived phenomena. The brilliant analysis of France’s Defeat in 1940 written by Marc Bloch, a Professor of History who served in the French army in both World Wars and subsequently died at the hands of the Nazis for his involvement in the Resistance, talked not of battles lost and won, but of structural deficiencies that emanated from culture and society. He wrote not so much of how the Germans conquered France, but how France’s defeat was sown inexorably into the fabric of her very being in 1940.
This approach has marked a great deal of subsequent historical revisionism in military history. The answers lie deeper than the events themselves would have us believe. The darling of Western military chauvinists, the Battle of Lepanto, which saw the Ottoman Turks defeated at sea by the Holy League of Italy and Iberia, is just such an example. Historians have made it the high water mark of Ottoman expansion, and see the stinging defeat marking the apex of Turkish seapower in the Mediterranean. Yet the following year the Sultan had a fleet just as big terrorizing the Western Mediterranean in defiance of the League, and Turkish and Barbary Corsairs were still a force to be reckoned with for another two centuries. Athens’ route at Syracuse didn’t prevent the Peloponnesian War continuing with diverse fortunes for Athens for another 9 years before her defeat, even though it supposedly broke her naval power and killed many of her leaders. Rarely do defeats on the battlefield, no matter how sweeping, truly yield the true fall or even a decline of a nation-state, especially in the modern world. It is easy to say so with the benefit of hindsight, but even Napoleon’s sweeping victories on the field ultimately did not knock any of his opponents out of the ring so completely as to make any kind of lasting peace.
But is it possible to identify a shift which is leading to decline in a military or a strategic sense? In some sense, with enough hindsight, we do see Lepanto as marking a point at which the possibility of Turkish force projection far beyond the Eastern Mediterranean ceased to be as much of a possibility. Ultimately the Turks never conquered Southern Italy or destroyed Venice or Spain’s naval power Mediterranean, even though they continued to pose a serious threat long after. The ultimate decline of the Ottoman Empire’s power had far more to do with economic decline in the succeeding centuries and a military stagnation caused by reactionary internal cultures in the state and the military than any great defeat on the battlefield. Lepanto may have just been a battle, but chronologically speaking it has significance because it focuses the attention of historians and policy makers in order to fix a date for the end of Ottoman force projection and naval ascendancy. And the question which now I propose to consider is whether the United States of America stand on the verge of a long march away from military ascendancy? Is Afghanistan our Lepanto?
It’s an interesting question and one that is very much in the forefront of the American consciousness at the moment. An article in the New York Times by Matthew Rosenberg discussed the possibility that the United States will unilaterally withdraw from Afghanistan due to frustration at an impasse with the Afghan government over retaining forces in Afghanistan after the planned withdrawal in 2014. This assessment is sparking fears among American military leaders that this will signal a final pullout of all International forces and lead to the renewed power of the Taliban. While American soldiers will leave with the honors of war, much like in Iraq after the 2010 withdrawal, the future is very uncertain. It is very possible that the government will not last, as the Soviet-installed regime did not last, and that the Taliban may once again control Afghanistan’s government, and Al-Qaeda may again be able to use Afghanistan as a base of operations. Then the question will be: with the defeat of the military objective of a pro-western stability, and the persistence of a zone of radicalized Islam which breeds extremist agents capable of performing a major attack on the west, what will the war have achieved but costing America and its allies blood and treasure? It seems very likely that a strategic imperative to deploy even marginal forces to continue anti-Al Qaeda operations may be ultimately scrapped and a full withdrawal commenced, which American commanders thought unthinkable but a few months ago.
It may be a strategic defeat in terms of what America wants for Afghanistan’s future, but is it indicative of a decline in our military capability? The facts say no. After all Saigon fell to the NVA in 1975 after American forces withdrew from South Vietnam. Yet, within 15 years, America was the lone world superpower. And while our recent military projections have ended with successful military operations with questionable political results, we still have the ability to employ military means in a way that no other nation can. We spend more on our military than any other nation and we boast an excellent military for what we pay for. Upon the field of arms our powers are still forefront, our military capabilities remain expansive beyond that of any other nation. America is the backbone of an international security system that incorporates NATO and a complex partnership to enforce global order and retain countries within our sphere of influence across the globe. For better or worse, American military power keeps the world stable in many ways through regional partnerships (concerned with a variety of roles beyond warfighting, like disaster relief and economic development), takes an aggressive approach in targeting non-state actors and groups that could threaten American and international security, and does, not always effectively and not consistently, stand for the principles of democratic government and universal human rights. It is something that culturally we don’t have to apologize for, though our means needs to always be weighed morally and legally. But it is comforting for those rely on it for security that American military power remains unquestioned in terms of its technological edge and devastating force.
Yet, we are now worried about seeing the very real substance of decline. And, like Marc Bloch, the advance of our enemies hardly matter (though we have so far kept exceedingly far ahead of the game in retaining military superiority) in comparison to cultures that exist in our country and which are ultimately leading us to self-marginalize and self-defeat. In 2011, Osama Bin Laden was finally discovered and killed by American Special Forces, achieving in a visceral way the ultimate early design of the War on Terror. Then came at last the promise of an end to a decade long struggle that fought a global network of shadowy agents that lacked a face when push came to shove, and proved resilient even as we followed them into their lairs and attacked their supposed sponsor states. It cost too much, trillions of dollars and too many good lives, and it damaged the American psyche, teaching Americans to distrust foreign involvements. President Obama ran his campaign on cleaning up after the mess of the Neoconservative foreign policy, and doing “nation-building” here at home. It made it not only socially unpopular to commit American force, but also fiscally damaging, as the funds for improved infrastructure and economic expansion were about to be pulled from the funds that had been allocated to two lengthy foreign commitments.
The problem is that disengaging with the world of military power and drawing down is that it entails disentangling the webs we built. With our government divided fiercely at home, our military has had to suffer the consequences of deep and indiscriminate spending cuts, and the alternatives all count reductions in our capabilities. This in turn puts stresses on our allies to shoulder more of the burden. Perhaps they should, but the transition is bound to have consequences for our being perceived as a world leader, and it’s hitting at the core of our alliances. For one, American credibility as a functioning partner is currently provoking comment around the world and at home as we currently stand without a functioning federal government. The power to defend American interests, guaranteed in the opening sections of our Constitution, seems to some extent at the mercy of a partisan legislature which has functioned without a budget for over a year and is unable to reach a consensus to carry out essential services. While it’s happened before, with our country so far in debt from our wars and inability to control certain expenditures, it is making those who partner with us very nervous.
Efforts to stabilize regions and build multinational multilateral cooperation have in many cases taken years, and they remain tenuous. In the Pacific and in East Asia the networks built against China’s rising influence and North Korean aggression are underpinned by American Naval might and diplomatic negotiation. Obama’s cancellation of his trip to Asia has set tongues wagging on this front, even if it is peremptory. The importance of the “Asian Pivot” in American foreign policy offers Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leverage against expanding Chinese influences and naval aggression, and the United States’ withdrawing even symbolically leaves a vacuum of influence that China will likely seek to fill.
Syria and the response to the Ghouta Chemical Weapons attack has also highlighted what is read as blatant weakness. Our inability to put up any kind of effective response to either Assad or a violation of one of the tenants of international security has put the United States in an awkward position of being unable to stop Assad’s Regime from killing Syrians with chemical weapons and keeping the opposition from increasing radicalization. The response to Ghouta seemed to indicate confusion and extreme reluctance to fulfill a security commitment as limited as a retaliatory strike. American public polls showed overwhelming rejection of even a limited intervention. Fears of yet another foreign commitment fueled that response, one which ultimately came back to severely bind the President’s hands with ropes that his campaign had wove. The inability of the Congress to have any kind of meaningful debate on the subject simply passed the ball into the court of the opposition, whose response was unified in further confounding America’s strategy of international security. Russia (supposedly via the UN) came off as a peacemaker and even allowed Assad to keep a shine of legitimacy that should have been erased by his army’s use of a chemical weapon. What a change indeed when Vladimir Putin comes off as a diplomat!
American responses seemed confused, knee-jerk, and ultimately doing nothing to reassure our allies that we might possibly back up our threats. Having the world’s largest military does nothing if you are unable to use it or seem capable of using it to achieve what are supposedly your political ends. While other considerations of time and space worked against that operation and may have had an effect of the President’s choice not to employ executive power to carry out retaliation against the regime, the response showed very poorly on American leadership.
It may all be temporal, but it feels hard to avoid a sense that American power is on the wain. Much of this sense arises elsewhere, and comes from the economic growth of China and from an American economy in severe shock after the credit crunch. It arises from having a government incapable of performing the activity of governance. But this is arguably not nearly as visible as our inability to use military means to meet strategic ends. This is power at its most visible, and strategies of conflict deterrence and international stability seem like paper tigers if it can’t back up the rhetoric with action. Even if it successfully avoided a war that Americans on the whole did not want, the response to Syria was badly bungled, and our international reputation will likely not improve unless we are able to prove able to follow through with our commitments, which itself seems unlikely given our lack of a functioning government.
While isolationist opinion may say “let the world police itself”, and in terms of our budgets it is imperative that military spending be seriously reviewed and tightening be done, we cannot simply walk away from the strategic role we have built for ourselves. So much of the world we live in depends on America being able to join with our allies to exert pressure on regimes like Iran and provide a military counterpoint to rogue states and non-state actors. We are in too deep to talk of cutting all ties, but we also cannot continue to operate as has been the case because we can not afford it and Americans will not happily tolerate another foreign deployment on the scale of the Bush Wars (we may not ultimately have a choice, despite desiring desperately to not fight another irregular foe). Maintaining credibility is key, and we must continue to act as an international force, while at the same time restructuring to deal with the shift in our economic and political reality.
The first step will be to restore rhythm to our policy and to our government. America needs a strategic vision that mirrors our existing capability and our willingness to act in cooperation with our allies to fulfill our goals. If we do not do this, then we run a very real risk of strategic collapse. This has a variety of possible connotations ranging from alienation from our partners and allies to the inability to keep American civilians safe from devastating terror attacks. But these will mark a true decline in our institutions and our mission in global politics. We may not be able to stay large-and-in-charge, but we risk a far greater defeat if we do not make an effort to bring our government back online and to restore our international image among those who we partner with to make a more peaceful world.