Article Published in The Wall Street Journal
Historical analogies are never exact, but it seems clear that the U.S. is today in a position similar to that of Great Britain in the 19th century.
We are currently in the business of underwriting the security necessary to sustain a liberal world order. Some international relations theorists would justify our role – and that of Britain’s earlier – by invoking the notion of “hegemonic stability,” whereby an open system of international trade is underpinned by a superpower willing and able to provide economic stability and international security.
This role, inevitably, entails a form of “imperial policing.” And as last week’s suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen demonstrated, there can be a price to pay. The attack showed, also, that this price is higher when policing is undertaken on the cheap. If the U.S. expects to reap the benefits of a liberal imperium, it must be willing to bear the costs of imperial policing.
The core of the problem is this: As our requirements have expanded over the last few years, resources have declined sharply. Indeed, while deployments have increased three-fold during the Clinton years, the armed forces have shrunk by one-third since Operation Desert Storm. These deployments have included some combat missions, but have consisted primarily of open-ended peacekeeping and humanitarian operations – 48 missions, to be precise, from 1992 to 1999, at a cost of $25 billion. The result has been tremendous stress on both personnel and equipment.
What has happened to the U.S. Navy over the past decade goes a long way toward explaining how the Cole came to be in the port of Aden on that fateful day last week. When President Bush left office, the Navy consisted of some 500 vessels. The Clinton Administration’s “Bottom-Up Review” of defense requirements in 1993 reduced the fleet to 346, and as the defense budget continued to fall, the number of ships fell further still. Today, the fleet stands at 315, which most naval officers believe is insufficient to carry out the Navy’s multifarious missions. Recently, Admiral Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, testified before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees that the Navy is not able to build enough ships to maintain even the 315-ship fleet.
The fleet has been stretched thin as a result of this reduction in naval force structure. In response to the mismatch between requirements and means, the Navy has scrambled to cover multiple theaters by breaking up its largely self-sufficient battle groups into smaller components. This practice directly affected the Cole.
The vessel was part of the battle group formed around the aircraft carrier George Washington, but when the group shifted from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf last month, the Cole remained behind to support an amphibious ready group. En route to rejoining the George Washington battle group, the Cole passed through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, stopping to refuel at Aden. U.S. Central Command, the unified command that oversees security in the Persian Gulf, has been in the process of establishing military ties with the Yemeni government, and U.S. Navy ships began using Aden as a refueling stop 15 months ago. Since then, 12 naval vessels have made such stops.
But the decision to refuel at Aden entailed risk. It is much safer to refuel at sea where a ship can better control its security environment. The reason the Cole did not refuel at sea was that the Navy does not have enough oilers to refuel individual ships, given the high pace of operations. This is the sort of problem that has to be fixed if the U.S. is serious about maintaining a global military presence, as well as a liberal world order.
There are many things that the U.S. should do in response to the attack on the Cole: It must increase spending on defense to prevent the ends-means mismatch that contributed to the attack; improve intelligence; and ruthlessly punish those who make war on the country. But there is one response the U.S. should avoid: It must not be deterred from its role of underwriting the security of a liberal world order. A decline in U.S. power would not only be bad for us, but disastrous for the world in general.
According to the theory of hegemonic stability, a decline in the relative power of the “hegemon” creates a more disorderly, less peaceful world. The precedent is the decay of the Pax Brittanica, which, many believe, created the necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for the two world wars of the 20th century. As British hegemony declined, smaller states that previously had incentives to cooperate with Britain defected to other powers, causing the international system to fragment. The outcome was depression and war. The decline of American power could lead to similar results.
Some argue that the U.S. faces the danger of “imperial overstretch.” The burden of imperial policing, they argue, is much too great, and the cost will eventually lay America low, as it did Britain. Of course, Britain did bear a substantial burden. Queen Victoria’s solders sometimes even lost major battles, such as at Khartoum and Isandlwana, setbacks far more serious than any that the U.S. has suffered since the end of the Cold War.
Burdens of Power
But it was not imperial overstretch that led to the decline of Britain. It was instead the onset of a war that Britain could not prevent. World War I, and not imperial expenditure, doomed the British Empire. We currently spend about 3% of our gross domestic product on defense. We should probably increase that to 4.5% of GDP to maintain U.S. power and a liberal world order. If that sounds high, remember that the cost of a war that the U.S. could not prevent because of the decline of its relative power would be much greater.
As we remember the sailors of the USS Cole – who gave their lives in the service of their country – we should not forget the global strategic context of U.S. operations. As the distinguished scholar Donald Kagan has observed, history seems to indicate that, for the preservation of peace, “what seems to work best…is the possession, by those states who wish to preserve peace, of the preponderant power.” The U.S. must not shrink from the possession of that power, nor from the burdens and responsibilities that go with it.
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