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Retaining Great Power Status: Today's Challenge and the 'Power of Balance'

By Dubik, James M. | Army, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Retaining Great Power Status: Today's Challenge and the 'Power of Balance'


Dubik, James M., Army


The United States today finds itself facing three pressing demands. First, we are in a global war that we cannot afford to lose, but we cannot continue to fight it as we have. Second, we are in a global eco- nomic crisis that we have to resolve, but we cannot resolve it at the expense of losing the war. Fi- nally, the war and the economic crisis are immediate problems, but we cannot lose sight of the need to invest in our future produc- tivity. Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is both a history lesson and a reminder. The history covered in the book demonstrates that America risks decline, as have other great powers that were unable to balance the three requirements we face today. The book's reminder is this: The rise and fall of great powers has not ended.

For many people, Kennedy's Great Powers is a warning not to overreach with respect to a great nation's security requirements. It is also an argument against stovepipe solutions to the problems that great powers face as well as an argument for a balanced approach to the three areas in which great powers must succeed: security, economic strength and growth. According to Kennedy, the fundamental issue is to not look at each problem individually, for they are interconnected as a whole. Stovepipe solutions that look good from one of the three perspectives are really nonsolutions in the long run. Even great powers that can solve both their national security and economic challenges but do so by underinvesting in their future ultimately decline. Balance is the key to retaining great power status - a good reminder for a new President facing all three challenges.

President Barack Obama, his Cabinet and congressional leaders seem to understand the link between solving the immediate economic crisis and the need to do so in a way that contributes to our future growth and productivity. What is less apparent is their understanding of the connection between success in the war and the other two great power requirements. Rather, there appears to be a temptation to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan as expeditiously as we can and to cut defense spending so that money can be moved to help with the economic crisis. This temptation is real, and it is powerful - but it is wrong. No doubt some money for the war and other defense spending could be diverted. Similarly, however, losing the war is no more in the national interest than allowing the current economic crisis to continue.

The American objective should be this: Find a set of strategies that together contribute to solving the national security and the economic and growth challenges we face. Such strategies commonly emerge only through a thorough and clear understanding of each of the three great power requirements as they are manifested today and a series of inclusive discussions with the American people and among leaders from the government, military and pri- vate sectors. Such discussion must be in- formed and must begin with sufficient consensus concerning national, strategic objectives in each category.

Given the dynamism involved in the multiple aspects of our economic situation and the importance of getting a set of solutions mostly right (or "right enough"), practicality - not ideology - must reign. Thorough, open discussion and compromise - essential democratic values must guide our collective decisions and actions. There will be no perfect solutions, only imperfect ones that will have to be adjusted as conditions change. All involved recognize that we must be innovative - not only in terms of solutions but also in terms of coordinating organizations and processes and in complementary legislation and executive orders.

Continuing along this tack, the nation needs a similarly informed, broad-based discussion about the war we are fighting, and the war's relationship to the other aspects of America's great power requirements. We are not fighting two wars. We are not fighting "mere" terrorists or criminals.

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Retaining Great Power Status: Today's Challenge and the 'Power of Balance'
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