Academic journal article Policy Review

Military Supremacy and How We Keep It

Academic journal article Policy Review

Military Supremacy and How We Keep It

Article excerpt

IN FEBRUARY 1776, only months before the American Declaration of Independence, British historian Edward Gibbon published the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was almost immediately recognized as an important achievement. Gibbon, like no one before, discerned the sources of Rome's early success and later failures over the course of a history spanning a full millennium. The sixth and final volume appeared in 1788, the year before the U.S. Constitution. Not surprisingly, several of the framers of the Constitution thought they saw lessons in Gibbon's work for the new republic. George Washington was particularly impressed with an insight about Roman military power that Gibbon offered in the first chapter of the first volume: The terror of the Roman arms added weight and dignity to the moderation of the emperors. They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war; and while justice regulated their conduct, they announced to the nations on their confines that they were as little disposed to endure as to offer injury.

When he became president, Washington paraphrased Gibbon's lesson in his first annual message to Congress, observing that "to be prepared for war, is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."

It was not a lesson that his fellow countrymen or their descendants would learn easily. Over the following two centuries, the nation's vital interests would be endangered repeatedly by lack of military preparedness. But in the second half of the twentieth century - the "American Century," as Henry Luce called it in 1941 - the United States emerged as a global military power without peer. As that century ends, America commands more power and influence than perhaps any nation since the halcyon days of Gibbon's Rome.

The sources of American success are not primarily military in nature. But after a century in which democracy was endangered first by imperialism, then by fascism, and finally by communism - a century in which over a hundred million lives were lost to war and civil strife - most Americans can readily grasp the value of possessing global military supremacy. The United States certainly has that today. Its defense budget is bigger than the combined total for the six next-biggest military powers (most of whom are U.S. allies). It is the only nation that can project military power rapidly and decisively anywhere on earth; the only nation with a major military presence in both hemispheres; the only nation exploiting the full military potential of the information revolution; and the only nation that anyone seriously expects to deserve the title "superpower" in the early decades of the next century.

If the United States can sustain the economic and cultural sources of its success, America has the potential to preserve its global influence for a long time to come - perhaps for as long as Rome did. But that also depends upon sustaining its current military supremacy. History is strewn with the remains of great civilizations that lost the capacity to protect themselves from external challenges. The hard part for America, as for Rome, seems to be maintaining a sense of purpose when threats recede. Given enough time, Americans are masters of military mobilization and execution. Where they have proved wanting is in preserving their might during periods of peace.

Despite an imposing defense budget, there are signs that the U.S. military posture is losing the coherence of its Cold War years. In an international environment posing few direct threats, it is quite possible to imagine a gradual deterioration, born of inattention, continuing past the point at which real damage to the U.S. global position occurs. Now, in short, is the time to think about where and why erosion is occurring and what investments the United States must make in order to preserve global military supremacy during the first half of the next century.

Current national strategy

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