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“The Wrong Way To Measure Strength”: You Don’t Measure Security By Sheer Numbers Of Troops

The ancient Greek military historian Thucydides famously noted that in war, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Today, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, concurs.

“It’s a dangerous world, and we’re making it more so by cutting defense,” said McKeon, responding to the president’s defense budget. “We weaken ourselves, and that is how you get into wars. You don’t get into wars if you’re strong.”

The idea that “weak” countries must fight to uphold their status might seem self-evident. However, while McKeon’s logic might have made sense in the Bronze Age, it makes little sense in the modern age.

First, warfare has changed since Thucydides’ day, where the relationship between military strength and a nation’s survival was clearer. The larger your population, the more men you had under arms, the stronger you were. Today’s wars are different, mostly because interstate conflict has declined drastically over the last 50 years. Even the smallest, weakest countries don’t worry about fighting for survival anymore.

For instance, of the five countries with the lowest military expenditures in the world – Costa Rica, Panama, the Seychelles, Liberia and Belize – only one has fought a war against another country in the past 25 years, and that was Panama, which the U.S. invaded in 1989. Perhaps McKeon was right about weakness, albeit not in the way he intended.

By contrast, the superpower with the highest military expenditure in the world – the United States – has fought six major armed conflicts in the last 25 years, and that doesn’t even include “military operations other than war.” Of the four other strongest military powers globally – China, Russia, the U.K., and Japan – only China and Japan have not fought wars in the last quarter century, largely because they lacked force projection capabilities.

Modern history not only disproves the idea that “strong” countries do not fight wars, but also suggests a dated definition of strength. Strong nations fight more conflicts because they have more global interests to protect and also because they can protect them in the first place. Russia’s recent incursion into Ukraine exemplifies this trend.

Today, hard power is based on the overall capability to project force beyond national borders; the states that are most likely to fight wars are the ones that can do so. In this regard, the U.S. is still without peer, and the military cuts McKeon lambasts don’t diminish that capability. With 11 supercarriers and nearly 600 military installations overseas, the U.S. is well-positioned to respond to global crises.

“With these cuts, we are talking about the Marines are planning on going down to 21 infantry battalions. Twenty are called for in the plan to defend Korea. That leaves one battalion to handle Russia, Iran, Syria, Egypt,” McKeon argued. The U.S. would not “handle” crises with any of these countries by deploying Marine battalions, however. Capability trumps capacity; in this regard, air-, sea- and logistical power are more important. Cutting troop numbers doesn’t make us weaker, but cutting our force projection capabilities does. Thankfully, the president’s budget does not significantly reduce those capabilities.

McKeon’s logic, therefore, is the exact reverse of what the last several decades have proven. Strong states fight wars more often because they have so much more to lose.

 

By: Faris Alikan, National Security Fellow at Third Way; U. S. News and World Report, March 6, 2014

 

March 7, 2014 - Posted by | Defense Budget, Foreign Policy | , , , , ,

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