The Perils of Supremacy

By April 17, 2003 No Comments

The United States has again demonstrated the complete supremacy of its military by overrunning Iraq, which had – up until two months ago – the largest military of any Arab nation, and had once bid to become a regional superpower. However, the military contest was never in doubt – the US has the largest, best equipped, and best trained military in the World, and should be able to beat any combination of 2nd and 3rd rate powers without too much effort.

According to the estimates of James Dunnigan, whose book How to Make War has just been released in its fourth edition (Quill , New York, 2003), the US has more conventional military power than the next four largest military powers combined. In short, aside from nuclear weaponry, the US has slightly more military power — in terms of the capabilities of its weaponry, training levels, and efficiency of its units – than the combined strength of China, Israel, India and Russia.

Only the United States has both the potential to deliver overwhelming conventional forces anywhere in the world, and the organization – through its network of global commands – to do so.

This military strength is a result of several key capabilities. Firstly, the United States keeps its military spending at about 3.2% of its GNP, and has the largest economy in the world. Essentially, about half of the defence expenditures in the world are made by the US. America – through both its public and private sectors – spends more on civilian and military research and development than the rest of the world combined, and this can almost guarantee its technological superiority for a long time to come. Finally, self-analysis and critical thinking are essential to the professionalism of any military, and the US has a variety of staff colleges and centres for professional education – backstopped by a zealous demand for professional development and academic credentials among its NCO and Officer Corps.

Alas, supremacy is not always guaranteed.

The first problem with being the ‘King of the Castle’ is that all the dirty rascals want to push you off the top. States act according to their own self-interests first and there is a long list of nations that wish the United States was less powerful. Many have visions of a world that is not dominated by Western Civilization. China also has regional aspirations that the Americans are blocking. The British don’t seem to (much) mind losing their pre-eminent role to the US – after all, the United States is a creation of theirs in many ways – but many French and Russians do harbor acute resentments.

The absurd spectacle of the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee in recent years is an example of the resentments of non-Western nations against the West generally, and the US specifically. When nations like China, Cuba, Sudan and Syria can exclude the US from the committee it led for many years and decide for themselves about what constitutes human rights abuses, it is a clear sign that the original intent of the committee has been entirely discarded. It also provides one of the clearest illustrations of the growing suspicion about the real usefulness of the UN these days.

In recent years, China has made several overtures to Iran, to Pakistan and even to India, asking them to join in an Anti-Western bloc. Moreover, some discussion from inside China strongly indicates that the People’s Republic hopes to topple American supremacy – if not doing greater harm than that. (Readers may wish to refer to ‘China – with the Mask Off’ from our April 2002 newsletter.) If Chinese hostility toward the US ever becomes open, they may attract a lot of allies to their cause.

As the World’s only superpower, there is also the acute risk of hubris in America. There are two points to be made here: One is that the risk is quite real. The second is that whatever is done to mitigate the risk will not be acknowledged by other nations. Even if the powerful do behave with genuine humility (which rarely happens in history), the less powerful will never recognize it.

For example, as the Iraq war loomed, the United States did everything it could to receive the imprimatur of the United Nations for its planned actions, and then strove to attract as much support it could from other nations when it became clear that the UN’s blessings were not forthcoming. Regardless of its successes at attracting support, the US was determined to deal with Saddam Hussein once and for all – although we will all have to wait 30 years before learning if the US was truly determined to go it alone. At the same time, none of the Americans’ diplomatic efforts seem to have carried much weight with the French, Russians, the Chinese, or even many of their own domestic critics.

If America continues to act with restraint and consults with its allies, they will seldom receive credit for doing so. Yet the memory of their success in Iraq may easily tempt the Americans into only going through the forms of consultation rather than its reality. Athens undid itself this way, turned on its allies, and was destroyed by its combined enemies. But who studies Classical history these days?

The other danger facing America is already manifest. Those who would challenge America’s – or the West’s — power have had to turn to alternative ways of doing so: Through the use of terrorism and ‘non-Trinitarian warfare’ (a subject frequently discussed in other Institute articles); by developing weapons of mass destruction; and by engaging in ‘indirect warfare’ through political lobbying, business activities, media campaigns and similar means designed to impact directly on senior political and economic levels. Some groups, such as the Islamic Fundamentalists, seem to be going for all three at once.

The 20th Century was witness to a slew of new sciences and new inventions, bringing change at a rapid rate. This 21st Century promises to be no different, especially as three separate technological revolutions are already underway – the bio-engineering revolution and the robotics revolution have begun and are in their early states so far; the Nanotechnology revolution may prove to be mankind’s biggest step forward since the Neolithic era. While the US tends to dominate the development of new technologies, there are traps here for the unwary.

In 1906, the British assembled several of the new innovations in warship design to unveil a revolutionary new warship – HMS Dreadnought. The new ship surpassed all previous designs in terms of speed, protection, firepower and reliability; almost overnight, every major warship built before Dreadnought became obsolete. The problem for the British was that they had carefully kept their fleet to a level where it was superior to the fleets of any two potential rivals combined together, but now it became possible for Britain’s erstwhile rivals (Germany particularly) to match the Royal Navy ship for ship as both nations rushed to launch dozens of new vessels.

This is an age where science fiction can become fact all too quickly, and there are a variety of revolutionary new weapons systems that potentially could appear in coming decades which could have the same effect on airpower or mechanized forces that HMS Dreadnought did on the battleships of a century ago. While US military research does lead the world, there are many alleys that the US may choose not to pursue, and the Byzantine world that governs US defence appropriations can slow down the deployment of new equipments for dozens of reasons. Now imagine, for example, that a combination of cold fusion and superconductors have just made something like an ‘anti-gravity’ platform with particle beam weaponry absurdly simple to construct (and such developments can easily come within our grasp in coming decades). In a matter of months, all previously existing armoured vehicles and aircraft are now obsolete and military superiority now rests with whoever can build enough of the new weapons systems the most quickly.

More chillingly, imagine what happens when fiendishly ingenious new bioweapons start to appear. One potential scenario could see the killing of over 90% of America’s population within hours by a ‘stealth virus’ that is suddenly activated by a particular signal after it has had time to disseminate throughout the country.

This first major security crisis of the 21st Century – for the September 11th attacks, the occupation of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq are all related events – in many ways is an assault on the United States by those who resent its supremacy and see it as a symbol of the larger dominance of the Western World. It may well be that some future history of the politics and warfare of the 21st Century will largely revolve around efforts to topple the US from its place. Given some of the alternatives to American supremacy, it might be best to hope that these attempts never succeed.