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Sunday, April 13, 2003


Introductory Comments

A tip: to appreciate the comments that unfold here, you'd do well to have read at least the fifth installment on this topic, posted earlier today. In particular, these comments are a natural follow-up in both more theoretical and concrete terms of the huge American lead in power compared to all other countries, something the world has never seen . . . not even in the days of the Roman Empire at its height. As the previous article on military power noted, Rome's power was hemmed in by its population base, the technologies (mililtary and otherwise) available to it, and the georgraphical barriers that prevented expansion into the areas of northern Europe beyond the Rhine in Germanic tribal regions and eastward beyond the Middle East. There a powerful Persian empire further limited Roman expansion, and beyond it, there was in Asia the expanding and powerful Chinese empire.

As was also noted in that previous article, the US today outspends the next 14 countries in the world on defense, and for that matter its R&D military expenditures are equally overwhelming. Even the EU, with a third bigger population --- 380 vs. 280 million --- will be spending only about $140 billion this year as opposed to the US's $400 billion or so . . . the US military budget about 4.0% of GDP vs. an average of 7.0% yearly in the 45 years of the cold war, something in other words easily sustained by the huge wealthy American economy. The EU NATO average spending on the military is around 2.0%, Britain's and France's higher, and Germany's a startling 1.2% --- leaving the German military establishment, as a New York Times article put it a few weeks ago, essentially a "basket-case." Japan's military spending is around 1.5% of its GDP if you include disguised forms of it. China, with about a $6 trillion a year economy vs. the US's $10.6 --- with the US per capita income $37,000 or so and China's about a seventh that (all figures in purchasing power-parity terms) --- spends, probably, around $70 billion, a little more than 1.0%, to say nothing of its technological backwardness . . . far behind Taiwan's and South Korea's, never mind the US's.

All of which emphasizes the significance, for the long-term power of the US (or any other other country, with power always viewed comparatively), of three key capabilities that underpin both its military and diplomatic clout or influence . . . leaving aside competing counter-balancing coalitions that may or may not arise as other countries see US power as threatening or not and raise their own arms expenditures and acquisitions while allying against it: [1] the population of a country, especially its size and moral robustness, including its adtive support or not for its foreign policies; [2] its economic dynamism and wealth; and [3] its technological prowess. There are, as we'll see, other component capabilities, such as [4] the levels of military spending and the operational effectivensss of its military establishment; [5] the wisdom of its leaders' choices in foreign policy (including their success, diplomatically and militarily); and [6] the ability to neutralize potential adversaries and win over the support of other countries . . . including new allies, bandwagoning the term for this ability --- the opposite of balancing.

Power Clarified

Three Kinds of Power in IR: Potential Power, Mobilized Power and Activated Power.

Note that 4, 5, and 6 above --- while important power capabililties --- refer to what we can call "mobilized" and "activated" power: above all, the ability of a country's government, in this case always the US, to use its taxing and regulative authority to support a military and intelligence establishment, use coercive diplomacy (threats backed by force), fight wars, win allies, arm them, and gain influence.

  1. In what follows, we're talking first and foremost about potential power --- the general and abstract ability of the US (or any other) to sustain a long-term foreign policy orientation, with of course the potential capabilities (set out as 1, 2, and 3 --- population, GDP and per capita income, and technological prowess) amounting to the core base of its power potential.

  1. Mobilized power, obviously important, is what the US government does with its tax and regulative power to support a global role and, if need be, activated power: such as spending $400 billion on defense this year and maintaining a military of about 2.1 million or 12 attack carrier forces or training special ops or expanding the NATO alliance with new East European countries.

  1. Activated power --- what we're seeing in Iraq right now, for instance --- refers to the use of mobilized power in a specific clash of competing national interests with another country . . . Saddamite Iraq vs. the Bush administration's interpretation and pursuit of those interests. To suceed in Iraq, US policymakers have had to draw on mobilized military, intelligence, alliance, and economic capabilities to overcome Saddamite resistance and prevail, sending huge carrier forces, air wings, special ops, and 250,000 soldiers half way around the world for the war and, no less challengingly, keeping supply lines open for constant movement of fuel, ammunition, water, and food to the front line combat units.


To Clarify Briefly

Start with 1) potential and 2) mobilized power, and their differences. In particular, the gap in power on these scores can be great at any historical point. In the late 1930s, for instance, Franklyn Roosevelt --- seeing war with the fascist countries in Europe and Asia (Japan) as inevitable --- began pressing Congress for more defense spending as preparations. Generally, Congress --- attuned to domestic opinion --- balked, save in naval power itself. As a result, when Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, followed by Hitler's declaring war on us the next day, the US was potentially the most powerful country in the world, but our mobilized base --- save for the carriers that survived Pearl Harbor --- was generally derisory compared to Germany's and Japan's armed forces and weaponry.

To overcome the gap, Roosevelt and Congress had to institute conscription, put controls over the economy, raise defense spending from under 3.0% of GDP to almost 50% by the war's end, create a military establishment of 10 million, and put the economy on a mobilized war footing, with American industry soon turning out hundreds of planes a month and dozens of ships and thousands of tanks and jeeps. It was only in 1943 that the gap between potential and mobilized power was essentially filled, with the US clearly the most powerful country in the world . . . something made evident by the destruction of Japan in the summer of 1945.


Oppositely, to jump into the present, the Germans are a country whose military power (a mobilized capability) is far inferior to what Berlin could achieve if it were willing to shift economic resources out of the civilian economy, restructure its military, and spend roughly the same percentage of GDP on it as the US. The German economy is about $2.1 trillion, giving its 80 million people about a per capita income of $26,000 (the US's equivalents are about $10.5 trillion and $37,000). Obviously, Germany couldn't hope to match US mobilized military resources: total spending, the size and operational effectiveness of our forces at all levels (nuclear, conventional, C3I, smart weaponry, anti-missile defenses, air- and sea-lift capabilities and so on), and their ability to be deployed. Still, the government has steadily reduced defense spending since the end of the cold war to a basket-case level, around $25 billion . . . 1.2% of GDP, instead of matching the US's 4.0% of GDP and total spending of around $85 billion. The reasons?

First and foremost, the perceptions of the Fischer-Schroeder Green-SDP government that Germany faces no immediate military threat as opposed to the cold war period. Secondly, its denigration generally of military capabilities in a leap of faith in so-called moral, legal, and institutional ways of regulating conflict --- something not visible, remember, just four years ago when the same government joined the US and most of NATO in bypassing the UN Security Council and going to war over Kosovo with Milosevik's Yugoslavia . . . to the point of sending German troops into battle for the first time since 1945. Thirdly, the shift here also reflects domestic public opinion, itself heavily under the sway of politically correct utopianism and, as Schroeder found out last summer as the electoral campaign threatened to defeat him and his Green partner, growing virulent anti-Americanism --- a form of covert German nationalism, itself criticized by the Christian Democratic party head, but supported by other German Christian Democrats. And fourth, it also reflects a stagnant economy. For a decade now, Germany --- its CDU and SDP-Green governments refusing to undertaken painful structural and policy reforms to make the economy more competitive globally --- has been the slowest grower in the EU and badly overcommitted as a result in its welfare and social security policies. That has created a big allocative dilemma for the German government. To shift resources out of a stagnant economy would require either raising taxes or cutting down welfare payments --- pension costs are looming as an astronomical drag on Germany in a few years (the same problem in Japan) --- and politically it's unwilling to do much of anything, resorting to cautious, even tepid reforms, then backing down when resistance occurs from its political supporters in the population.


Activated Power

As for 3) activated power, recall that it comes into play when there is a specific clash of national interests, and US leaders have to call on mobilized resources --- diplomatic (such as deterrence or coercive threats) intelligence, military, economic (maybe sanctions or bribes), or allies willing to help --- and overcome the resistance. That's the key here: activated power is strictly relative to what you want and the other country resists doing, and success is measured by your ability to succeed in overcoming the resistance. In the Iraqi case, by destroying the Saddamite regime.

Remember --- to further throw light on activated power --- the US doesn't always prevail in specific clashes with other countries. Take the Vietnamese war.

Our potential power and our mobilized power in the late 1960s and early 1970s towered over those of North Vietnam, but in the end the US --- never having lost militarily, but never having prevailed --- withdrew from South Vietnam in the winter of 1973; and two years later Washington stood by, given domestic opposition here, as North Vietnam violated the Paris agreements and quickly overran the US-supported South Vietnamese regime. From this viewpoint, US activated power didn't succeed. Our strategy was defective, our battlefield tactics effective but hampered by an unwillingness to tolerate more losses, the opportunity costs of continuing the war exceeded American willpower (the economy was being strained, domestic opinion turned against the war), and US allies were either standoffish or critical of the war.

In short, the ability of even a superpower to overcome the tenacious resistance of a third-rate military power --- measured by its potential capabilities (population, GDP, per capita income, technological prowess) or by its mobilized base (number of soldiers say, or weaponry) --- hinges on a variety of difficult to gauge matters: 1) the specific goals at issue, 2) the strategy for overcoming one another's use of power, 3) battlefield tactics and morale and flexibility, if it's a matter of war (it might not always be this: think of trade disputes or the ability of the US to say no regarding the Kyoto Treaty in matters of alleged global warming), 4) tolerance for costs: manpower losses, economic losses, 5) moral or domestic restraints in using various potential or mobilized capabilities --- e.g., the US never seriously considered using nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and 6) the potential or active role of 3rd party states, such as allies on each side. On the latter count, Washington was always worried until the breakthrough with China in the Nixon-Kissinger era (1972) that an invasion of the North would lead, as it had in North Korea in 1950, to a Chinese counter intervention.


A Tidying Up Observation

On all forms of power --- especially the activated sort, relevant to a specific clash of national interests and goals --- note that an added 7th) influence can be singled out . . . even though it probably is already covered by strategy and tactics: geography and climate.

Take the Vietnam war. There, as it happened, American strategy and tactics were partly stymied by the jungles and mountains of the country, plus the sanctuary --- until 1970 --- of Cambodia as a route for North Vietnamese equipment and men into the South. Iraq's desert has turned out to be no particular obstacle, though had the French had their way --- 30 days more delay at a minimum in the Security Council (with no guarantee it would waive its veto over war) --- US forces would have faced the prospect of wearing anti-chemical uniforms in 100 degree heat . . . something the French leadership fully knew.

Not that geography is a fixed influence. In fact, its influence on power --- mobilized and activated --- varies with military and other technologies. For instance, had the US forces had the C3I in Vietnam available now, with precision-guided weapons and special-ops on the ground, the casualties inflicted on North Vietnam's military --- and almost all the major clashes after 1968 were with North Vietnamese regulars (disciplined and well motivated) --- would have been even far greater than they were. As it was, the casualties were about two to three times higher than what the Germans suffered at US military hands in the war in Europe from 1943 to 1945.

Oppositely, American invulnerability to direct attack, provided we had sufficient sea and air power, was altered in the cold war once the Soviet Union acquired nuclear warheads and missile capabilities in the late 1950s . . . though a stable nuclear stand-off, mutual deterrence, was an offsetting factor. That offsetting factor was then dramatically and abruptly altered by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and more than anything else, the resulting vulnerability that has put the US homeland on the front-line of the war on terrorism explains the sharp reaction of the Bush administration's subsequent policies . . . including the neo-conservative strategy of directly intervening in the Middle East to destroy the Iraqi Saddamite regime and begin to restructure, to the extent possible, the political configuration there. And especially the neighboring terrorist-support states, Iran and Syria, with their active WMD programs. See Paul Wolfowitz, the number two man at the Pentagon, and a huge influence in the Bush administration.


The Crucial Long-Term Determinants of Power --- Potential and Mobilized

By now, these core determinants of a country's overall power potential --- the capabilities in its potential and mobilized base for supporting a particular global or regional role in foreign policy (in the US case, primacy everywhere) --- should be familiar: population, economic wealth (GDP, per capita income), and technological prowess.


1. Population

Recall that population refers not just to the size of a country, but its degree of moral fiber, and patriotism: the latter not necessarily at all the same as jingoism or chauvinism or belligerent nationalism; rather pride and coherence of identity and willingness to sacrifice, if need be, wealth and blood to deal with enemies and support a foreign policy role . . . including the independence of the country and its influence abroad. The average age of the population and its reproduction rate are also important.

For just the barebones influence of population, sheer size, consider the following table:

Essentially, as it makes clear, no state with fewer than a 100 million inhabitants is likely to qualify as a great power these days or in the future . . . even potentially so. That rules out any European country, save Russia, itself a poor backward economy (though with good technological and scientific talent). China, oppositely, is a poor country too --- its per capita income is about a seventh of the US's --- but because its population is more than four times greater, the resulting GDP is huge, and that makes possible considerable resources available for defense spending and defense R&D.