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Why We Keep Fighting

I have a guest post today on Steve Walt’s blog marking the twentieth anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union this week. I’m copying it here:

Twenty years ago today, the Soviet Union was dissolved. Two years before, Moscow had dropped its geopolitical ambitions, allowing the Berlin Wall to fall peacefully. The United States had won the Cold War.

Since then, U.S. military power is unmatched. Because enemy airplanes rarely come close to U.S. jets, no active American pilot has achieved the five kills necessary for the honorific title of “ace”. Likewise, the U.S. Navy is larger than all the other seventeen high-seas fleets combined. The two most effective non-U.S. land forces (the British and French armies) are roughly the size of the smallest branch of the U.S. military machine, its Marine Corps.

Has this unparalleled power allowed the United States to enjoy the much-touted peace dividend it earned by winning the Cold War? Is the United States better able to impose its will peacefully today than when Stalin blocked Berlin or Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba?

Many seem to think so. Writing in the New York Times a week ago, Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker argued that “war really is going out of style.” In what concerns the United States, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The last two decades, less than ten percent of U.S. history, account for more than 25 percent of the nation’s total wartime. Between the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the Soviet demise, great powers were involved in wars on average one every six years. Since it became the sole superpower, the United States has been at war for more than half the time, or twelve out of twenty two years.

These wars in Kuwait (1991), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001-present), and Iraq (2003-11) all resulted from other states not complying with U.S. demands. When threatened with U.S. military action, Slobodan Milosevic did not fold, the Taliban did not give in, nor did Saddam Hussein roll over. In contrast, the Soviet Union always took U.S. threats seriously. Despite its tremendous might, it refrained from taking West Berlin and withdrew its missiles from Cuba.

Why were U.S. threats heeded by the Soviet bear but now disregarded by secondary powers? Two explanations are commonly offered. The first is that the United States is militarily overextended. The second is that while the Soviets were evil but rational, today’s enemies are irrational.

Both these views are wrong. The war in Afghanistan does not prevent the United States from badly damaging any non-nuclear state that defies it while suffering relatively little itself. And the U.S.’s new enemies are no less rational than its old ones. If U.S. threats were able to deter shoe-slamming “we will bury you” Khrushchev and his hundreds of intercontinental nuclear missiles, why is the United States unable to stop North Korea and its handful of rudimentary warheads — not to mention Iran, which has none?

Because threats are not the problem. Backed by the mightiest military in history, U.S. threats are eminently credible. In fact, the absence of another great power capable of deterring Washington gives the U.S. a free hand abroad. As Saddam’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz lamented after Iraq’s humiliating defeat in the Gulf War, “We don’t have a patron anymore. If we still had the Soviets as our patron,none of this would have happened.”

The problem lies elsewhere. During the Cold War, mutually assured destruction kept the peace. The prospect of an unprovoked U.S. attack, which would ultimately lead to the U.S.’s own destruction, was unthinkable. But now that the Soviet Union is gone, America’s enemies feel vulnerable even if they comply with Washington’s demands. They know that the United States has the wherewithal to take them down if it so decides, so they are unlikely to accept any U.S. demands (to abandon a nuclear program, for example) that would leave them in a position of even greater weakness. This is what explains U.S. involvement in so many “hot” wars since the Cold War ended.

As the world’s sole superpower, the United States is often seen as an aggressive behemoth. To make its threats effective, we are told, it must restrain itself through a less aggressive military posture, a commitment to multilateral action, or even a pledge to eschew regime change. But even if it does all this, as long as U.S. power remains unmatched, Washington will continue to face difficulties having its way without resorting to war. This should come as no surprise. It follows from the unparalleled power of the United States.

[UPDATED: I have corrected a typo pointed out by reader Finn below, to whom I thank.]

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categories: IR theory, national security, public-affairs commentary, war. | tags: , , .

Posted at 12:43 pm


3 Responses

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  1. Finn says

    Is there a typo here? I think you must replace “on” with “and.”

    Berlin on Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba?

  2. Nuno says

    Thanks! I meant it to be an “or”…

  3. Russ Tracy says

    “But now that the Soviet Union is gone, America’s enemies feel vulnerable even if they comply with Washington’s demands. They know that the United States has the wherewithal to take them down if it so decides, so they are unlikely to accept any U.S. demands (to abandon a nuclear program, for example) that would leave them in a position of even greater weakness. This is what explains U.S. involvement in so many “hot” wars since the Cold War ended.”

    Dr. Monteiro,

    I’m not sure I agree with your explanation of why the US has been involved in so many wars since the Cold War ended. The Bosnian and first Gulf wars were aimed mostly at preserving territorial rights and boundaries. The Afghan war was not in my view the result of that country’s wish to strengthen itself against potential threats from the US (the “unipole’). The second Gulf war was I think conducted partly to prevent Saddam from getting nuclear weapons, which would fit your theory, but this is only one of four wars we are discussing.
    Your longer piece in International Security suggests that the US will eventually decide to attack Iran, but Panetta’s remarks to the Saban Symposium earlier this year suggest that the US (and Israel) are bluffing when they threaten to pre-emptively attack Iran. Panette spoke of how that might set the entire Middle East aflame and be bad for economies worldwide.

    You contend that for the US to threaten minor (i.e., non-nuclear) powers provides a powerful incentive for them to go nuclear. However, you don’t mention the possible risks of early detection by the US (or its friends) of such plans (i.e., severe sanctions and/or a preemptive strike). Why wouldn’t it make more sense for minor powers to adopt a superficially accommodating stance toward the unipole in hopes that eventually one or more “great” powers would emerge with which they could ally themselves?



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