Lean, But Still Mean?

What does a 15% percent cut to the American military mean to world security? Jennifer Welsh examines.
By: /
January 6, 2012
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement yesterday of a new defence strategy for his country is a response not only to painful fiscal realities, but also to a strong sense of fatigue with the policy of the large military “footprint.” Obama declared that his country was “turning the page on a decade of war” and no longer anticipated the need to engage in large-scale stabilization efforts of the kind we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fine details of this shift in doctrine will only emerge with the U.S. budget next month, when actual troop reductions will be specified. Nonetheless, there is a clear expectation of a 10-to-15-per-cent cut to the size of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, and an increased reliance on the Air Force and Navy. Many commentators will therefore ask whether, under this revised scenario, the U.S. will still be able to sustain its capacity to fight two wars at once – long held to be the defining feature of its superpower status. But while the forecasted reduction in troops is significant – estimated to be worth $450 billion – it still leaves the United States with the largest military in the world (and one that is roughly the same size as it was five years ago). What emerges, then, is a U.S. that is undoubtedly leaner, but still “mean” enough to intimidate its rivals.

It would be easy to chalk most of this up to financial pressures. But the president’s new strategy also reflects a different understanding of his country’s place in the world, and the most significant threats it is likely to face. No surprise, then, that the focus has shifted to addressing threats in the Asia-Pacific (a veiled reference to China’s growing strength) and ensuring the capacity to deter troublesome states such as Iran. This specification of geographic priorities is not unprecedented, but it nevertheless suggests that the U.S. can no longer commit itself to general global “projects” – instead, it must choose its spots with care, based on the degree to which they constitute a threat to vital interests. As a result, much less weight is given to the task of nation-building in so-called failed states – something then-president George W. Bush vowed, in 2000, that he would never do, yet spent most of his presidency doing.

Is this 2012 doctrine confirmation that America, the mighty, has well and truly fallen? Obama’s Republican rivals have been quick to suggest that the new strategy sends the wrong message to the U.S.’s enemies, and will only embolden them. In their view, it relegates the U.S. to a permanent posture of “leading from behind.”

 An alternative assessment is that a leaner and more agile U.S. military is precisely what is required to ensure the U.S.’s pre-eminence post Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States is finally admitting that it must be much more careful about engaging in “wars of choice” (both in financial terms and in terms of reputation). But no one should underestimate its capability and willingness to tackle the most pressing threats to its security – when and where it chooses.

Photo courtesy Reuters.