Appearance and Reality in World Power

I can’t recall the last time I marked up an article as heavily as I did Parag Khanna’s gloss on his forthcoming book (“Waving Goodbye to Hegemony,” New York Times Magazine, 27 January 2008). Among the comments I wrote, one was to object to Mr. Khanna’s observation that “America’s standing in the world remains in steady decline,” by noting that the apex of U.S. power was in 1945 and it has been in relative decline ever since.

Matthew Yglesias had the same thought (“Fare Thee Well, Hegemony,”, 31 January 2008) and it prompted a response from Daniel Drezner (“Hegemonic Decline, Revisited,” 31 January 2008):

Yglesias is completely correct that the U.S. had nowhere to go but down after 1945 — a year in which we had the nuclear monopoly and were responsible for 50% of global economic output. Nevertheless, the U.S. resurgence in the nineties was not an illusion. The simple fact is that all of the potential peer competitors to the United States — Germany, Japan and the USSR — either stagnated or broke apart. At the same time, U.S. GDP and productivity growth surged. The revival of U.S. relative power was not a mirage.

Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money has an interesting follow-on as well (“A Momentary Lapse of Hegemonic Decline,” 1 February 2008).

Was there really a breakout in U.S. power in the 1990s? Or was that just how it felt inside the United States, subject as we were to so much triumphalist propaganda? I don’t think that it was a perception limited to the United States. A lot of the world freaked after the U.S. managed to topple the Taliban in a month without breaking a sweat and then topple the Iraqi regime in three weeks. Breadth of perception aside, the question remains, was it any more than that: mere perception?

It strikes me that power can be illusory. As I have been reading about the Cold War and nuclear strategy, it has struck me that perhaps the Cold War was a massive illusion, that one state, the Soviet Union, was in fact a hollow power all along. We tend to think very pragmatically of power and its perception as somehow conjoined. But it’s hardly unproblematic. If power cannot be illusory — both hidden and exaggerated — than for what have we been spending the untold billions that we have on the National Intelligence Establishment?

This possibility first struck me in the early 2000s some rich guy snapped up a decommissioned former Soviet submarine and parked it on the waterfront in Seattle (it is presently on display at the Maritime Museum of San Diego). The day I went on the tour, there were two sailors onboard the submarine: one a salty, retired old U.S. diesel submariner, the other a sailor on loan from a Los Angeles class attack submarine (I thought he said it was the USS Indianapolis, but the years don’t line up) in for maintenance at Puget Sound Naval Ship Yard. They plowed us with the stories of two generations of submariners as we stood in the control room. The older gentleman told us of ruptured eardrums when they blew the tanks. The younger kid got all worked up contrasting this Soviet boat with his own. The two were laid down and commissioned within two or three years of each other, yet the Soviet model was a design still based on captured German U-boat plans, was diesel powered, could only remain submerged for a few days and had to surface to recharge its batteries. The Los Angeles class submarines are nuclear powered and routinely remained submerged for the entire duration of months-long tours. And the Soviet submarine was tiny: it displaced 2475 tones submerged versus 6927 tones for the Los Angeles class. The illusoriness of Soviet power didn’t strike only me. This young sailor seemed quite impressed by it as well.

Of course, this submarine did go out to sea with 22 torpedoes, two with nuclear warheads, which would have been more than adequate to take out a carrier battle group, provided this tin can could get close enough to actually fire them.

Nonetheless, I walked out of the tour flabbergasted. This was the enemy that we spent trillions to deter? The U.S. was silently cruising the oceans in state of the art nuclear submarines while the Soviet Union was hard-driving two generations obsolete models based on designs stolen at the end of the Second World War!? Was the idea that a Cold War had been joined a huge ruse managed by a Soviet Union never really a peer competitor?

Sure, they managed to deploy 40,000 nuclear weapons — a real threat — but some have suggested that this staggering number was in part because the Soviets never decommissioned a weapon and that many were undermaintained, unlikely to detonate were they to reach their target, sitting atop rockets that may never have got off the pad if the order were given. Further, this too may have been the wrong proxy for real military power. The thing about nuclear weapons is that once the initial hurdle has been passed, they are relatively cheep. In fact, it is one of the theses of William Langewiesche’s book The Atomic Bazaar is that in the Twenty-First Century nuclear weapons may become the weapon of the poor. A state that can’t field a respectable army may still command a few dozen nuclear armed missiles.

Looking past nuclear weapons, the Eisenhower administration assessed U.S. forces superior to those of the Soviet Union on a unit basis, but adopted its policy of massive retaliation nevertheless because it believed the United States and the NATO powers incapable of fielding conventional forces in numbers capable of meeting those of the Soviet Union. Despite increases in the quality of Soviet forces through the 1970s, by the 1980s U.S. military planners were figuring that the United States would be able to defeat the Soviet Union in Europe without resort to nuclear weapons. The Wohlstetter-Iklé committee report, Discriminate Deterrence (1988) included the confident but controversial recommendation that in an era of smart bombs and cruise missiles, the United States could afford to move away from nuclear toward conventional counterforce.

But the Soviet Union is only a more genial example of the possibility of illusory power. What of the breakout of 1990s? If there was a breakout, it was, as Mr. Drezner points out, both economic and military.

When the histories of the 1980s and 1990s finally get written, those periods may go down as a time when ebullient ephemera obscured a deepening crisis of economic fundamentals, a period of various asset bubbles distracting analysts from increasing instability. If the United States were to be subject to a massive and sudden correction in exchange rate and interest rates were to come to represent the real risk that institutions are taking when investing in the U.S. economy, then the story of the 1990s would be rewritten to be more like that of the 1920s: one of lawlessness, decadence and pride before the fall. The story of the 1990s will probably even have to be reconsidered in light of monetary policy finding itself, as it increasingly is, caught between the pincers of flat economic growth on the one side, but a significantly increased propensity to inflation on the other, namely to say that there was no increase in productivity, that we were merely exporting our inflation.

A certain portion of the boom of the 1990s may have been real, but recall that the great mystery of those decades is if there really was an up-tick productivity, why did it not register in the statistics? It seems just as probable to me that the productivity miracle of the 1990s may just as well have been built upon the collapse of the 40 hour work week under Exempt status creep, underreporting of actual hours and the “disciplining” effect of the tacit threat of outsourcing. If there were any increases in productivity, its fruits were all captured by the ultra-rich. Average wages have been nearly flat for thirty years now whereas it has been adequately demonstrated at this point that during the 1990s real income growth only came for the top fractions of a percent of U.S. households.

In the military column, a lot of the technologies and systems that are synecdoche for U.S. power in the 1990s and 2000s are the culmination of fairly old developments. The first laser-guided bombs were dropped at the tail end of the Vietnam War. The first experimental satellites in the NAVSTAR GPS constellation were launched in 1978. Debates about whether to proceed with the development of the Tomahawk cruise missile peaked under the Carter administration. The contract for the F-117 was awarded in 1975 and the first one entered service in 1983. The B-1 bomber was actually deployed in the early 1980s to fill a gap between the phase-down of the B-52 and the eventual deployment of the planned B-2 stealth bomber that was then experiencing development difficulties (it eventually entered service in 1993). The Patriot missile was developed in the late 1970s and first deployed in 1984.

These systems came together impressively first in the war with Panama and then most memorably in the First Gulf War. But it would be hard to argue that this was a sudden development of the 1990s. More plausibly, the 1990s represent a continuum of increasing U.S. military capability. Continuity hitherto is, of course, hardly an argument against the existence of a subsequent discontinuity. But whether capabilities on paper can be translated into real power on the ground is another question and in Iraq and Afghanistan we are finding out the bloody and expensive way that all our hardware has done very little to ameliorate the problems of bringing about a desired political objective through force. While effective against asset-heavy, bureaucracy-dependent modern states, in an era of net-centric, open source and guerrilla warfare such assets are quite nearly useless. This was already on display in the Vietnam War but with the United States now unable to subdue Iraq, a country with a tenth its population and four tenths of one percent its economy — with the actual enemy comprising three orders of magnitude less than that — one has to wonder how much of a breakout in global power the 1990s actually were for the U.S. As the constant waffling of U.S. strategy in Iraq back and forth between over-reliance on air power attacks and the Petraeus plan of small operations demonstrates, no precision munitions are accurate enough, no surveillance technology sensitive enough for counterinsurgency warfare and there is no substitute for the old, labor-intensive ways of the Army (and blood-intensive, least anyone be confused about what “labor” is a euphemism for here). And there, growth in relative strength has been much closer to linear, if it has grown at all (no discontinuity). In fact, as I suggested in a previous post (“Iraq and Vietnam; Civil Wars and Asymmetric Conflict,” 5 October 2007), Iraq and Afghanistan may be trend, with usable relative power actually on the decline.

Call it the seduction of the spectacular. Apparently shock and awe has been more effective against us than it has turned out to be against our enemies.