U.S. Power Slipping, Analysts Warn

A warning to lawmakers of a shift underway in the global balance of power from the West to the East came this week from a rather sober source, Stephen Daggett, a defense policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service. CRS analysts are better known for providing carefully balanced and normative assessments of weapons systems or foreign policy issues, without weighing in on what can be politically tricky issues; which is why I hope lawmakers listened closely to what he said.

“We are in the midst of a shift away from American military predominance towards something different,” Daggett said, “we’re still for several years clearly going to be technologically predominant in military capabilities. How long we’ll have the ability to do all of the above, to project power in every kind, ground forces, maritime forces, air forces, I don’t know, but it’s eroding slowly over time.”

The glory days of the American century were the last 50 years of the 20th century, he said. The 21st century is slowly turning into something much more balanced in terms of power distribution than most generations of Americans have ever confronted. “The U.S. can still shape that environment… but our shaping of the environment has to be in a direction that leads to more cooperation with allies and efforts to build an agreement on the rules of the road with potential future foes like China,” particularly in areas like protecting the global commons, such as the maritime domain and cyber space.

One of my favorite China watchers, Zachary Karabell, of the New American Foundation, says current estimates project that the aggregate Chinese economy will surpass that of the U.S. by 2020. That will provide China tremendous purchasing power (the U.S. economy is roughly $14 trillion in size), on top of that it already has, relative to declining purchasing power in the West. In the recent global financial meltdown, he says, China came out on top; it has all the money and doesn’t have any debt. The Chinese feel like they’ve won.

War with China is not preordained. As Karabell and others say, it’s hard to imagine the U.S. and China going to war as their two economies have become so intimately intertwined. There will, however, clearly be consequences to a decline in relative U.S. power.

That the world is going through a disruptive period is hard to deny. The “unipolar moment” was just that, but a moment. Greater strategic complexity and uncertainty puts pressure on policymakers to correctly identify looming challenges, be it the rise of China, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or radical terrorism. The problem is that even if policymakers agree on the most serious challenges to U.S. security, in a period of constrained resources, the needed tools and options might not be available, says the strategist Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Beware of “strategic myopia,” Krepinevich warned, focusing laser like on Afghanistan risks missing larger shifts underway in global power. Speaking earlier in the week, on a different panel than Daggett, he also told the HASC that the military foundation of America’s global dominance is eroding. The diffusion of advanced technologies combined with the rise of new powers, such as China, and hostile states, such as Iran, will make it prohibitively expensive in both blood and treasure for the U.S. to control areas of vital interest, such as the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf.

The realization that America is losing its technological supremacy is unlikely to come in the form of another Sputnik moment, but something much more subtle, stretching across various industries. One example: earlier this week we discussed the growing recognition, inside DoD and out, that the U.S. helicopter industrial base is in big trouble as its losing its technological edge to faster growing European firms.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly said that the U.S. cannot spend its way out of its national security challenges. The money is not going to be there. The Congressional Budget Office this week said that just to pay for planned force structure increases, the weapons programs currently on the books and the costs of equipping troops at war will require base defense budget increases along the lines of 6 percent annually. It’s hard to see how that level of spending can possibly happen with the current high deficits and skyrocketing national debt.

Krepinevich said its time to take a hard look at military spending and plan and invest in certain areas of potential advantage while divesting from other areas. He also called for a long-term strategic planning exercise similar to President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower’s “Project Solarium,” which decisively shaped U.S. Cold War strategy.

“A decline in our military’s ability to influence events abroad may be inevitable: however, it should not be the result of indifference or lack of attention. There are important strategic choices that the United States must make. To avoid those choices now is simply to allow the United States’ rivals to make them for us,” he said.

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