Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Friday, November 14, 2008

The USA's Position In the World

A tangent has developed in another thread and I think it is interesting enough to have it's own thread.  The subject is, what is the position of the US in the world and is its influence on world affairs declining?

There are a number of ways you can measure power in the international scene.  One of the most basic is to look at GDP.  Here is the wikipedia article on GDP.  You can see that the gap between the US and the next largest economies is enormous.  What's more, six of the next eight biggest economies are members of NATO and the second biggest economy is Japan (not in NATO but an equally close ally).  Among the 20 biggest economies, only China, Russia, India and Indonesia are not close allies of the United States.  And the US is not involved in anything like a Cold War style rivalry with any of the four countries I mentioned.  Russian-US and Chinese-US relations are strained at times but compared to the Cold War it's all happiness and sunshine.

The gap is even bigger when we look at overall military spending. Here is the relevant wikipedia article (there are questions about accuracy for the gross level point I'm trying to make I think it's accurate enough).  The US spends just over 10 times as much on its military as the second biggest military spender, France, does.   The US also spends over twice as much as the entire EU combined.   China's military budget is similar to that of France.  The 20 biggest military spenders other than the US include 9 NATO members, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan and Israel.  It also includes countries that Brazil and Saudi Arabia that are close allies to the US but not as close as the NATO members or Japan et al.  Only Russia and China could really be considered to be potential rivals to the US and the US outspends them both combined many times over.  

Finally there is the ability to project power globally.  A good indicator of that is the number of aircraft carriers a country has (here is the wiki).  There are 22 aircraft carriers currently in service around the world.  11 of them are in the US Navy.  All 11 of these US carriers are capable of launching and recovering fully operational combat aircraft.  Most of the rest of the world's carriers are only capable of launching V/STOL aircraft like the British Harrier which have limited capabilities (the US Navy operates an additional 10 carriers of this type of carrier that most other navies use).  The only other navies to operate a carrier of the US type are France and Brazil (which operates an obsolete French carrier) both are US allies.  

An overall impression one should take away from this as well, is not just that the US is powerful.  After all, as Bill Clinton said, "America leads most effectively through force of her example rather than the example of her force."  It should also be clear that the USA's closest allies make up most of the list of the most powerful countries in the world.  

It may well be that the US is in a slow decline relative to the rest of the world.  But there is a long way to go before the US is anything other than the richest, most powerful, and best connected country in the world.


The Law Talking Guy said...

It may be true that, comparatively, the USA is unchallenged in most military and economic aspects. However, the absolute difference between the USA and the rest of the world has shrunk. Also, the ability of the US government to exercise power in an internationalizing economy has also diminished, as have all states. Simply put, Eisenhower and Reagan had more at their disposal than Obama will. To some extent, this is just a function of globalization.

More troubling, however has been serious erosion of our moral and cultural authority as a nation. In the 1950s and 1960s, and to a lesser extent in the 1980s and 1990s, American ideas and culture had prominence in the world. Whether it was in art, music, film, fashion, or literature, America was preeminent. American political and economic ideas, its universities, its social science, its medical science - all of these were areas where the United States led the world. Moreover, they were areas in which all over the world ambitious people and governments sought to emulate and learn from the United States. We find ourselves no longer in such a privileged position. The 2000 election, the Bush doctrines of preemptive war and torture, and now the financial crisis have all eroded the idea that America is worth emulating. We find ourselves with a broken health care system, ailing infrastruture, soaring public debts, and government incapable of coordinated action. The chair of the Nobel committee in awarding this year's literature prize remarked that US literature was becoming a conversation with itself, not part of the world conversation. America is becoming isolated.

For all these reasons, we look to the Obama presidency with enormous hope and expectations. His election has turned eyes to the United States in admiration for the first time in a decade. Even Europeans, long smug about the state of US race relations, have taken note. Race relations are progressing in the USA, but stagnating or regressing in Europe. If we seize this moment, America could again become a moral and cultural leader in the world, that is showing how relatively lightly-regulated capitalism and radical individualism can support a progressive multicultural democracy with a sense of communal responsibility.

Spotted Handfish said...

I was going to respond but found LTG had taken all my good points. So selfish... In general, certainly from an outsider's point of view, there does seem to be a decline in US power economically recently, and morally through the Bush regime. I don't think anyone was arguing that the US won't be the biggest under a number of measures, just less big.

There is no doubt that the US can project more power anywhere in the world than any other country. Power does not necessarily equate into effect. A couple of examples: aircraft carriers. 11 is impressive. Let's look at how they might be organised: one in deep maintenance, one in each of the Pacific and Atlantic fleets training, one in each standing down and three in each operational (I'm speculating). Could you survive with 7? Probably. That alone would save billions: enough for some levies around New Orleans and some health to boot. Would that reduce the potential for power projection? I wouldn't have thought so.

Secondly F-22s. There is an argument at the moment about whether production of the most advanced air-to-air fighter should continue. The cost is huge. They've never been used in combat. And Secretary of Defense Gates wants more Predators/Reapers which are actually dropping weapons in the wars. The F-22 is testament to US technical and design skill, but it is designed to protect against a threat that doesn't exist, propped up by Congress to protect jobs in their districts or to keep the military complex fat and happy. The F-22 I would argue has no effect.

Raised By Republicans said...

Spotted Handfish is right to point out that with the huge advantage in military power and spending, it is reasonable to ask if spending so much is really necessary. We really only need to have such a huge advantage all the time if we think we are going to be occupying large swathes of hostile territory - something our experiences in Vietnam and Iraq should convince us is not something we should be doing frequently or without years of preparation.

And given what LTG points out about the limits of that power in the first place, it is reasonable to wonder if there aren't rapidly diminishing returns to military power advantages.

RE: Our moral/diplomatic example/influence...That's important and it's why I underscored the extent of our alliances with other influential and powerful countries.

I think it's worth wondering too if the supposed all powerfulness of the US ever actually existed. I think that the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Mayaguez debacle, the failed rescue attempt of the Iranian hostages and the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut all point to the idea that there have always been identifiable limits to what the US can do with military power. I strongly suspect that the expectations by Americans of US supremacy are based largely on a simplistic understanding of WWII and its consequences. Non-Americans who point - not without some schadenfreude - to American decline may also be exaggerating the extent of American dominance in the first place and so over estimating the extent of the decline.

Dr. Strangelove said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR - of course the US was not the only superpower until 1989. Until that point, yes, the US faced trouble from the USSR and its satellites. But that was only with military power and, to some extent, science and the space race. The USSR fell behind in all of those by the 1960s. The electric power of American ideas and culture surged during this period. Nobody was smuggling Russian pop records or pants into the USA. Walls were built to keep the USSR population in.

But yes, RBR, I concur that the position of the USA as sole superpower for almost 20 years (!) has cast a glow over the Cold War period that makes the USA seem more powerful during that period than it was.

The Law Talking Guy said...

SH- interesting comments about the limits of technology in projecting power. As our adversaries become relatively less sophisticated (shoulder-harnessed RPGs and roadside bombs) the efficacy of the next generation of fighter airplane technology is less than it was when our adversary was the USSR. No doubt the conservatives and the military establishment would love renewed high-tech military competition with somebody, whether Russia or China. I am glad Obama will probably put a stop to that for now. McCain, I believe, was salivating for a return to the cold war. Remember how civil liberties were so much easier to squash in that era.

Raised By Republicans said...

LTG, I wasn't trying to get at the limits on US power the USSR imposed but rather on events that resemble exactly the kinds of limits we see today.

With all due respect to the Soviets, our failure in Vietnam was more political than military. The Vietnamese opposing us there were defeated in almost every military engagement above a certain size, I think I heard "company level" but I could wrong. And yet, we left without achieving our goals.

I guess I'm trying to elaborate on what SH was saying, that there are inherent limits to military power regardless of its technological sophistication and relative strength in conventional terms. Unless you are willing to commit genocide, it is nearly impossible to impose an outcome through military means on a population that will not accept it at all. This feature goes back a long long time - and we evidence of it even when US military power was even greater than it is now.

We also saw incidents of "asymmetric warfare" such as the successful attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. This attack was not just successful because the bomb went off and a lot of Americans were killed but because it lead directly to the desired outcome - US withdrawal from Lebanon.

There have always been limits to US power. Many of these limits are inherent to the relationship of military power and political goals. What I find more fascinating is not such much whether or not the US is in decline (if it is I think is a slow and slight decline from a position of such advantage as makes little difference in the short or medium term). Rather I think the apparent inability of certain elements in the American leadership - especially on the American right - to learn the limits of military power and adapt to them.

Spotted Handfish said...

My understanding is that a country considers it's power through three aspects: political/diplomatic, economic, and military. I don't think there is going to be much argument on this blog that the US's political capital has been raised in recent weeks. Economically, yes things have been declining for everyone and much of the comment recently has been about debt given the current climate of "deleveraging". We live in uncertain times.

The discussion here on the military is interesting. In general military thinking, there is an ongoing shift from a "platform-centric" model to a "effects-based" model of military action. This is partially a response to technological advances in communication and computers making the notion of a platform as a sole actor rather quaint, and partially due to recent conflicts being so asymmetric that the platforms weren't useful. Now the most effective weapon we have is special forces.

The US is the undisputed leader in all aspects of military power. Some other groups do some aspects better, but in general the US is top dog simply by weight of numbers/money/knowledge. It is arguable that this dominance is one reason why there is no arms race, but I don't know if that holds water. What I do know is that for the first time the general in charge of the USAF is a trash hauler, and not a fighter pilot. Maybe this will herald a shift in USAF priorities, but that won't stop lobbying by defense companies and congressmen angling for a slice of the pie. Military solutions on their own rarely work but that won't change the spending.

Something else that may be of interest. There is an agreement between the US, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand called The Technical Cooperation Program (TTCP, otherwise known as The Travelling Cocktail Party). This program allows these entities to share technical information. I have heard it said, though, that rather than five nations there are actually eight: replace the US with USAF, USN and US Army. They don't talk to each other they compete for money.

Raised By Republicans said...

"Maybe this will herald a shift in USAF priorities, but that won't stop lobbying by defense companies and congressmen angling for a slice of the pie. Military solutions on their own rarely work but that won't change the spending."

Yep. This is what Eisenhower was afraid of. That even as we exceed our military needs and exceed the limits of what we can afford to spend, there will be institutional and political pressures to keep spending.

Raised By Republicans said...

"replace the US with USAF, USN and US Army. They don't talk to each other they compete for money."

I'll defer to the expertise of the military researchers on this but I believe there are potential gains to be had by having the USN and USAF use the same systems for the same functions. Like back in the 60s and 70s, the USN, USMC and USAF all used the F4 for fighter roles and the A7 for attack bombing roles. Now they each have their own planes, the USN and USMC use F/A18s for both roles and the USAF uses the F16 and F22 for both roles. The USMC uses the AV8 for attack roles too.

This plethora of different types of aircraft with similar roles seems to be failing to take advantage of economies of scale not to mention requiring increased training and maintenance costs.

I've even heard this permeates all things, that for example, the USN, USMC and Army all use different contractors for their uniforms and insist on different camouflage patterns etc. Back in WWII, and Vietnam the USMC refused to adopt the new personal weapons used by the Army until well into both conflicts.

I'd be curious to hear Dr S's and SH's opinions on the prospects for addressing these problems if indeed they are a serious additional cost.

Dr. Strangelove said...

You hit on a huge issue. You are absolutely right that this presents a serious issue, and permeates the entire structure.

Of course, the USN and USAF would strongly disagree with the premise that they should "use the same systems for the same functions." The USN and USAF believe they each perform different functions--and if there is any overlap or redundancy, it can only be because the other Service is cutting in on their god-given turf (or surf, as the case may be).

And there is some truth to that: functions that appear similar can actually be operationally quite different. The larger problem is actually interoperability--USN pilots cannot always talk to USAF pilots (different radio systems...) They are trying hard to fix that--and Rumsfeld was right in the middle of that food fight--but it is not easy. Neither side wishes to be the one that has to spend time and energy retrofitting for compatibility simply to be able to talk to the other. But both sides would like to claim extra funding for additional warfighting capabilities... And they try to justify that saying the compatibility will come along for the ride.

It's a mess. But they really are trying to sort it out. The loyalty purges during Rumsfeld's tenure have made this more difficult. The lack of leadership is such a problem that even some Democrats are calling for SecDef Gates to be reappointed, simply for continuity. But I think Obama should pick someone strongwilled and knowledgeable (I have suggested my choice in another post) and start enforcing the kind of "Jointness" reforms (between the navy, AF, etc...) that the Pentagon has been talking about for two decades.

Spotted Handfish said...

Well one "good" thing from the wars is that it makes the military work together, at least a little bit. There is overlap, but there are differences as well. Navy aircraft for example land on carriers which USAF doesn't, and the equipment and training simply to do that is immense. The USN in turn is moving towards using the Super Hornet to replace three aircraft types on carriers in the future, which decreases your logistics. And one of the main aims with the JSF was to replace three plane type to maximise commonality. This discussion, of course, is very fighter combat specific which is often considered the sharp end. As Dr S could tell you other areas of military requirements are just as big and hairy.

Moving funding from one area (eg fighters) to another (eg surveillance, UAVs, transport) is difficult enough without Congress then telling them what should be done. The inertia in such a system must be immense, and probably beyond what a single person can achieve, especially in an organisation without a simple measure of performance such as profit...

What is a solution? My thinking the best one is to cut the budgets of all entities in an honest way (if that is possible). We recently had cuts of 10% across every area, and this is to be ongoing for ten years, with the savings to be reinvested into critical parts of the Department of Defence in Australia. The problem with 10% is that you can salami slice it without making real decisions about what you need and what you don't. That requires people making hard decisions, and people who make hard decisions are hard to find.

Raised By Republicans said...

Thanks for the response guys.

I was thinking of things like when the USAF, USMC and USN all used the F4 Phantom but the USN and USMC obviously had some modifications to it to make it work on carriers.

Was I right that they all have different uniform producing contractors? Why can't the Army and Marines use the same camo patterns? Or do they?

Dr. Strangelove said...

I don't know about the uniforms.

Spotted Handfish said...

What? Go back to having one company making a single type fighter to cover all requirements of all services? I don't see Boeing going for that, unless it's them.

I think the complexity of fighters has grown substantially since the days of the F4 such that a uniform type of aircraft may not be possible. This, along with requirements differences make it impossible. Navy need to land on carriers and generally don't like aircraft with single engines (this is an arguable requirement these days). USMC want jump jets (why I have no idea). USAF want two jet types for general work and air superiority (why I have no idea). Without detailed examination of the requirements that could cut across boundaries of responsibility you probably won't see much change.

Watch out, though, for the QDR. With a new government, tighter money, and the four year period where USAF and USN have to start putting money on the table for the JSF production...

I also can't help on the cammo's. Not my area...

Raised By Republicans said...

Thanks guys! Very enlightening!

The Law Talking Guy said...

I believe that the institutional separation and competition in the military is absolutely crucial to the maintenance of liberty in the United States. Bush's attempts with Central Command to create a unified military scares me. So often we have had temptations for military power to dictate to the civilian power. That is practically the FoxNews/GOP position on government anyway. A major reason this does not happen is that the military is not a unified force in this country.

So I'm all for interoperability, but let's not forget how remarkable it is that we've maintained civilian government at all in this country, and that it's important that the military command not be too unified.

As for SecDef, we need someone who is not a Republican because we need to end discrimination against gays in the military and put an end to the religious fundamentalism we see at the military academies. Bill Clinton was very hands off to the military. If HRC gets the post, I hope she's not.

Spotted Handfish said...

Really, LTG? You are that worried that a unified US military would try and take over the country? How third world...

If it is the case the US should seriously look at reducing the budget of the armed forces. The mere suggestion that there is danger of the military taking over in UK/Aus./NZ/Can. is comical.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I may be wrong, Spotted Handfish, but I think LTG was talking more about influence than a coup. A more unified military could strongly and silently pressure the government to adopt certain favorable aspects of foreign policy and domestic spending (like that huge military budget...) That being said, I don't believe that having the military unified or in separate branches has anything to do with it.

LTG: "Central Command" refers to the centrally located comand sector in the middle east, not to any centralization of authority. And I could not disagree with you more that "institutional separation and competition in the military" is crucial to anything except more bureaucracy. We would do better for a unified military service.

Raised By Republicans said...

I think it possible to have multiple services with separate commands and still take advantage of centralization with regard to a lot of the procurement issues I was asking about and SH and Dr. S. explained some for me.

Dr. S. You say "more bureaucracy" like that's always a bad thing. LTG has a point about being wary of concentration of power in any agency ... defense, homeland security etc. should all be suspect with regard to centralization of power and authority.

The Law Talking Guy said...

First, I should have said Northern Command - which I think is the new area that encompasses the USA.

Yes, I am referring to a coup d'etat. Or a silent sort of coup d'etat, where the military dictates a lot of policy from behind closed doors and nobody dares challenge it. I know this sounds crazy an dconspiratorial to people because it's so alien to the US experience. But don't think it couldn't happen here. It can happen anywhere. All it requires is the right set of circumstances and people willing to mouth stupid things like "everything changed after 9/11" to justify complete abandonment of previously held values. It won't happen because of military greed or ambition. It will happen in some crisis, out of good intentions, when military leaders and cowardly civilian leaders, all ignorant of our constitution, our history, and our values, do "the patriotic thing" and let the military take over for a while, "for our own safety" Cincinnatus-style.

And the best defense against it is competition between military branches and intelligence agencies. That's why I was opposed to the Homeland Security Department and the

Spotted Handfish said...

"And the"...? You are leaving us on the edge of a cliff, LTG!! I must agree that I don't see the point in a Homeland Security Department, when you have police, FBI, military and Coast Guard. It sounds kind of SSish.

I would have thought that the best way controlling them would be to reduce their budgets so they have to concentrate on their core responsibilities. I don't agree that competition between military branches is the solution. You get the situation where USAF's enemy is USN and they lose sight of their actual role.

Raised By Republicans said...


Funny you should mention the SS. Germany, like the US has a fondness for redundant administrative agencies and bureaucracies. Whenever the powers that be in either country don't trust some agency or department they find it easier to create an additional watchdog with overlapping authority/responsibilities than to actually assert direct control.

The SS was a parallel military that was entirely controlled by the NAZI party. It is interesting to note that the NAZI's felt it was easier to create an entirely new military branch than it was to take over the existing Army. Similar things happened with the GESTAPO being used as a parallel military intelligence organization. ABWEHR was the standard MI crowd and the NAZIs didn't fully trust them so - they set up a second operation. I imagine the only reason the NAZIs never set up their own navy was that Hitler and the rest of the "Old Fighters" in the NAZI party were from the Austrian and Bavarian Alps and so didn't know from ships. Besides, a naval coup is awfully hard to pull off so they may not have worried about the loyalty of the German Navy so much.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR - what argument are you making? That having competition between military branches is bad because it is reminiscent of the Nazis?

Raised By Republicans said...


I wasn't trying to make any argument. I was just noting a structural similarity between German and American approaches to overseeing the military - even when you might think that, in the German case, central authority is so total and absolute that oversight might be more direct.

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