By Andrew Kim
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently proposed shrinking the size of the Army down to its smallest size since 1940, eliminating combat forces from 10 bases across the United States and reducing 80,000 active-duty troops over the next five years. This proposal would bring the size of the military down to pre-World War II levels and would fundamentally reshape the vision of the United States armed forces. While some may simply view it as a reflection of domestic financial austerity, others have called it a sign reflecting America’s decline as the global superpower. A deeper analysis into the latter provides legitimacy to this argument—the United States is no longer a global hegemon, and, instead, it must share the stage with multiple international actors. With its economy weakened, government deadlocked and military rapidly declining, one cannot help but wonder whether the great era of “Pax Americana” is now in its end phase.
Defense Secretary Hagel stated that the change would allow for a shift from a military set on fighting large and protracted wars to one that would be more versatile and available to deploy forces across great distances. He said, “we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”
Additionally, Hagel proposed changes to the layout of military compensation, which included smaller pay raises, a decline in tax-free housing allowances and an increase in health insurance deductibles and co-pays. Moreover, under Hagel the Army would shrink from its scheduled 490,000 to around 445,000, the smallest size since 1940.
While both Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey argued against sequestration, Hagel built his case for a smaller military on what he called a foundation of pragmatism, stating that “this is a time for reality.” He went on to note that a smaller U.S. force “strains our ability to simultaneously respond” to multiple global crises, essentially acknowledging that the U.S. army would have to pick its future battles and be unable to respond to all threats.
Hagel’s words reflect, to a larger degree, the foreign policy of “offshore balancing,” which is a reference to directing American influence toward maintaining a balance of power in key strategic regions throughout the world. This strategy first assumes that the United States will have to reduce its presence in a myriad of regions as well as scale back its military operations. Additionally, it promotes limited land power while relying mainly on naval and air forces. It is for this reason that America’s comparative strategic advantages (be it technological advances, precision-strike weapons, command-and-control capabilities, or intelligence operations) are maximized while its weaknesses are minimized.
When the implications of offshore balancing are taken into consideration, it becomes apparent that U.S. military leaders are subtly acknowledging that the United States is in decline. Some scholars state that future generations may have to choose between maintaining American hegemony or by focusing on its economy and safety net.
Some historians state that there were three great periods of unparalleled global peace and economic growth, with each period marked by one single dominant hegemon—Pax Romana, Pax Briticana, and Pax Americana. Each ‘pax’ period’s decline was characterized by two factors: military decline, with the inability to fight and win great wars, and significant domestic economic damage. As America’s military leaders are beginning to acknowledge the first factor, we can simply take a glance at the American economy to understand that it is, at best, extremely shaky and in still in recovery. America’s economic prospects are characterized by too much consumption and not enough savings; persistent trade deficits; deindustrialization; and sluggish economic growth and chronic federal-budget deficits adding fuel to a rising national debt.
Moreover, the country’s bleak fiscal outlook simply deepens doubts about the dollar’s future role as the international economy’s reserve currency. Economists regard 100 percent debt-to-GDP ratio as a “flashing warning light” that a country is on risk of defaulting on financial obligations. With this in mind, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warned that the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio could exceed that level by 2020 and swell up to 190 percent by 2035. If the dollar were to ever lose its status, it would mean an almost immediate end to America’s place as the financial bedrock of the international economy. The repercussions of this are scary.
This is not to spell all doom and gloom for the future of the United States, but rather to simply recognize the changing times and its impact on international affairs. The world’s current superpower will not just disappear overnight—and even if it were to do so, there would be no other nation with the ability to intervene on such an international scale. That said, next few decades will mark a watershed moment in international politics. As the United States shares the stage with other dominant powers, the manner in which it decides to wield its declining power will shape the course of human history.
Photo by Justinday