War and Strategy in the 21st Century

Jeremy Black

Current debates over America’s place in the world often move uneasily between military and diplomatic factors. It is misleading, however, to abstract security issues from the wider context of foreign policy. Events in the twenty-first century will test the limits to American strength but not its fundamentals. These tests will underscore, however, the inability of technology to overcome all challenges and the risk that excess militarization of foreign policy would discourage what America needs most: acute and ongoing assessments of its capability and limitations.

To emphasize the limitations of military power may be surprising given the current conventional wisdom that the United States is the sole superpower. According to the generally established view, the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs based on information warfare capability and other factors will enable the most technologically advanced powers, especially the United States, to overcome both distance and resistance to secure victory with minimal casualties. In many respects, this is another version of the mechanization of the military imagination that has been so potent ever since the advent of the airplane and tank.

It is obviously important to seize and develop every advantage new weaponry can bring, but it is mistaken to imagine that a technological edge guarantees victory at low cost. To be sure, advantages in weaponry are valuable in symmetrical warfare between opposing forces that operate in a similar fashion, but even then a host of other factors intrude, including strategy, tactics, leadership, unit cohesion, morale, and contextual issues such as the respective determination of the powers engaged. In asymmetrical warfare, by contrast, the advantages conferred by superior weaponry are severely curtailed. Compare, for instance, the frustration of American forces in the asymmetrical Vietnam War with Israeli success in the Six-Day War. Finally, technological advantage in both types of conflict inevitably inspire the development of countermeasures involving weapons, tactics, or strategy. Thus the impact of air power has been lessened by the development of antiaircraft weapons whose cost-benefit payoff is immense compared to that of a state-of-the-art bomber.

There is no reason to imagine that this process will cease. Thus, there will remain military limits to effective force projection, and skillful policymaking will continue to require a shrewd understanding of capability and limits.

This process is not new. Former great powers also struggled to learn and adjust to their capabilities and limits. Spain, the first state whose empire spanned the world, reached its limits in the late sixteenth century in Chile, northern Mexico, and the rebellious Netherlands. In the mid- seventeenth century, the Dutch proved unable to hold coastal Brazil against Portuguese reconquest and bases on Taiwan against the Chinese. Between 1775 and 1842, the British lost hold of their thirteen North American colonies, intervened unsuccessfully in Argentina and Egypt, and suffered defeat in Afghanistan. In historical terms, therefore, it is perfectly logical to suppose that while American power will dominate the twenty-first century, it will also encounter its limits. The understanding of this apparent contradiction is important if the American public and policymakers are to be brought to appreciate what the United States can and cannot reasonably do in the world.

Yet such an assessment flies in the face of the natural tendency, especially prevalent in “can-do” America, to formulate goals and then assume that they can and ought to be implemented. Two philosophies are at issue. The first is the optimistic Whiggish tradition of interventionism and the creation of systems to solve problems and prevent their recurrence.

The other tradition is the realistic, or conservative, emphasis on the mutability and uncertainty of human affairs and the risks of a system-based approach, a tradition that in Britain looks back to the more cautious approach to foreign policy taken by Tories in the eighteenth century. This entails a pragmatic and prudential approach to foreign commitments. As Samuel Johnson pointed out in his Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falklands Islands (1771), a pamphlet written to urge caution in the great- power confrontation with France and Spain:

It seems to be almost the universal error of historians to suppose it politically, as it is physically true, that every effort has a proportionate cause. In the inanimate action of matter upon matter, the motion produced can but be equal to the force of the moving power; but the operations of life, whether private or public, admit no such laws. The caprices of voluntary agents laugh at calculation.

The military dimension of this tension can be discussed generally with regard to grand strategy and more narrowly in terms of force structure. A Whiggish tendency will encourage intervention, or, in military terms, forward commitment and force projection. Aside from the problems that this poses in foreign policy —taking on commitments, narrowing options, risking relationships with allies, and threatening domestic consensus— it also has serious military implications that the shrinking size of modern militaries only exacerbates. While the decrease in size has not lessened the capability of a high-tech military to deliver a hard punch in symmetrical conflict, it has definitely affected its ability to follow through by occupying territory. Indeed, America’s ability to mount more than one large-force projection exercise involving a significant ground presence can now be questioned. It would certainly place undue strain on existing commitments.

Again, this is not a new phenomenon. The Boer War in South Africa (1899–1902) entailed a heavy burden for Britain and led to a dangerous draw down of military resources in the British Isles. The army would have been hard pressed had those years also brought major agitation in Ireland or Russian pressure on the northwest frontier of India.

Men, Machines, and Missions

Resource limitations encourage short-term commitments of overseas forces. Technology can help, not least with air deployment and resupply, but it cannot eliminate the problems of dealing with intractable local opposition, whether the mission is defined as a conflict, peace-keeping, or police action. Major-General John “Boney” Fuller, a leading thinker on military affairs, wrote to an American correspondent in July 1965: “Today your government and its military advisors appear to have accepted the concept that the way to defeat Communism in Vietnam is by bombing when clearly the precepts garnered from World War Two should have told them that ideas cannot be dislodged by TNT.” [1]

The future prospects for global military interventionism are questionable at best. However much a state or group of states might dominate at the high end of the power spectrum, and however much diplomacy may postpone or alleviate problems, the cost of trying and failing to control a rogue state are likely to rise to points that reward caution, and military leaderships are apt to encourage such prudence. On the other hand, as the experience of the Vietnam War suggests, politicians lacking knowledge of military affairs listen only to the advice they want to hear and even manipulate promotions to ensure that they hear it, and politicians can usually find within the military officers willing to tell them what they want in order to advance or protect their own careers. [2] Thus it is possible that the imperatives of political commitments to, for example, Israel or Taiwan, may override prudence in a crisis.

Force structure is a related issue that is particularly serious for the United States. An emphasis on preparation for great power symmetrical warfare, first with the Soviet Union and now with China, has led to a stress on air power and long-range missiles. In the 1950s, jet aircraft carrying nuclear bombs appeared to be the best challenge to overwhelming Soviet conventional superiority. The shift to submarine and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles took the approach further, and it continues with the interest shown in space-based weapons.

This emphasis led to a relative shift of resources away from conventional forces, especially the army, and downplayed the multiple tasking of forces and preparation demanded by the range of commitments the United States might face. The result became clear in Vietnam, where courage and can-do spirit could not compensate for the lack of adequate training and doctrine in counterinsurgency warfare on the ground and in close-support air operations.

Coordinating air and ground forces effectively has always been a problem since the air force became an independent service. The doctrine and structure of air power have emphasized its capacity to deliver decisive victory independently, rather than through support of land and sea operations. This remains an issue for the United States, since the joint structures and doctrines that have been developed still focus on symmetrical conflict rather than supporting forces in asymmetrical roles such as counterinsurgency or peace-keeping.

Indeed the challenge of counterinsurgency warfare touches on the relationship between the United States and its allies. The specific linkage comes from the idea that “policing” roles can be left to allies while Americans focus on high-tempo warfare and the weapons, training, and doctrine it requires. This argument clearly suits particular interest groups within the American military, but it neglects the realities of alliance warfare and the U.S. need to maintain the capability to control allied operations.

Alliances and (Mis)perceptions

Tension exists between the military “reading” of alliances and its diplomatic counterpart. The military emphasizes instrumentality, the question of whether allies will do as they are told in what is a clear hierarchy of roles and decision making. From the perspective of this question, the debate over alliances revolves around two points: the U.S. sense of its allies' ingratitude, as reflected in their policies and lack of preparedness, and the allies' resentment of being expected to meet goals that they had little or no role in setting.

While both perspectives are valid, they reflect a weakness in perception and an overly rigid sense of the character of alliances. Regarding ingratitude, there is often a fundamental failure in understanding the perceptions, interests, and problems of allies. The United States at times has been the recipient of this sort of misunderstanding. After the War of American Independence, the French resented American political and economic actions that seemed to ignore their recent assistance.[3] Conversely, it can be argued that American sentiment from the late 1930s through 1941 was misunderstood by those who were surprised at the American failure to confront and fight Germany, not least because this view overlooked concerns about Japan.

Policymakers and the informed public in the United States have expressed in recent years their own anger about the failings of allies. These resentments have related to specifics, such as Britain’s failure to take the same role in Vietnam that it had taken earlier in Korea, and also to more general concerns over general attitudes policies. A frequently expressed view is that both European countries and Japan refuse to invest adequately in advanced weaponry. Consequently, they rely on American protection and fail to pull their weight.

While understandable from a certain perspective, this analysis involves major flaws. First and foremost is the characteristic tendency of the American public to treat the world as an isotropic surface, everywhere equal. Militarily, that leads to the conclusion that all powers should strive to match American forces and that Europeans in particular must “mind the gap.”

Of course, this argument ignores the role played by military forces in different societies and the tasks they are assigned. Because Americans are not used to the idea that their army might be deployed for policing duties within the United States, they tend to underplay the army’s role as the ultimate arm of state, as typified by the British army’s deployment in Northern Ireland. Indeed, many states view counterinsurgency efforts and other domestic responsibilities as more important than preparation for warfare against other states. This is particularly true in Latin America.

Other European countries, notably France and Italy, have used conscription to teach citizenship as much as to promote military effectiveness. Governments that have felt threatened by the professional military also welcome the added political benefit of diluting the power of the officer corps. Such policies seem clearly anachronistic if military forces are ranked by their technological proficiency and capacity for high-tempo operations. But that perspective neglects the multiple contexts within which military power must be considered and the role of choice. Political contexts always override abstract considerations about optimal doctrine and structure.

Resentment among the European members of NATO arises from the perceived lack of American consultation with them with regard to delivering the alliance’s goals. It is difficult for many Americans to appreciate the fundamental differences between American views on, for instance, the Middle East, East Asia, or Cuba, and those of their allies. But those differences impose one of the most severe limits on American power and underline the important role foreign policy expertise will play in preserving America’s superpower status. Understanding the parameters within which allies can be expected to operate demands knowledge, deftness, and expertise that have not always been the U.S. government’s strong suit.

Unilateralism vs. Multilateralism

Even without allies, the United States will remain the world’s leading power and continue to achieve most of its own goals so long as it keeps those goals limited. Again, it remains unclear how public opinion would accept the concept of limits in defense and foreign policy since the American people, hence their politicians, have a low tolerance of vulnerability and fear. This leads to demands for an invulnerable and comprehensive defense system, but in practice no military establishment is likely to be both. A powerful clue can be found in popular culture, such as Clive Cussler’s adventure novels or Hollywood westerns and action films. In both cases, allies generally appear to be unreliable, if not dishonest, and the lone hero is transposed into an image of American power.

Such an image might work for an isolationist state with few links to the global economy and international finance, but it is difficult to see the United States adopting this role in coming decades. Were it to do so, Americans would face the same risks that obtained in the 1930s: the consolidation of power blocs that can be threatening no matter how economically inefficient they are in the long run. American disengagement would encourage the alignment among France, Russia, and Germany, an alignment that is already too powerful within Europe, and encourage Japan to accommodate Chinese power, possibly at Taiwan’s and even South Korea’s expense. Most threatening would be an accentuation of Russo- Chinese links that have been forged in recent years and are among the most unwelcome legacies of the Clinton era.

Given these scenarios, it is easy to understand why missile defense systems and greater American self-reliance appear to be the correct military and political responses. This is particularly true given that the United States faces few challenges near its borders, with the possible exception of instability in post-Castro Cuba. But such a grand strategy will leave America with a force structure and a military doctrine that provide scant preparation for other commitments. The United States can still exploit advances in military doctrine and weapons in order to retain its lead, but aggregate military capability is not the same as capability or success in any particular scenario. The specific danger the United States faces is the conviction that the technological edge known by the shorthand of the Revolution in Military Affairs can substitute for the political willingness to commit troops and shed blood. To be sure, it is better to be prepared for the wrong war than not to be prepared at all— but only marginally so.

September 11 and After

It might legitimately be asked how far the appalling attacks of September 11 have led to a need for revision since this paper was originally presented at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in spring 2001. Such a brutal assault on civil society and Western power is exactly what could have been expected in a struggle with terrorism that knows no boundaries. A historian and friend to America can point out that nothing makes the success of terrorism any more inevitable than the victory of policies against it. The United States and other Western governments cannot avoid aggressive measures against terrorism. Aside from the obvious analogy with law enforcement, namely that the continuation of crime does not lead us to dispense with policing, there is also the concern that failing to act against terrorists simply will lead to more terrorism and discourage its domestic and international opponents. There is a particular need to act when guerillas terrorize civilian populations and undermine justice and authority by destroying those they term collaborators.

Specific circumstances dictate the success or failure of particular military strategies. Napoleonic France suppressed popular resistance in Calabrese, but not in Spain. Counterinsurgency operations after World War II succeeded in Greece, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Malaysia, but not in Vietnam. Political circumstances, particularly the degree of domestic support for insurgents and their access to foreign support, have been the decisive factor in each case. Tito’s decision to stop aiding Greek Communists after he had broken with the Soviets in 1948 played an important part in ending the conflict in Greece. Similarly, anticommunist guerilla movements in Eastern Europe were gravely weakened by the lack of adequate foreign support in the 1940s and 1950s.

Thus, alongside the need to strike back militarily after September 11, a comparable political response is also required. America’s military is highly capable of conducting effective in-and-out operations, and there is no political call for the sort of lengthy occupation in which the attacker becomes the defender. However, it must be noted that political strategies can create problems as difficult as those raised by the ill-adapted military doctrines and force structures discussed above. Here there is room for debate that takes a hard look at aspects of American society and public culture that increase vulnerability to terrorism as well as foreign policies and commitments that are inopportune. The troubling persistence of anti-Americanism in parts of the Islamic world requires a thoughtful political response that will contribute to the defense of America and, with it, the free world.


  1. Fuller to William Sloan of Rutgers University Press. July 2, 1965. Fuller Papers, 4/6/42/1. Liddell Hart Archive, King’s College London. In the typed version he substituted ‘bombs’ for ‘TNT,’ 4/6/24/2.
  2. For a powerful critique from a serving officer see H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Lies that Led to Vietnam (New York, 1977). Also R. Buzzanco, Masters of War, Military Dissent and Tactics in the Vietnam Era (Cambridge: 1997).
  3. Peter P. Hill, French Perceptions of the Early American Republic 1783-1793 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1988).