While America Sleeps

In August 1919, the British government decided that the armed services were to make their plans for the future on the assumption that there would be no major war or need for any expeditionary force for ten years.[1] This seemed to be a perfectly reasonable supposition. From the British perspective the international sky was almost perfectly blue with no plausible enemy in sight. For the island kingdom of Great Britain security meant chiefly command of the seas, and in 1919 Britain dominated the oceans as never before. The Royal Navy had more battleships, cruisers, and destroyers than the Americans and French combined, more than twice as many as the Japanese and Italians combined. What was there to fear? “Not since 1815… had England been able to survey the world with such assurance of safety and power.”[2]

The ten-year rule became the guideline for defense estimates for 1921 and remained in force until theoretically abandoned in 1932. [3] Less important than the surface rigidity of a projection of international relations for a decade was the cast of mind that underlay the rule. The British government and its military advisers chose simply not to consider the real possibility of a war in the future. Defense expenditure was to be drastically reduced at once and kept at a low level thereafter. The British cut defense spending by more than half for 1920 and by more than half again over the next two years. In 1922 a government committee urged the practice of setting a figure of money available for defense and “leaving the services to work things out as best they could.” [4] The forces to defend the empire and the nation would, therefore, be determined not by what the real situation required but by what money the government chose to make available. “Arms were discussed solely in terms of what they cost, not of what they were needed for.” [5] The final figure was less than a quarter of the sum in 1919, and it stayed about the same over the next decade, by which time the Japanese had conquered Manchuria, Mussolini’s Italy was ready to attack Ethiopia, and Hitler’s Germany was launched on a program of rapid rearmament, only a year away from remilitarizing the Rhineland. The road to World War II was wide open.

Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union the United States has enjoyed a degree of security and influence it has never known. There is no plausible enemy in sight to offer the threat posed by the Soviet Union, and America’s success in the Gulf War has left most of its leaders with the feeling that lesser powers can be handled easily. They have, therefore, taken the opportunity to cut expenditures on defense from about 7% of GDP in the last years of the Cold War to less than 3%, a figure similar to what the U.S. spent just prior to the Second World War. The tendency to turn toward domestic considerations in such a peaceful and promising time is characteristic of commercial and democratic nations like our own, and with it comes the neglect and decay of the armed forces that were largely responsible for achieving this happy international situation.

However natural, this tendency is reckless and dangerous, as the history of this century ought to make clear. The great truth in international relations, as in all human events, is that things change. For the years of the Cold War they changed remarkably little, as the weight of two cautiously competing superpowers suppressed the kinds of developments that usually challenge the stability of the world order. With the end of such restraints change has come frequently and rapidly. The few years since the collapse of the old order have already revealed how hard it will be to predict and control the course of events. They have already demonstrated that American interests and concerns are world wide. The greatest of these is simply the preservation of a peaceful international climate where discontents and disagreements are not decided by violent upheavals that threaten the general peace and security. The preservation of that climate rests at present on the preponderant power of the United States and its allies and their credible willingness to use it when necessary. The relative decline of that power would undermine the basis of international peace and security, for no plausible alternative is available.

History does not repeat itself precisely, and all historical analogies are imperfect, yet the careful analysis of past situations and experiences similar to those of our time can provide useful indications of the opportunities and dangers that lie before us. The experience of Great Britain in the years following the First World War, for all the differences between Britain then and the United States now, seems to offer an especially illuminating example that may be useful in understanding our own situation. That experience is not a happy omen.

The United States is entering one of the most challenging periods in its history. Since America is the only superpower and is also a satisfied power, the burden for keeping the peace of the world falls upon her. Without a clear threat visible or on the horizon, however, Americans have not come to terms with that burden. In the years to come America is almost certain to find herself more and more beleaguered by the rising power of states dissatisfied with the status quo and determined to change it, sometimes to her disadvantage. The great danger is that, if we do not act now to keep the peace and maintain the military capability and the will to continue to keep it in years to come, the world situation, currently so satisfactory to us, will slip away and be replaced by a dangerous and hostile environment in which our interests and security are challenged.

Our studies persuade us that peace does not keep itself, that the satisfied powers of the world must act to maintain it against those who seek to change the international situation by force. Attempts to escape from this fact through international organizations— the “Congress system” after 1815, the League of Nations, or the United Nations— have succeeded only to the extent that the leading powers deterred their challengers by force or the threat of force, and have failed whenever that deterrence has faltered.

Yet America today is reluctant to assume the burden of keeping the peace. Senior leaders ask, “Are we the world’s policeman?” “What vital national interest does America have in Bosnia (or Somalia, or Haiti or Kosovo)?” “What is our ‘exit strategy’?” Still less has America shown a willingness to pay for the forces necessary to keep the peace. Explaining his decision to vote against a defense appropriations bill that reduced the defense budget for the thirteenth straight year and the armed forces to their lowest level in fifty years, one Congressman concluded, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s too much dough.” [6]

We do not argue that America should or should not involve itself in any given international dispute, or that the defense budget should be set at any given level. These decisions must be made by statesmen and soldiers at any particular time. We seek, instead, to show that the debate over America’s national security policy has been taking place on the wrong bases altogether. The absence of “global peer competitors” does not make the world safe for the foreseeable future — it only makes it uncertain and difficult to understand. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 it was not a “global peer competitor,” nor was Germany in either world war. Still less were North Korea in 1950, North Vietnam in the 1960s, Saddam Hussein in 1990, or Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 when they unleashed attacks that compelled American military intervention. None of these states posed an imminent threat to the continental United States. The concept of “global peer competitors” is the thinking of the Cold War and is not relevant to debates about future American national strategy.

The core of that strategy must be what has always been most successful in the past— the maintenance of a satisfactory balance of security in all regions of vital interest to the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific Rim. We fought two World Wars, and again in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf not to destroy global peer competitors, but to maintain that balance of security. The need will continue to be a “vital national interest” for the foreseeable future.

America’s situation is not entirely new. Once before a liberal democracy emerged from a victorious war and found a world situation that seemed to present no threats. Technologies just emerging in that war appeared to promise a revolution in military affairs that might so alter war as to render irrelevant all previous understanding of the use of military power. The cost of that previous war, on the other hand, had weighed so heavily that cost-cutting, especially in the armed forces, took precedence over all other concerns. In the absence of a threat, focused entirely on internal affairs, Britain in the 1920s abdicated the responsibility of taking the lead in preserving a peace needed for her own security and prosperity. The armed forces were almost completely demobilized, to the point where ordinary and minor peacekeeping duties stretched them to their limits. Although much was said about a revolution in warfare, little was done either to understand it or to bring it about. England’s situation in the 1920s, thus, offers haunting parallels with America’s situation today. Does the history of the 1930s offer a glimpse of the history of our future?

We do not assert that there is some “Germany” out there which will presently “Nazify” itself, leading inevitably in the face of our “appeasement” to “Anschlusses,” “Munichs,” and thence to global holocausts. The present situation is much more favorable to America than that of the 1920s was to England, and we will have to make greater mistakes than they did to find ourselves in a similar plight. The British leaders of the 1920s were not evil; the appeasers of the 1930s were not cowards. They were all democratic leaders responding to the greatest pressures of the moment and not looking far enough back into history or forward into the future to see the dangers they should have been preparing to face. They were lulled by the apparent stability of the peace of their time into believing that it might last for all time with little uncomfortable effort on their part. By comparing their situation with ours, we can profit from their mistakes— if we cannot have a surer glimpse into the future than they, we can at least have a stronger grasp on the past and, thereby, on the present. We believe that the direction in which American policy is moving today places its own peace and security, and with it that of the rest of the world, at great risk. In many ways that policy resembles the errors made by the British in the 1920s that led to disaster. We must understand and avoid those errors if we are to escape a similar disaster.


  • [1] Barnett, Correlli, The Collapse of British Power, London, 1972; Taylor, Telford, Munich, the Price of Peace, New York, 1979.
  • [2] Barnett 250.
  • [3] Bond, Brian, British Military Policy Between the Two World Wars, New York, 1980.
  • [4] Kennedy, Paul M., The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, London, 1983, p.277.
  • [5] Taylor, A. J. P., English History, 1914-1945, Oxford, 1965, p.232.
  • [6] Representative John Conyers Jr., D-Michigan, cited in The New York Times, 26 September 1997, pg. 11.