War and Strategy in the 21st Century

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.

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