Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts War and Strategy in the 21st Century

War and Strategy in the 21st Century

  • Jeremy Black
  • February 14, 2002
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

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

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
    (New York, 1977). Also R. Buzzanco, Masters of War,
    Military Dissent and Tactics in the Vietnam Era
  3. Peter P. Hill, French Perceptions of the Early American
    Republic 1783-1793
    (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1988).