As the United States faces its presidential election in 2024, there seems to very little consideration of how the United States has changed and its realistic place in the world. No longer is the United States the leader of the “free world” and the guardian of the “rules-based order.”
The rise of the 21st century authoritarians, the growing significance of global players working congruent actions rather than forming classic alliances, budget deficits out of control, a migratory upheaval in the United States and core allied states and a strategic system which can not take realistic decisions in terms of the world as it is and becoming rather than what a nostalgic view of America and its role in the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union has created a situation where key decisions about the future need to be taken.
Now let us look at the 2024 Presidential election.
Does anyone really suggest that the “debate” about the Presidency has any relationship with framing the tough choices America needs to take and to do so in a way that its closest friends and allies need to take account of and increase their capability to defend common interests?
The illusion of the NATO-Russian war in Ukraine is that the United States leads and the allies follow and that the United States has a military capability of underwriting the Western global order. The Ukraine adventure is the latest manifestation of the Iraq-Afghan syndrome of making commitments with no clear consideration of what the American interest realistically is and an inability to calibrate a realistic American and allied termination point. Only this time we risk nuclear war.
As James Durso has noted: “The United States has expended “$2.26 trillion for the Afghanistan misadventure that put the Taliban back in charge in Kabul, and another $2.21 trillion to destabilize Iraq and deliver it into the hands of Iran.”
We also have built a military to fight in such wars and face an upheaval battle to build the military which we now need, and even more important we need a fundamental debate precisely about the question of what kind of military we now need to protect American core interests.
Let me be clear: it is about not intervening everywhere to protect American interests based on the ubiquitous global commons: it is about much clearer recognition that the United States needs to focus its resources on protecting its core interests.
Again, as Durso noted: “Unique in the world’s militaries, the Pentagon doesn’t think it is responsible for defending its country’s borders. Instead of defending America, it defends American interests, which are mutable and can change with a new administration and are not viewed overseas as positively as they are in Washington, D.C. green rooms.”
The budget crisis highlighted by Malmgren-Glinsman Partners suggests clear limits on American options for action in the world. They highlighted the various commitments the Biden Administration is making globally which require increased defense spending and then underscored that the Ukraine aid added to these commitments and increased spending necessary for operations short of the beginning of armed conflict with a peer competitor.
These actions all argue for increased defense spending ON TOP of the current debt structure.
They noted: “Enhanced integration of U.S. military responses with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and possibly other like-minded nations is being actively pursued. As part of U.S. military conflict contingency planning, the U.S. military is likely considering wider dispersion of its military presence in other locations in the neighborhood of the South China Sea, Sea of Japan and the Pacific Island rings.
“If an armed conflict between the U.S and China were to happen, there is no doubt that management of the U.S. government budget would be dramatically affected. Wars are brutally expensive. Moreover, the costs of conducting an armed conflict are invariably underestimated when political decision makers decide to act without elaborate analysis by the military in advance.”
How viable is such a situation?
And where is the strategy to deal with it?
They underscored: “If the U.S. did find itself entangled in an armed conflict, the U.S. Treasury would have to develop an emergency debt management program that would entail massive new borrowing. This possibility has been given virtually no thought in Congress or mainstream journalism.”
There is also a core question facing the future of the volunteer military. And it is not just the impact of the Biden Administration social preference policies, it is the decreasing population pool and the clear need to much more rapidly incorporate automated technologies in the military to compensate for reduced manpower.
Durso provided significant insight with regard to a number of aspects of this challenge: “The military isn’t the only public institution suffering a bad reputation, but it is used to basking in public esteem so it may not know how to recover. A public defeat in Afghanistan, commanders prioritizing woke social programs over battle skills, epidemics of sexual assault and suicide, substandard housing, exposure to dangerous chemicals and hazardous materials…no wonder the services are in danger of missing their recruiting targets, which will further weaken support for big defense budgets as a family with someone in uniform is more likely to both support a big defense budget and encourage their children to join the military.
“Calls for a “limited military draft” when Congress has not declared war will be rejected by the public, and a proposed “national security strategy for military recruiting” will occupy a panel of worthies for several months but will it come up ideas that escaped the military recruiters? Probably not. There are fewer young Americans eligible to serve, due to physical fitness standards and prohibitions on drug use, and only 9% of 16-21 year old Americans have an interest in putting on the uniform.
“And when the Pentagon asked young Americans, “What would be the main reason(s) why you would NOT consider joining the U.S. Military?” 70% replied “Possibility of physical injury/death” and 65% replied “Possibility of PTSD or other emotional/psychological issues.” Those distressing numbers are likely due to the well-known epidemics of suicide and sexual assault in the military, and the promotion of “wounded warrior” charities has probably made more prospective recruits aware of the severe injuries they may suffer. In short, is the GI Bill worth losing your legs?
“And “the kids” may be on to something: a recent report published by the Journal of the American College of Surgeons says that in a war against a near peer adversary, i.e., Russia or China, U.S. troops will suffer injuries more severe than those in Iraq or Afghanistan, that is “multiple high-velocity penetrating injuries, barotrauma, and blunt injuries from being thrown during the explosion, and traumatic brain injuries.” In addition, U.S. forces won’t command air superiority so evacuation from the battlefield will be difficult if it is even possible.
“The military has traditionally relied on military families to provide recruits for the services, but the Secretary of the Army isn’t helping matters by declaring she wants to avoid relying on a “warrior caste” of families with a military tradition. It is commendable that she wants to broaden interest in military service but not clever if it will discourage the ready pool of volunteers before she has alternates signed up. The Army Secretary has her work cut out for her as even military veterans are less and less likely to recommend military service to their kids.”
As United States hard and soft power instruments are under significant pressure to shape much more realistic global goals for the country, the nature of global competition is changing beyond the usual American interpretation of the world in which it has had such a central role creating after World War II.
That world simply no longer exists.
An example of the change is the expansion of the BRICS organization. What holds this group together is a common interest in secure acquisition of energy while the United States turns from such a policy towards a “green future,” something the BRICS don’t seem focused on as a core interest.
In Ken Maxwell’s assessment of the expansion of the BRICS he underscores a critical point with regard to how the evolving global system works – not by states forming alliances but finding partners to pursue congruent interests limited in scope, time and purpose.
“Is it any surprise that the Sheikhs in the Gulf and the potentates in Beijing and Moscow (let along the rulers in Brasilia and New Delhi) draw their own conclusion. The issue is not whether the BRICS+ will form a coherent block. What matters is that are a congruent bloc where they may agree on some questions but not on all.
“And that does not matter. What matters is they are a forum of nations which are not automatically in favor of the West, and many are hostile to the institutions which have defined the international order since WW2, and they going about consciously to create alternatives.”
The presidential campaign of 2024 is not likely to raise these issues and to frame a core debate on the reality of America in the world and how can the United States shape expectations about its behavior symmetrical with success.
Being successfully globally has not been an important part of national politics for some time – just making commitments and being engaged globally seems to be the mantra.
But the world is moving on – how can the United States find its realistic place in the evolving world?