|The United State’s Superpower in a Changing International Environment:
A look into how the United States is managing its superpower status
Ethics and Development in a Global Environment
By Gabriel Martinez
December 1, 2004
The United States has amazing power that is recognized around the world. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the United States without a single serious competitor in traditional military might. With this power came the perception that the United States is untouchable. That illusion was shattered on September 11th, 2001 with the bombing of the Pentagon and World Trade Center. The United States maintains that it is the only superpower in the world, but the events of September 11th has made us question this distinction. A superpower cannot just be defined as narrowly as the power of one’s military. Power is garnered through the military, the economy and through alliances. Furthermore, the traditional military must now be tempered by the use of asymmetrical warfare. Each President since the fall of the Soviet Union has dealt with the powers and responsibilities of being a military superpower differently. Whereas previous administrations showed respect for allies and international bodies, the current Bush administration has shown disdain for both. Bush’s policies have spent military capital, hurt the United States economy and disregarded allies; these failed policies threaten the United State’s role as a superpower.
The first category of a superpower is military might. Traditionally, this has been the only category looked at when defining a superpower. The United States has long made its military a priority. After incredible spending during WWII, the United States continued to pour money into the military during the cold war. The graph below from the BBC news source shows that United States military spending has remained at around 300 billion dollars every year regardless of whether we are at war or not. Even after the Cold War ended, United States military spending remained high and has now accelerated to a point that almost matches its Cold War peak.
The United States spent 379 billion dollars on its military in 2003, not even including the cost of the Iraq War. That amount is more than all other countries spend on their respective militaries combined.2 The United States outspends the entire world in military spending to maintain its superpower status.
However, this money does not necessarily equate to military strength. First, the United States pays more for their weapons than other countries. The United States pays its soldiers more and it buys more expensive weapons to reduce casualties. Secondly, the United States is no longer fighting conventional wars. The strike on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon showed that the United States was vulnerable, and that no amount of bombs could protect the United States from terrorism. Yet most of the United States military money still goes to funding a Cold War style military.
According to several economists the cost of the proposed missile defense system will surpass one trillion dollars. Economist and Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow explains, "the projected future costs of missile defense systems are rarely examined and poorly understood by key decision makers."3 The BBC reports, and the United State's military officials confirm, that the missile defense system would still be overloaded if a power such as Russia were to send its arsenal at the United States.4 On the other side of the military spectrum, it is highly unlikely that terrorists will attack using ballistic missiles. While the United State's spend a trillion dollars on missile defense, only 5% of cargo entering the country is inspected. Unwise spending, such as the missile defense shield, makes the conversion of dollars to military power questionable.
Another demonstration of the incompetence of the United States army is the current quagmire in Iraq. The United States is fighting an under-funded and under-trained insurgency, but cannot calm the region. The number of U.S. soldiers killed is rising each month, as are attacks on the U.S. military. To date the United States has poured 150 billion dollars into the war in Iraq.5 While the U.S. soldiers use the latest in military technology, the insurgents use homemade bombs and Soviet Union era guns. The inability of the United States to quell this rebellion is another reminder that an expensive military is not necessarily an effective one.
Even with questionable spending and the turmoil in Iraq, the United State's military is still impressive. The largest breach of national security in the nation's history was relatively small. September 11th is called the most deadly attack on United State’s soil, and it only killed slightly less than 3,000 people. There could be 100 more 9/11s and the terrorists would have killed only .1% of the United State’s population. Also, the Iraq conflict comes out of a desire to nation build. The actual war was over in weeks, a stunningly short military victory. This is the second decisive war that the United States has won in just a few years.
This all happened without much sacrifice from the people of the United States. A fellow student at Stanford University stated this month that, if it weren't for the news updates he "wouldn't know there was a war going on."6 This is in huge contrast to World War II when metals were rationed and the everyday man joined assembly lines for artillery shells. As a nation, the United States didn't even need to flex to win its last two wars, even though it went to war virtually alone.
Finally, when looking at traditional power it is not enough to say that the United States has a powerful military, it must be compared to other nations. The most powerful weapon known to man is the atom bomb. As of 1998, Russia had an estimated 21,000 nuclear weapons compared to the United States with 11,500. The last few years has seen the addition of India, Pakistan and North Korea to the list of nuclear powers.7 If everyone has the atom bomb, then having that atom bomb does not make any nation more powerful than any other. These new nuclear powers cannot reach the United States with their nuclear weapons, but it is unlikely that the United States would send troops inside a the borders of a nuclear power. Nuclear proliferation has significantly reduced the comparative power of the United States in relation to the rest of the world.
Even with uneducated spending, unprepared nation building and nuclear proliferation the United States still has the most powerful conventional weapons systems in the world. The invasions of Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq again have shown the crippling power of the United States military. The wars of the last twenty years have been short, decisive and victorious. In traditional military power, the United States is a true superpower. However, is traditional military still what defines a superpower?
A weaker power is always looking for an edge in warfare. In the American Revolution, it was known that meeting the British head on would play to the British strengths. The Revolutionaries used unconventional ambushes and unscheduled battles to crush the more traditionally powerful British. This is the same technique now being employed by the "terrorists" or "insurgents" or "enemy combatants." The United States does outgun them in almost every militaristic sense. Again, the reaction of the weaker power is to change the rules of warfare to play away from the other side's strengths. Al Qaida cannot simply march troops out to meet and fight the United States Army. It will lose, and al Qaida knows this. Instead, they employ hidden roadside bombs, turn airplanes into missiles and use suicide bombers. These methods are more effective against a traditional military power like the United States, and this is the nature of asymmetrical warfare.
One problem that the United States has in its "War on Terror," is its former reliance on deterrence. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States and the Soviet Union were deterred from going to war with one another because of mutually ensured destruction through nuclear war. Deterrence is flawed in our current War on Terror for two reasons; the first being that the United States does not know who to deter and the second being that deterrence is ineffective on those willing to give their lives to a cause. First, those that attack the United States using terrorism do not have to fear retribution on their home country. They do not represent any state actor, so there is literally no one to bomb. September 11th illustrates this point. 15 of the 19 hijackers that day were from Saudi Arabia. The other four hailed from the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Egypt.8 After the bombings the United States attacked Afghanistan. Allegedly al Qaida had training camps in the country. However, al Qaida does not have allegiance to any particular country. Many suspect that al Qaida operatives have found sanctuaries in Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Even after an invasion it can be difficult determining who is an al Qaida operative and who is a normal opium farmer.
The second problem for the United States in deterring terrorism is that many terrorists are willing to die for their cause. Traditionally the United States deters threats by threatening death to those that oppose the United States. It would be impossible to deter the September 11th hijackers because they went into the attack expecting to die.9 This is the same problem now being seen with car bombings in Iraq.
As stated earlier, the large military budget does not fund domestic security adequately enough to protect the United States from terrorism. In the recent presidential election the fact that only 5% of cargo entering our ports are inspected came to light, which allows for the entry of potentially dangerous materials by terrorists. While port inspection funding has increased, it is still inadequate and pales in comparison to the proposed trillion dollars for missile defense. Overall, the United States is paying for threats that are not real while ignoring those that could potentially cause another 9/11. This is especially troublesome when one realizes that the United State's ports could be the gateway for nuclear, biological or chemical weapons to pass through.
Nuclear proliferation could aid asymmetrical warfare as well. The collapse of the Soviet Union left many nuclear facilities without proper security. At the current rate, it will take a decade to secure all the nuclear material in Russia. Along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new nuclear powers threaten United States security. The fight against nuclear proliferation has been a two-pronged offensive. The first, and most important strategy is to control nuclear material. More and more countries demand nuclear reactors to give electricity to their people. However, there is no guarantee that the nuclear material will be used for generating power and not weapons. North Korea maintained that it needed nuclear material for energy and subsequently made atomic weapons.
The second line of defense has been the control of information. Making a nuclear weapon takes research and scientific knowledge that is not readily available. Both of these defenses against proliferation weaken as proliferation continues. North Korea can now sell its nuclear technology, material or actual weapons with the possibility of the United States not knowing. This has already been the case in Pakistan, with the BBC reporting that, "In February, Abdul Qadeer Khan publicly admitted involvement in the illegal transfer of nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea." Dr. Khan was the leading nuclear scientist in Pakistan.10
More readily available than nuclear arms are biological and chemical weapons. On September 18, 2001 the first of several letters containing anthrax arrived in the mail. Two Senators, including the senate minority leader Tom Daschle, received letters containing anthrax. This left the United State's government in disarray and spread paranoia of our postal system in general. Sneaking a nuclear weapon through United State's customs might pose problems, but biological agents are microscopic and can be brought in more easily. The situation that began on September 18th illustrates the effectiveness of asymmetrical warfare and the ease of its use.11
Barring a nuclear attack, the traditional military power has forced small attacks through asymmetrical warfare. While the September 11th bombings and the September 18th anthrax attacks caused widespread panic, they hurt relatively few people, especially for wartime standards. To give comparative examples, in World War II half a million United States soldiers died and 26 million Russian soldiers died.12 A few thousand deaths almost seem inconsequential. However, to make this argument is to miss the true power of terrorism. Osama bin Laden spells out terror's true effect in his speech on October 30, 2004.
The Bin Laden Tape
On October 30th, 2004, Bin Laden released another infamous tape proving that he is still alive and active. This tape had a more diplomatic feel to it, with Osama speaking for the first time on tape without a gun by his side. His message was not one of the inevitable destruction of the West, but of how United States foreign policy needs to change to avert future September 11ths. He even appealed to the American people; "In conclusion, I tell you in truth, that your security is not in the hands of Kerry, nor Bush, nor al-Qaida. No. Your security is in your own hands. And every state that doesn't play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security." Important to Osama bin Laden's argument is that security does not just mean physical security. He understands that empires are built on economies, which then fund great militaries. He states "al-Qaida spent $500,000 on the event, while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost - according to the lowest estimate - more than $500 billion." The 9/11 commission put the number al Qaida spent on 9/11 at $770,00013. Osama even called his operation a "bleed until bankrupt plan" and referenced what happened to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.14 The reference to the Soviet Union is especially telling because it was the last superpower to be brought down. The Soviet Union did not fall in battles and wars, but instead went bankrupt. Even the Soviet Union's failed war in Afghanistan was winnable, but the years of war strained the Soviet economy. The cost of maintaining its military grew too high for its budget. The BBC has also reported that the United State's expenses on military during the War on Terrorism are creating the largest deficit in United State's history. The United States recently had to borrow another 450 billion dollars to finance the war.15
In this transcript Osama bin Laden's strategy of asymmetrical warfare becomes clear. Military attacks will continue around the globe, but he does not expect to decisively win any war. In Iraq, over one thousand soldiers have been killed, but that number is miniscule in comparison to what the war has cost the United States economy. With 90% of the cost of war falling on the United States, the burden on the United States budget is being felt. The Economist, a respected economics magazine, wrote on November 10th of 2004 that the United State's "government will spend about $427 billion more than it raises in taxes this year. The nation as a whole is running a deficit of $571.9 billion on its current account with the rest of the world."16 The money lost from 9/11, increased domestic security spending, increased military spending, increased intelligence spending and two wars easily cover the financial woes of the United States over the last few years. The strategy of "bleed until bankrupt" is having an effect on the United Stated dollar because of its deficits.
While this graph shows only dollars performance over the last decade against the euro. The euro has been a steady currency over the last five years, showing the decline of the dollar after 2001. This devaluation of the dollar may cause banks to switch their reserve money to euros, where there is more stability. This would further devalue the dollar.
It is perhaps hyperbolic for Osama bin Laden to claim that he and his terrorist group can bring down the entirety of the United States economy. However, bin Laden has successfully articulated the vulnerabilities of the United States superpower. No state can compete with the United States military, and even asymmetrical warfare is combated without great numbers of casualties. The real chinks in the armor of the United States are financial. The current budget data shows that the United States is overextended in its spending. With the lesson of the Soviet Union, the United States should be wary of financial competition and attack.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States keeps a record of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of every country in the world. In 2003, the United States topped this list with $10,990,000,000,000. Almost 11 trillion dollars in domestic product might seem like a huge advantage over other countries, and it is, but it is not on the same scale as the military inequality that it possesses. Whereas the United States outspends the world in military spending, the world GDP was $51,480,000,000,000 in 2003, about 5 times as large as the United States'. The United States also has much closer competition from individual countries economically than militarily. The runner up to the United States in GDP is China with $6,449,000,000,000 followed by Japan with 3,582,000,000,000. At a glance, one might think that if Japan and China were to team up, they would seriously compete with the United States. Their combined GDP would be 10,031,000,000,000, only slightly less than the GDP of the United States.17
What was hypothetical is now becoming a reality. On November 29, 2004, China and nine other Southeast Asian countries of the Association of South East Nations signed an agreement to begin a trading bloc by 2010 to be completed by 2015. China, South Korea and Japan, Southeast Asia's largest economies, will be members on a biennial system. This trading bloc would reduce tariffs between the member nations and give great international power to the 1.8 billion people Southeast Asian bloc. An ambitious trading bloc such as this one would rival both the European Union and the North Atlantic Free Trade Area (NAFTA).18
The Southeast Asia trading bloc is not a unique development. Several trading blocs have been created in the last 15 years. In 1991 The United States, Mexico and Canada signed the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement that allows trade to flow freely between member countries. The nations still have separate financial systems, so counting them as a single GDP makes little sense but their combined GDP adds up to 12.9 trillion dollars. The United States is also involved in a lesser-known Central American Free Trade Agreement with 5 other Central American countries. These are seen as stepping-stones to a perhaps larger free trade zone in the greater Americas.19 The European Union (EU) created a trading bloc of 25 European countries as well as supranational government powers that regulate commercial activity. 12 of the 25 member countries have also adopted a common currency. Taken as a whole, the European Union had an estimated GDP in 2002 of 9.6 trillion euros, or 12.4 trillion dollars, eclipsing the United States as the largest economy in the world.20 Aside from EU and future Southeast Asian trading bloc, a South American trade bloc called Mercosur was created in 1991 as a response to NAFTA. Its 4 member and 5 associate member bloc is significantly less powerful than NAFTA, but allows for some type of leverage against United States encroachment into South American markets.
Around the world, several other free trade agreements exist, including a Mideast Free Trade Agreement, Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation and a Free Trade Area of the Americas as well as several other bilateral free trade agreements. As these free trade agreements, and others, coalesce they will continue to rival the United States hegemony of the world economy. The power of the global economy is significantly more effective against the United States than military power.
An example of this power is the recent decision of the current Bush administration to rid the United States of steel tariffs. The World Trade Organization allowed other countries to levy tariffs against United States goods in response to the United State's steel tariffs. Financially vulnerable, the United States backed down and President Bush now advocates dismantling the steel tariffs.21 In changing United States foreign policy, economics can do what force cannot. If the rest of the world sanctions the United States, the only option is for the United States to comply with the world’s wishes. This is the underlying vulnerability that bin Laden sees, and that the recent trading blocs confirm. The United States is not the only economic superpower.
President Bush #1
The third mark of a superpower is a gauge of friends and enemies. If many countries are supporting another country through alliances and welfare, that country is made stronger by those alliances. Kuwait having the United States as an ally increases its power. Similarly, if other countries despise and wish ill on a country, it weakens that country. The most visible international decision that a country can make is the decision to go to war. This tests the strengths of alliances and the resolve of enemies. For this reason, our wartime decisions have affected our ability to remain a superpower.
1990 was an important year for the United States, especially internationally. The Soviet Union was falling, leaving the United States as the most powerful country in the world. The Berlin wall fell just a year earlier and many questions arose as to the role of the United States after the Cold War.
The first test to the United State's ambitions after the Cold War came with Iraq invading Kuwait in 1990. Saddam Hussein saw this as a post-colonial reunification of a single country, similar to what was going on between West and East Germany. The United States and the United Nations disagreed, and immediately passed resolutions applying economic sanctions demanding that Iraqi troops withdraw from Kuwait. Iraq did not withdraw, and amid fears that Saudi Arabia might become a target of Iraq the United States began Operation Dessert Shield. Operation Dessert Shield poured United State's troops into Saudi Arabia to deter an Iraqi offensive. The United States worked through the United Nations to authorize the use of force if Iraq did not withdraw form Kuwait by January 15, 2001. Iraq did not withdraw, and the United States, as well as troops from 34 other countries, began Operation Desert Storm. The war began and after extensive bombing the coalition forces reclaimed Kuwait. They stopped short of invading Iraq because their stated purpose was to force the withdrawal of Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.22
The important precedent that President Senior displayed with the Iraq War was that even though the United States had a monopoly of the world’s military power, it would still work through international bodies. The United States waited 5 months to go through the proper channels and make their case to the United Nations for the Use of Force. Notably, they accepted a United Nations deadline given to Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops. The final coalition still had 74% of the troops as Americans, but the number of troops was 891,000 total23 This means that the international contribution to the war was almost 232,000 troops. Foreign countries sent troops because the use of force was sanctioned by the United Nations and was therefore internationally legitimate. By looking at George Bush Senior's actions we can infer that he believed that the world after the cold war would have the United Nations policing it, with the United States providing the support. Not continuing to invade Iraq after Kuwait also sent a message that the United States was not an imperial power. It is also notable that all European allies remained strong and amicable during and after the war.
President Clinton defeated George Bush Senior in the 1992 Presidential Election. He then defeated Bob Dole in the 1996 Presidential Election. He is remembered as a peacetime president who focused on internal affairs. This categorization, however, is not completely correct. President Clinton presided over the war in Kosovo in 1999 that ousted then President Slobodan Milosevic.
President Clinton backed the military move by NATO to forcefully remove Milosevic from power, and he worked closely with NATO allies to fight a war with international legitimacy. At the time, NATO had 19 countries and moved to stop a potential genocide in the making. 24 While Clinton did use an international force, he was criticized because the action happened without the backing of the United Nations. While these protests were muted with news of new war crimes and ethnic cleansing by Milosevic's army, there was scrutiny that NATO was the wrong organization to be carrying out the campaign. President Clinton had been chastised for not going through the United Nations, but the United States maintained good world relations.
President Bush #2
In 2000, George W. Bush was elected in a highly controversial Presidential Election with the slimmest of margins. On September 11th of the following year, the terrorist group Al Qaida attacked the United States. In response, President Bush waged war on Afghanistan, claiming that the ruling government provided sanctuary to the terrorist group. This war was justifiable to the international public because the United States had been attacked. This was not the United States instigating a war, but ostensibly defending itself from the people who attacked it. The coalition was small, with only the United Kingdom, Australia and the Northern Alliance joining. The immediacy of the war prevented taking time to form a larger coalition. The United States presumable could have used the NATO international alliance in this instance because NATO mandates that all member countries go to the aid of an attacked country. The United States chose to go it alone, amid growing international protest that more civilians would be killed in a war in Afghanistan than had died in the World Trade Center attacks. The choice to go to war without an international body's consent was largely excused because of September 11th.25
In late 2002, the Bush administration had targeted Iraq as the next country to be invaded. They claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, possibly even nuclear weapons. On February 5, 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powel visited the United Nations to make the case for going to war against Iraq. He famously held up a vial of anthrax, and told of the horrors that could potentially be unleashed by inaction.26 Earlier, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice had warned that "we do not want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," a reference to Iraq's alleged nuclear capabilities.27
In the United Nations there was dissent from our usual allies, France and Germany. Many countries were skeptical of United States intelligence, especially because United Nations weapons inspectors were inside Iraq searching for WMD and coming up with little evidence that they existed. On January 22nd, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called both Germany and France part of "old Europe" for their decisions not to lend support for the war, outraging those two countries. France and Germany contributed in both Bush Senior’s invasion of Iraq and in Clinton’s Kosovo bombings.28 Relations were further strained when the House of Representatives cafeteria changed their menu from "French Fries" to "Freedom Fries."29
In the end, the United Nations did not pass a resolution authorizing the use of force, and the United States went to war regardless. The United States did not have the approval of any international body; instead they opted for a "coalition of the willing." The war was short, with the Iraqi army collapsing and losing Baghdad in just about 3 weeks. By May 1st, President Bush had declared an end to major combat in Iraq. What has ensued for over a year and a half is an Iraqi rebellion, causing more coalition deaths than the "major combat" period. Eight countries have dropped out of the coalition, bringing the current total to 28.30 While this number may seem high, The Washington Post reported this July that 22,000 out of the 140,000 troops in Iraq came from countries other than the United States.31 This is in stark contrast, in fact a whole order of magnitude away, from the 232,000 estimated international troops that aided the United States in the first Iraq invasion.
The difference in international support is being felt both militarily and financially. The United States makes up 90% of the troops in Iraq, and similarly is paying 90% of the cost of war. Some high ranking military officers have advised that more troops on the ground are needed to stabilize Iraq, but the United States feels that it is already in over its head. In a speech to Stanford University on November 292004, Howard Dean criticized the Iraq war, stating, “power is greatest when you do not use it.”, When the United States used its military in Iraq, it simultaneously restricted its possible use in other situations. It is true that the traditional military of the United States is extremely powerful, but that power is diminished when it is used. An analogy would be a person having a lot of money, but they have less money the more they spend.
Possibly the most important negative effect on the power of the United States is the loss of allies. In an international poll taken in late October of 2004, eight of ten countries polled said their opinions of the United States had worsened over the past few years and a vast majority did not believe the war in Iraq aided the fight against terrorism. Aggregately, 57 percent viewed the United States worse while only 20 percent viewed the United States more favorably.32 The lack of international credibility, after the United States baseless accusations of weapons of mass destruction, combined with a negative world opinion severely lessons the power of the United States. It is doubtful that France or Germany will lend any type of support to the United States after the United State’s leadership insulted them. President Bush has managed to squander international goodwill after September 11th and turn it into international distrust in just a couple of years. Where the United States was an international superpower with regard to alliances, that distinction is now questionable.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has become the world’s only traditional superpower. Its military is unparalleled in the modern world. At the moment, though, this vast military might is tied up in a fledgling Iraq war. This enormous military power is being attacked through intelligent asymmetrical warfare. Terrorism has replaced invasion as the most likely threat to the United States, and a traditional military is not well equipped to fight terrorism. It is also not clear that speaking of superpowers with sole regard to the military makes sense. Militaries are dependent on economies. In the economic realm, the United States leads the pack, but by no means is a superpower. The emergence of trading blocs rivals United States economic power, and the European Union now has a larger economy than the United States. Osama bin Laden points out that the United States is vulnerable economically, and recent history shows that United States policy is responsive to world sanctions. Finally, the United States is strongest when its alliances are strong. During Bush Senior and Clinton presidencies, the United States kept close allies and worked through international bodies to use force. President George W. Bush’s administration has insulted and demeaned allies with little regard for international bodies and their opinions. The result of this policy has been a greater financial burden on the United States and an alienation of the United States from traditional allies. The United States has also spent more of its military capital in the Iraq war, lessening its military power to be spent elsewhere. Through unwise decisions, the Bush administration has used up part of our traditional military, hurt our economy and alienated our allies. If the goal of the United States is to remain a superpower, the government must realize that it cannot keep losing power indefinitely; else we will follow down the paths of the fallen empires of Greece, Rome and Great Britain.33