What to Do about the Lights?

By Aaron J. G. Walayat

There’s this old wives’ tale that has made the rounds for a while now. It’s the myth that it costs less to turn on and leave on your lights rather than turning them on and off again. Now, like most old wives’ tales, the story begins with an ounce of truth, but for the most part, the myth is regarded as just that: a myth.

However, perhaps the logic which accompanies the myth of the lightbulb also seeps into the strategy of the American military. One can see why.

At the end of the Second World War, much of the United States military movements were a combination of theater-esque mirroring exercises to Soviet signals with preemptive moves as preventative measures against potential Soviet provocations. Strategy back then was clear (I was initially typed that it was “simple.” I swapped the words. It was not): counteract the Soviets and contain communism. Today, strategy is not so clear. In fact, much of the strategy is a mess. Military policy during America’s “unipolar moment” to use Charles Krauthammer’s language, lacked a clear grand strategy, with the overstretch of America’s military personnel continuing its hefty role in nearly every region of the world, all the expense of the American taxpayer.

Why so? Much like leaving the lights on, the military is already out there, why bring them all back home? What will happen when the next disaster strikes? Imagine the costs of mobilizing the armed forces. Thus, we have, and what we have found was a vastly overstretched military mobilized to achieve…no clear goal.

Blame it on a lack of enemies. Umberto Eco, in his book Inventing the Enemy, notes that without the “Evil Empire” the United States was “in danger of losing its identity until bin Laden, in gratitude for the benefits he received when he was fighting against the Soviet Union, proffered his merciful hand and gave [George W.] Bush the opportunity to create new enemies, strengthening feelings of national identity as well as his own power.”

Certainly, a lack of enemies has left a wistful-eyed America, wondering what to do with its vast military. But the issue goes deeper. What America lacks is a functional grand strategy. The military often looks more like a policeman running beats rather than a more cost-efficient strategy in forwarding greater interests.

The end of the unipolar moment is a depressing thing for many Americans. The world we were born into was an American world and moving away from such a world is not something that we are unready for and uncomfortable with. But we have to get used to it. Taking a step back to not miss the forest for the trees, its’ rare for a country to have such unmatched global power. Even in other state systems, hegemony was never a permanent facet. America’s moment ought to be used to prepare the United States for relative decline, meaning that others will soon join the geopolitical party.

We can start to see some of the players coming around. China, for example, has taken an unprecedented step into world politics through its One Belt One Road initiative as well as its longstanding investments in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. China’s growing influence is often met in the West with worry, when it should be equally met in the West with shame as the West has apparently missed out on the wide opportunities offered by China’s partners.

Instead, America’s advantage over the hefty investment is military in nature. With such a widespread role, America’s military dominates its traditional competition in nearly every region, both a cause of concern in the world, but also a sort of cooperation, given the liberal use of mil-to-mil coordination. But, a narrow focus on military might lacks the wider role the military can play. While the politics of military might have been the most historically calculable, a nation’s diplomatic role continues to have a deep influence.

It is often at this point that we remember Machiavelli in his discussion of whether it is better to be “loved than feared” or whether it is better to be “feared than loved.” While the average reader will be quick to point out the conclusion (that it is “much safer to be feared than loved”), it would be unfortunate to miss Machiavelli’s corollary (that “one should wish to be both”).

The military’s role should by dynamic, fluid, adjustable to a changing situation. However, world with multiple great powers offers both positive and negative aspects for U.S. grand strategy. While it poses multiple potential enemies for the United States, it also provides the United States with another opportunity: the opportunity to bulwark its interests, not with the continued expansion of its own military, but through other great powers. Naturally, this is easier said than done.

In order to maintain such a strategy, law remains an important tool. International law is typically the bane of realist thought, existing outside of the security dilemma, utilized only for the benefit of those who can take advantage of it. The U.S. military is also pays heavily attention to international law, with subjects like the Geneva conventions, use of force, and human rights studied by U.S. Judge Advocate Generals. Certainly, we have observed this to be the case, given the way many nations, particularly the big ones, skirt the international law regime in order to pursue their own interests.

Be that as it may, law is helpful in shaping the dialogue. It’s rare to see any form of international action without attempts to justify it in the context of international law, including Russia and China. Critics write it off as rhetoric, but to an extent, perhaps law itself is rhetoric. It’s hard to prove anything with international law as many atrocities of the 20th century have occurred under the United Nation’s watch. At the same time, as the international lawyer Louis Henkin reminds us, its unfair to judge international law by its failures when many of its successes, like deterrence, is nearly impossible to prove.

More than anything, establishment of international law and norms (and dare I say, rhetoric) allows the U.S. to set the terms of international politics. Not in the sense that the U.S. has established the incorrigible rules of international conduct, but rather established the rhetorical requirements necessary for the justification of geopolitical moves. Violations of these requirements should be expected (including by the establishing parties), but the existence of these principles encourage states to pursue actions in accordance with these principles, lest become deemed by the world community as a rogue state.

Indeed, the rhetorical appeal will be more serious in the multipolar 21st century more than it was in the bi- then unipolar 20th. As stated earlier, the United States must work with other great powers in order to secure its own interests. This requires a deep amount of diplomacy and greater focus on “higher principles.” Building the international community is in the interest of the United States. The international community is often decried as anti-American and inconducive to American grand strategy. However, this is simply a failure in marketing. It would be ridiculous to think that a coalition of nations would gather together under the banner of protecting American interests. Such a view, held by some neoconservatives, that America deserved special treatment for the role it played in international relations was naïve. Instead, in order to build stronger coalitions, it is important to seek unity under “higher principles.” Such a policy seeks to tangentially promote American interests under cover of other goals.

The widespread presence of the American military, much like leaving the lights on, make Americans feel safe. The expansive, ever-vigilant presence of the military appears to promote international security my ensuring that America will be in the middle of the action when troubles come. However, again, much like leaving the lights on, has provided an incredible strain on America’s resources.

A dynamic approach is thus needed that mixes diplomacy and military, warfare and lawfare. America’s military can do less in regions where allies can be utilized instead. However, no ally would act solely for America’s interests but may be convinced to act in order to advance higher principles. This will require less focus on military might and more on rhetorical charm and appeal. It will require a more varied approach to international diplomacy. Such an approach will not be easy, but it will be necessary. When faced with keeping the lights on or turning them off, America needs to take a third option. It must buy better bulbs.






One response to “What to Do about the Lights?”

  1. […] from Iran, and the Spratly Islands from China all at the same time!  This is what it means to “keep the lights on.”  This is what it means to be the world police.  This is why U.S. policymakers feel compelled […]

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