The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
Michael Mazarr (“The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm,” January/February 2014) argues that Washington’s interventions over the past decade have distracted the United States from what should be its core mission: stabilizing the international system. Yet although these interventions were indeed plagued by mistakes and fell short of expectations, the United States should not overcorrect. It must be able to protect its interests in weak states, even if large-scale interventions remain unlikely.
Military intervention is not a fad; it has been a key feature of U.S. foreign policy since at least World War II, well before what Mazarr calls the “decade of distraction.” Whether to defend human rights, fight communism, or counter terrorism, the United States has intervened in weak states time and again. The current backlash against state building is therefore unlikely to last, especially since terrorism, the true driver of U.S. national security strategy over the last decade, is still tied to at least 15 weak states.
As Washington refocuses its attention on balancing rising powers, it should not assume that traditional wars will be more likely than wars in weak states. The U.S. military needs to be able to conduct a full range of combat operations, including counterinsurgency. The odds of a traditional war, especially with another nuclear power, remain low. If the United States were to wage war against a second-tier power, such as Iran, the U.S. military’s technological edge and combat experience would allow the United States to win -- at least before an insurgency began. And if Washington went to war with a first-tier power, such as China, the conflict would probably not play out on the ground. Since 1945, nuclear deterrence has severely constrained great-power conflict, and it will most likely continue to do so.
The United States should consider intervention in weak states a reduced yet significant concern. As Mazarr himself notes, his argument does not “suggest that a concern for the problems posed by weak or failing states can or should disappear entirely from the U.S. foreign policy and national security agendas.” But I would go further. The United States needs to understand which elements of state building are essential to its future security. Core state-building capabilities, organizations, doctrines, and personnel must be protected. The U.S. military should not have to relearn the painful lessons of the past decade. Given the United States’ long history of interventions, the low probability of a great-power war, and ongoing problems with terrorism, weak states are likely to trouble U.S. diplomats and generals for many decades to come.
Center for Naval Analyses