Last of two parts
Limits of the American Empire
The problem of the American Empire is the overhang of the Cold War. During this time, the United States expected to go to war with a coalition around it, but also to carry the main burden of war. When Operation Desert Storm erupted in 1991, the basic Cold War principle prevailed. There was a coalition with the United States at the center of it. After 9/11, the decision was made to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq with the core model in place. There was a coalition, but the central military force was American, and it was assumed that the economic benefits of relations with the United States would be self-evident. In many ways, the post-9/11 wars took their basic framework from World War II. Iraq War planners explicitly discussed the occupation of Germany and Japan.
No empire can endure by direct rule. The Nazis were perhaps the best example of this. They tried to govern Poland directly, captured Soviet territory, pushed aside Vichy to govern not half but all of France, and so on. The British, on the other hand, ruled India with a thin layer of officials and officers and a larger cadre of businessmen trying to make their fortunes. The British obviously did better. The Germans exhausted themselves not only by overreaching, but also by diverting troops and administrators to directly oversee some countries. The British could turn their empire into something extraordinarily important to the global system. The Germans broke themselves not only on their enemies, but on their conquests as well.
The United States emerged after 1992 as the only global balanced power. That is, it was the only nation that could deploy economic, political and military power on a global basis. The United States was and remains enormously powerful. However, this is very different from omnipotence. In hearing politicians debate Russia, Iran or Yemen, you get the sense that they feel that US power has no limits. There are always limits, and empires survive by knowing and respecting them.
The primary limit of the American empire is the same as that of the British and Roman empires: demographic. In Eurasia — Asia and Europe together — the Americans are outnumbered from the moment they set foot on the ground. The US military is built around force multipliers, weapons that can destroy the enemy before the enemy destroys the relatively small force deployed. Sometimes this strategy works. Over the long run, it cannot. The enemy can absorb attrition much better than the small American force can. This lesson was learned in Vietnam and reinforced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq is a country of 25 million people. The Americans sent about 130,000 troops. Inevitably, the attrition rate overwhelmed the Americans. The myth that Americans have no stomach for war forgets that the United States fought in Vietnam for seven years and in Iraq for about the same length of time. The public can be quite patient. The mathematics of war is the issue. At a certain point, the rate of attrition is simply not worth the political ends.
The deployment of a main force into Eurasia is unsupportable except in specialized cases when overwhelming force can be bought to bear in a place where it is important to win. These occasions are typically few and far between. Otherwise, the only strategy is indirect warfare: shifting the burden of war to those who want to bear it or cannot avoid doing so. For the first years of World War II, indirect warfare was used to support the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union against Germany.
There are two varieties of indirect warfare. The first is supporting native forces whose interests are parallel. This was done in the early stages of Afghanistan. The second is maintaining the balance of power among nations. We are seeing this form in the Middle East as the United States moves between the four major regional powers — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey — supporting one then another in a perpetual balancing act. In Iraq, US fighters carry out air strikes in parallel with Iranian ground forces. In Yemen, the United States supports Saudi air strikes against the Houthis, who have received Iranian training.
This is the essence of empire. The British saying is that it has no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. That old cliche is, like most cliches, true. The United States is in the process of learning that lesson. In many ways the United States was more charming when it had clearly identified friends and enemies. But that is a luxury that empires cannot afford.
Building a system of balance
We are now seeing the United States rebalance its strategy by learning to balance. A global power cannot afford to be directly involved in the number of conflicts that it will encounter around the world. It would be exhausted rapidly. Using various tools, it must create regional and global balances without usurping internal sovereignty. The trick is to create situations where other countries want to do what is in the US interest.
This endeavor is difficult. The first step is to use economic incentives to shape other countries’ behavior. It isn’t the US Department of Commerce but businesses that do this. The second is to provide economic aid to wavering countries. The third is to provide military aid. The fourth is to send advisers. The fifth is to send overwhelming force. The leap from the fourth level to the fifth is the hardest to master. Overwhelming force should almost never be used. But when advisers and aid do not solve a problem that must urgently be solved, then the only type of force that can be used is overwhelming force. Roman legions were used sparingly, but when they were used, they brought overwhelming power to bear.
The responsibilities of empire
I have been deliberately speaking of the United States as an empire, knowing that this term is jarring. Those who call the United States an empire usually mean that it is in some sense evil. Others will call it anything else if they can. But it is helpful to face the reality the United States is in. It is always useful to be honest, particularly with yourself. But more important, if the United States thinks of itself as an empire, then it will begin to learn the lessons of imperial power. Nothing is more harmful than an empire using its power carelessly.
It is true that the United States did not genuinely intend to be an empire. It is also true that its intentions do not matter one way or another. Circumstance, history and geopolitics have created an entity that, if it isn’t an empire, certainly looks like one. Empires can be far from oppressive. The Persians were quite liberal in their outlook. The American ideology and the American reality are not inherently incompatible. But two things must be faced: First, the United States cannot give away the power it has. There is no practical way to do that. Second, given the vastness of that power, it will be involved in conflicts whether it wants to or not. Empires are frequently feared, sometimes respected, but never loved by the rest of the world. And pretending that you aren’t an empire does not fool anyone.
The current balancing act in the Middle East represents a fundamental rebalancing of American strategy. It is still clumsy and poorly thought out, but it is happening. And for the rest of the world, the idea that the Americans are coming will become more and more rare. The United States will not intervene. It will manage the situation, sometimes to the benefit of one country and sometimes to another.
George Friedman is the Chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996 that is now a leader in the field of global intelligence. Friedman guides Stratfor’s strategic vision and oversees the development and training of the company’s intelligence unit. His book Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe was released on Jan. 27.
Dr. Friedman is the author of The New York Times best-seller “The Next Decade,” which forecasts the major events and challenges that will test America and its presidents over the course of the next decade. Dr. Friedman’s previous book, “The Next 100 Years,” was also a New York Times best-seller and was published in over 20 languages. His other books on warfare and intelligence include “America’s Secret War”, “The Future of War” and “The Intelligence Edge”.