Monday, November 14, 2011

Missed The Boat

In the Sunday book review Henry Kissinger wrote the lead piece - a belated eulogy to George Kennan on the occasion of a new biography about him by John Lewis Gaddis.  Kennan was a strategic policy genius, the originator of "Containment," which though it saw blunders on our side, particularly Vietnam, ultimately did lead to the demise of the Soviet Union.  In other words, Containment did what it was supposed to do.

This leads to the following question about history and driving forces.  How much of America's military presence globally is simply a consequence that we filled a void left by the demise of Europe and Japan after World War II and how much of it was a necessary piece of the puzzle that Kennan had us solve?  (Kissinger's piece talks about treaty organizations, NATO and SEATO in particular, as a different piece of the puzzle, and other forms of soft competition as also very important.)   I don't know and I consider myself a reasonably well educated American.  How many fellow citizens actually have a decent understanding of the role the American military presence has played since 1991?  What about the role it should play in the future?  Our political rhetoric seems so low level as to be incapable of taking on this question.  But the question needs to be asked.

America has been the World's policeman for the past 65 years, but there is nothing written in stone that it should continue in the role.  Perhaps some will argue that an updated Containment is still necessary, with the primary object of the policy now China and the secondary object rogue states like North Korea.  But I could see a different argument made as well, that the police function must shift from a unilateral to a shared governance approach with China a strategic partner in that.  This same debate existed at the end of World War II, with some viewing the Soviet intentions as benign at the time. 

My own view on the issue is that while China is still authoritarian to a larger degree than we'd like to admit, none of the Chinese leaders are near as brutal as Stalin and further that trade, which has meant enormous progress for China, acts as a liberalizing force.  If, as Kennan insisted, slow and steady wins the race, then it seems to me we should make a deliberate if gradual switchover to a shared governance approach in this police function. Our politics might not like that conclusion.  But is there really a tenable alternative long term solution?

At present, military spending seems broadly tied to fiscal policy.  In Europe, with austerity the buzzword for the time being, it is hard to imagine an immediate increase in the Euro contribution to the police function.  When the global economy does return to a normalcy that feels healthy, that Euro contribution should increase.  In the meantime, where does the slack get made up?  Does the U.S. maintain the status quo or invite other partners while beginning to reduce its presence?

This gets me to the piece linked below, about the size of our Navy and how to manage the budget issues entailed in supporting it.  The piece takes for granted that the legacy remains a future obligation and then makes the case for innovation as the way to address the issues.  As someone who normally doesn't focus on military matters,  reading the paragraph below it sure seemed to me we have a lot of big hardware.

Is all that hardware necessary?  And if it is, would it matter if some of it sailed under different flags?  How would Kennan answer these questions?

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