Retrenchment: Strategy vs. Material

When a great power is in decline, it quickly finds itself faced with a growing disparity between its commitments and its abilities.  To survive, it must close this gap and to do so, can choose from three major policy options.  The first is to increase the resources available to meet its commitments, either through higher tax rates, shifting spending allocations, or borrowing money.  The second option is to find allies willing to shoulder some of the its burdens.  The third option is to engage in retrenchment, whereby the declining power pares down its overseas commitments so as to bring them in-line with its shrinking abilities.  These choices are not either-or; the reality is that most declining powers choose a mixture of the three policies and hope for the best.  And while each of these choices has its pros and cons, I am going to focus solely on retrenchment today because it is the most controversial of the three options.  I will use the example of the United States to illustrate my points.

There can be little doubt that over the past decade the United States has been experiencing relative decline.  This is not to say the U.S. is becoming weaker, but rather that the gap between it and rival powers is shrinking.  There is a lively debate going on within foreign policy circles as to whether this decline is permanent, but for now, it is clear that high levels of economic growth and increased defense spending in competitor states, namely China, have forced an unflattering comparison with the United States’ slow growing economy and debt-laden government.  In fact, the difference is so stark that it has led many people to mistakenly believe China has already surpassed the United States as the world’s leading superpower.

Faced with this situation, the U.S. has been forced to implement a mixture of the three policy choices I outlined above.  Within the past few years, the U.S. has raised taxes and cut spending, called on allies to shoulder a greater burden, and reduced its overseas presence in certain areas.  The part that interests me, however, is the nature of the retrenchment the United States is currently undertaking and the risks involved.  The way I see it, the U.S. is currently enacting two types of retrenchment: material and strategic.  The first can be found in the elimination of certain overseas bases, the scrapping of weapons programs, and the shrinking of the armed forces back to pre-9/11 levels.  The second is evidenced by the change in strategic aim of the military.  Specifically, the decision to abandon the long-standing “two war” strategy.

Retrenchment, like the other two policies available to declining powers, carries significant risks.[1]  The first is that it can signal weakness to your allies and enemies, who may begin doubting your staying power and alter their behavior accordingly.  Your allies may reduce their contributions so as to limit their exposure to a sinking ship, or even worse, seek to bandwagon with an emerging challenger.  Your enemies may take your retrenchment as a sign that you will back down when challenged enough and begin pressing you on different fronts.  The second risk is that by vacating certain areas or responsibilities you leave a power vacuum that others will exploit.  The possible result from these two risks is that your retrenchment, which you initiated to improve the balance between your abilities and commitments, leads to a vicious cycle whereby you face more and more challenges and have fewer resources to face them.  In other words, rather than improving your overseas position you weaken it significantly.

Given these risks, the question in my mind is: which type of retrenchment is more dangerous, material or strategic?  It may seem an odd question, but it’s actually at the center of some key decisions.  For example, if a country needs to reduce the costs of its military posture, what is the best way of doing so?  Should the country cut the size of its armed forces or transition to a new strategy?  What are the short and long-term risks involved with each choice?  These are the questions policy-makers have to wrestle with.

Take the two types of retrenchment the U.S. has undertaken in the past few years.  Which is potentially more damaging to the long-standing security of the country, the decision to shrink the armed forces and cancel various weapons programs or to abandon the long-held goal of being able to fight two wars at the same time?  One is a direct reduction in your abilities while the other is a diminishment of your ambition. Both are signals of weakness but both are decisions that can ultimately be reversed if the need arises.

However, in my opinion, downsizing the armed forces and reducing R&D in weapons development is significantly more risky because there is significant lag time involved in ramping these capabilities back up.  The example of Europe shows what long periods of diminished funding can do to a country’s military and it is a warning we should heed.  The push from various corners of Congress to shrink the military so as to save money has led to proposals as dire as reducing the carrier fleet from 11 to 8 ships. Carriers take a long time to build, require thousands of trained personnel to staff them, and cannot function without the shore infrastructure to base them and the support ships to protect them while patrolling abroad.  In other words, they are incredibly complex ships to operate and cannot be easily added and removed from service at will.  The same is true of the countless skills needed to develop next-generation military technologies.  By canceling and delaying weapons programs, you endanger the viability of the businesses that develop and build various systems.  If forced to go out of business, the U.S. industrial base risks losing the vital skills these businesses harbor in their staffs.  These are not skills that can be easily found again once the people with them leave the workforce.  A great example is the recent failure of the National Nuclear Security Administration to reproduce the agent “fogbank” for its warhead revitalization program.

A change in strategy carries significant risks as well, the biggest being that it leads to a permanent shift in how U.S. decision-makers view global affairs and the United States’ ability to respond to them.  In this way, a change in strategy limits your ability to act from the very beginning; when the strategy of a state is to not fight two major wars at once, it changes how it acts abroad.  That said, strategy can change much more easily than your arsenal.  Of course, the obvious criticism is that strategy and arsenal inform one another. That is, you build the army you need to fulfill your strategy.  So if your strategy is to not fight two wars at once, you do not need as large of an army.  The two go hand in hand.

However, it is much easier to make a given army fit any strategy than a given strategy fit any army.  This is to say, a large and advanced military can be much more strategically flexible than a small and backwards one.  Once again, this can be seen using the example of the United States.  The long-standing grand strategy of the United States has been to prevent the emergence of a hegemonic peer competitor.  Since achieving the status of a great power at the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. has intervened countless times to prevent any country from achieving hegemony in a region like it has achieved in the Western Hemisphere.  In each case the United States was successful and remained unchallenged as the world’s strongest power.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has pursued its hegemony-denial strategy by ensuring it is the most dominant military power in every region of the globe.  It has maintained this position through the aggressive basing of assets overseas and the development of new technologies that enable it to project power.  The result has been a large, technologically advanced military with a global posture.  The costs of such a military are high, but the results are hard to argue with.

Now, if you were seeking to reduce the cost of operating such a powerful military you could either engage in material or strategic retrenchment.  You could cut the number of troops in the respective branches, slash funding for weapons procurement, and decrease outlays for R&D.  These actions carry the risks I outlined above.  Or, you could switch to a new strategy that deploys your forces in a different manner.  One example would be for the U.S. to embrace offshore balancing, which argues that the best strategy for a dominant power is to let other great powers in the system check one another rather than maintaining a forwardly deployed military so as to provide security to all areas of the world.[2]  Under a strategy of offshore balancing, the U.S. would gradually base more and more of its overseas forces at home and only deploy them in order to check the development of a hegemonic challenger.  And once the challenger was dealt with, the deployed forces would return home.  In many ways, this would be a return to the strategy the U.S. used during the first and second World Wars.[3]

Thus, having a strong enough military to fight decisive wars abroad remains a key component of offshore balancing.  The only significant change is that almost all your forces would be based at home, rather than abroad, and the mix of technologies used to project power would likely be different.  This example highlights why I believe material retrenchment is much more dangerous than strategic retrenchment.  A strong military enables strategic flexibility, which is a hallmark of a great power.  This can be seen in the latest criticism of the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle concept, which many see as destabilizing and misguided.  The ability to propose alternative strategies rests on the fact that the U.S. military is large and advanced enough to facilitate other approaches.  With this in mind, I hope Congress overturns the sequester and its potentially debilitating effects on the military.  There are other ways to save money – they just require a little imagination.


[1] I want to point out that many scholars disagree with the level of risk entailed in strategic retrenchment.  Many believe it to be a sound policy choice.  I am not here to promote one side over the other, but merely to highlight one side of the issue.  It is one of the most contentious debates in all of grand strategy.
[2] Christopher Layne covers the theory of Offshore Balancing particularly well in his book The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present.
[3] Just a quick disclaimer that I am not advocating for this or any other particular strategy.  I use it merely as an example of another possibility.