The withdrawal of ISAF troops from Afghanistan in 2014 will mark the beginning of a new era for western forces.
The projection of military power has been identified as the key strategic function of the armed forces since the Gulf War (1991). Before this conflict, the Cold War had imposed a model of armed forces able to handle a massive blow coming from the East. Granted, the US intervened in Vietnam and several European countries conducted small-scale operations in Africa, but this was not their primary function. The Gulf War revealed a change in this function, and triggered the beginning of the “projection era”. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, western armies adapted to the newly identified strategic function: project military power worldwide. In effect, this meant being interoperable with the United States (in order to be able to participate in a multinational military intervention, unilateralism becoming gradually illegitimate in the post-Cold War international system), and going through a US-led process of military transformation. Western states adjusted to this process at different paces, but the key point is that power projection was the driver of military change.
Like many others, I believe that this era is coming to an end, for several reasons. First, bloody military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have exhausted the populations. Some scholars have shown that elite consensus was more important than public support for the war in Afghanistan, but it might not be so in the near future. Any military campaign is likely to meet opposition from the public. Any government can overcome this opposition (see the U.K. in 2003), but doing it will be at their own risks.
Second, the costs of contemporary warfare make U.S. participation mandatory in any large-scale intervention, in a coalition or an alliance, which de facto gives the United States a veto position on when, where and how to intervene. But who can tell that U.S. interests will always be aligned with its partners’? This factor alone is likely to limit military adventurism.
Third, the international political mood is clearly anti-interventionist, and is likely to remain so. Without mentioning the Russians or Chinese, key countries such as India, Brazil or South Africa are not pleased with the fate of Muammar Qaddafi, and do not want to see further “regime-change”. Even Germany did not vote in favour of UNSCR 1973. In a multipolar world, these countries’ opinions will have to be factored into any decision-making process.
Finally, countries such as China or Iran are developing anti-access strategies designed to counter western armed forces’ material advantages. It does not mean they will succeed in preventing any western intervention, it means it will make them more difficult, and have policy-makers think twice and harder.
The combination of fatigue, costs, adverse political context and technical-strategic concerns will make western military interventions much scarcer in the future.
The real question is: what next?
Land forces, which have benefited from the campaign in terms of allocated resources, will shrink. The United States and European countries already started this process, which has been accelerated by the financial constraints of the economic crisis. They will have to find new things to do, and maybe participate in internal security missions, in support of the police or the civil protection forces. States are also likely to rediscover the utility of Special Forces and air support, which are politically less risky than deploying ground troops. The strategic role of navies as defenders of maritime roads and tools of (coercive) diplomacy will be reinforced. New areas will attract increasingly limited resources, such as spatial capabilities, or cyber-security, the combination of these elements profoundly transforming the size and shape of western armies in the next ten years.
Along with these “technical” elements, it is worth exploring what will happen to western influence.
After all, these trends are proof that the world is becoming gradually multipolar, despite the current U.S focus on a potential bipolarisation, China playing the role of the “peer-competitor”. Moreover, these are mere trends, and the shift will not be achieved overnight. It simply means that the vector of western domination for the last 150 years or so, ranging from colonisation to peace-making, will gradually lose some of its utility. We have been used to see military power projection as a tool of influence, but policy-makers, academics and officers will have to find creative ways to advance their interests. Talks about “smart power” will become even more media-trendy. Theoretically, the academic and policy debate on the dimensions of power (which has been to a large extent defined by Nye’s easy-to-grasp “hard power/soft power/smart power” triad, losing key insights provided by people like Aron or Baldwin) will be reinvigorated. Peace-keeping operations will be more regionalised, and conducted by less professional armed forces. But we have to make sure that a paradigmatic shift will be prepared well in advance: we need to find ways to prepare the western populations, ready to denounce the world’s inequalities but beneficing from them to a large extent, to live in a no longer western-dominated world. This conceptual shift is likely to be the more difficult to admit by decision-makers and populations alike.
Am I wrong? Yes, probably. Any attempt to forecast the future is probably doomed to be ridiculed (in case of doubt, re-read this famous article). But I am interested in reading KoW’s readership thoughts on the topic. If Western countries are less reliant on military power projection in the future, what does that mean for the organisation of our armed forces? And what does that mean for the future international system?