A wavering vector: the end of western military interventionism?

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?


20 thoughts on “A wavering vector: the end of western military interventionism?

  1. Pingback: A wavering vector: the end of western military interventionism? | Olivier Schmitt

  2. Total says:

    “The withdrawal of ISAFUS troops from Afghanistan Vietnam in 2014 1973 will mark the beginning of a new era for western forces.”


  3. Pericles says:

    There is another factor here: expeditionary warfare of this sort is just too damned expensive and indecisive. The ‘war on terror’ has already cost the United States alone over 4 trillion dollars to date, when the truly existential and colossal struggle of WW2 cost her ‘just’ $4.1 trillion (that’s 4.1 trillion in TODAY’s money). This is the real reason for the increased US emphasis on the drone strike, since every US foot soldier in Afghanistan costs around a million dollars a year to feed and supply. The price on equipment for ‘conventional’ warfare is becoming equally silly; witness the saga of the F-22 Raptor for example. Modern militaries are simply becoming too expensive, and are demonstrably ineffective at suppressing the growing radicalization of a savagely unequal world running out of resources. Oh, and BTW to give them credit, the quite well modernized Syrian armed forces have already made the shift to ‘internal security duties’; for some reason though, people don’t seem to like the results. Put that together with the hopelessly delusional and ideological nature of most Western ‘aid’ programs, which perpetuate poverty and underdevelopment (something Europeans are ironically themselves now beginning to discover, as they too become victims of the IMF), and you have the biggest challenge to using military power for strategic effect since the trench deadlock of World War One.

  4. Is there any significant difference between a terrorist and a pirate? I have been mulling over that question for some time now. I believe it is relevant to the instant discussion inasmuch as we have attempted to project forces into Afghanistan, etc. ostensibly to defeat pirates, neutralize their sanctuaries, etc. We now have proven technologies to locate and strike these terrorists wherever they may be. All that we seem to need is a practical legal basis for these attacks. How about the laws of piracy? It seems far cheaper than “nation building” and other costly adventures (and misadventures).

    I suppose that former President Carter would be unhappy with this proposal. Wasn’t he the one who put a stop to missions of assassination?

    Sorry for thinking out loud. I have lots of questions and y’all seem to be a fount of wisdom. I’d love your comments.

  5. The laws of piracy reference (as beloved by John Yoo) relies upon an imagined past where pirates were fair game. They weren’t, force was legal in their apprehension but they were to be captured and tried (whereupon they could/would be executed). Unless of course you’re talking about the Barbary coast, in which case a military intervention to put a stop to them appears to be what NATO has been failing at for a decade.

  6. Paul Mitchell says:

    A couple of thoughts strike me. “Total” draws an interesting analogy, and yet major Western intervention did not really kick off again until the 1990s, almost twenty years after Vietnam (and only after similar economic/business related crises of the 1970s had been resolved and militaries had regained their professional confidence). Second, all of this is very reminiscent of Kaldor and Munckler’s “New Wars” hypothesis. Third, despite the ongoing strategic challenges these “wars” will present (the above Somalian pirates, for example) most militaries are taking advantage of Western strategic exhaustion (and I would argue, the epistemological challenge posed to their models of warfare by these new wars – a problem also evident in the above piracy comments), turning their backs on COIN/Stab-Ops and getting back to “proper soldiering”. Acquisition programmes are following suit. Again, very “Kaldor-esque” in their baroque implications. At least in the 1970s there was a Soviet bug bear to fixate on. As Schmitt asks, “what next?”: good question.

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  14. Dan says:

    The likelihood is there will be a reduction in overseas operations but there is still going to be a certain constituency within the Proffesional armed forces of those nations which have traditionally been intervening to argue that that is what they have to be equipped for and train for as otherwise what are they for!

    NATO does not want to admit, that at present Russia is not a threat, but at the same time the real reason for its existence is that people believe that may change.

    The cost in modern equivalent $ and € of WWII and GWOT is staggering, obviously a large part of that is the proffesionalisation of the military, if you have effectively a free good in terms of a conscript you can cheaply replace, who may not have a vote, voting age was 21 and back at 1914-18 there were property restrictions, your priority is not force defence. Once you have career troops whose priority is to protect themselves and their colleagues and provide reasonable living conditions on deployment and you end up with the present nonsese, of cost of deployment of a single soldier for a year reaching $1 million for a year. You equally have the UK context of individual inquests per soldier and names read out on every occasion in Parliament.

    We seem to want every operation to be Gulf War 1, all over in a few weeks and negligible casulaties of our side, and most of it paid for by allies either the Gulf Arabs or Japan.

    We are now in a position where we can not affoard the interventions so they should not happen unless they meet a much higher stander of need. If they get to the level of existential threat to home if the intervention does not happen, then troops will be willing to be deployed without hot and cold running Pizza.

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