Us Conventional Military Power And Its Unchallengeability Politics

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There is more than one way to address this statement. One is to focus on the nature of US conventional military power and to assess whether since 1990 it has made the US unchallengeable. The other is to assess, assuming it is unchallengeable, whether this is a result of its conventional power as apposed to its nuclear power. Indeed a third interpretation would be to assess the effect of the events and changes of 1990 on the impact of US conventional military power.

I will focus on the first of these issues as this is likely to be the main intent of the question.

When discussing this statement one must first define the terms in question. Power itself can be a complex term to classify. In its most simple terms it is the way in which one body influences or coerces another to act in a certain way. Conventional military power is most often understood as the material capability a body or state has at its disposal in order to display or wield its power. International Relations scholar Hans Morgenthau (1948) explains his theory of Realism stated, 'IR is about states pursing interests defined in terms of power'. Soldiers, guns, tanks and military airplanes are most commonly associated with the idea of conventional military capability. This power pursuit has been described as, 'attempts for influence relying primarily on violence, weapons or force' (Baldwin 1985). When discussing this, the most notable author on conventional warfare to consider would be Clausewitz (1832). His seminal work, On War was written after his battles in the Napoleonic wars as a Prussian officer and focuses on the nature of war and military strategy. It is relevant to consider whether or not the Clausewitzian account of war and strategy is still applicable for states to use today or if the rules of engagement and warfare have long changed. This pertains to the question of challengability and shall be discussed in further detail below.

Conventional military power has been described as an 'alloy' (John Ferris 2009). This means that there are a variety of different factors in which coincide together that make material power within a state. These can be economic, geographic and demographic. One key point to consider is whether or not military force is the last resort as an instrument of control over a region or conflict as apposed to using political, economical or diplomatic sanctions first. Colin Powell who held a variety of significant military positions throughout the 1990's including, US National Security Advisor during the years 1987-1989, was well known for his reluctance to use military intervention favouring mediation first. He was often referred to as "the reluctant warrior".

The historical context in relation to the question is key. The end of the Cold War, which saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, signified the end of a power struggle, an arms and nuclear race between the US and the Russians. This meant that now the US seemingly would have no main adversary to threaten its power base and would ultimately become the strongest power found in the world given that the Soviet Union was no longer a contender.

Around this time te US increased its military involvement in the Middle East and became the prime mover behind the First Gulf War, which was fought against Iraq by a U.N coalition fronted by the US. Michael Eisenstadt (1998) comments on this stating that, 'contrary to expectations that the Cold War's end would enable the US armed forces to be less active overseas (producing a "peace dividend"), it instead initiated a period of increased military activism abroad.' The First Gulf War brought with it some victories for the US and its UN coalition such as Operation Desert Shield, which in effect crushed the Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait, thereby liberating Kuwait. So here is an example of US conventional military power being used in classic Clausewitzian style, where (with no other significant state willing or indeed able to come to the aid of Iraq) that military power was unchallengeable. The US had demonstrated, in the post Cold War, its willingness to utilise its massive conventional military strength in order to dominate and aggressor and to help a weaker state.

It could also be said that since 1990 US conventional military power has been to some extent ineffective in trying to accomplish its aims. One example of this occurred between the years of 1993 and 1995, when the US stayed out of the conflict in Bosnia even though thousands were being killed. When it finally did intervene when the Bosnian Serbs refused to compromise, it could be argued that from a US perspective the campaign, despite seemingly unchallengeable US conventional military power, was largely unsuccessful; hundreds of thousands of Bosnians were left dead and the episode was considered as a great failure by the US.

Conventional military power has been shown to have its limitations elsewhere also demonstrating ways in which US military power is challengeable. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 proved that US military force would not always be successful in its aims it astonishingly the fact that the US is still in Iraq (along with Britain) after some eight years. The case of Afghanistan also proves that conventional military power may not be most effective tool at ending conflict in a region, as that conflict still seems to be a war without an end in sight.

The US military has a huge technological superiority in comparison with that of its enemies, but this does not necessarily mean that it will be successful in conflicts. In the past the wars have generally been fought have been over territorial issues between two relatively large armies. When one looks in Clauswitzian terms at one army facing another on a field of battle using conventional weapons and methods in warfare it is clear that since the 1990s with the rise of Al-Qaeda , the US is no longer fighting those kinds of battles. In its war on terror the US is dealing an enemy that works outside most conventional parameters and it is fighting a war of ideals, rather than primarily a war over territory, as it would have generally been in the past. Their enemy now hides in caves and uses improvised explosive devices, against which conventional military power finds in hard to defend itself and accordingly is no longer unchallegenable. What challenges the US military power so much nowadays is that the enemy plays by different rules. This in essence is asymmetric warfare. The enemy who hides in areas of high population and has targeted civilians in cities such as 9/11. This means you can not use a tank or a stealth bomber in order to root them out. Richard Norton-Taylor (2001) comments,

'The new buzz phrase of the moment is "asymmetric warfare": the September 11 attacks on the United States were the epitome of this. A few pilots armed with Stanley knives launch an assault on the world's only superpower, with its arsenal of nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, aircraft carriers, bombers equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and self-defence technology.'

Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 there have been over 4400 American deaths in Iraq (Margaret Griffis 2011). It seems clear that the conventional military power of the US has been challenged in the last eight years given such a high death toll. The US military is playing by its own conventional rules of warfare, in effect based on Western codes of morality, which require proportionality and the avoidance of civilian casualty. This results in the most precious US resource, their soldiers, being exposed to significantly increased risks having to find and fight an enemy that has different rules and a different morality. As a result it would seem that many of the conventional military strengths and tactics are largely negated in the face of the contemporary threat of terrorism and insurgency.

The very notion of the apparent US unrivalled military supremacy could be seen in the events that took place in Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 by the US Army, which could be seen as a manifestation of the arrogance that can accompany perceived unchallengability. Pictures and reports of abuse, sodomy and torture by US military personnel against their captives were published and shocked the world, both for the acts themselves and for the frightening insight into the psyche of the "unchallengeable" captors. Stephen Lendman (2010) cites these examples 'according to a January 26 UN Human Rights Council report detailing practices engaged in by various countries including America, by far the world's worst offender in its war on terror - one waged against humanity for unchallengeable power and total global dominance.' This is one explanation of why the crimes against the prisoners were carried out by US perpetrators. The psyche of the US army had been of a great unchallengeable power fighting against the native Afghans and Iraqis, who in comparison to the Americans had relatively low technologically advanced equipment and were seen as inferior in every way. Whether or not the acts committed against them could be attributed to the condescension that accompanies latent Orientalism (Edward Said 1979) or were simply acts of base hatred, the perpetrators of these horrific acts may well have felt that they would not be called to account for their actions as a result of the US being unchallenged in this sphere of operation.

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The final point to consider when questioning the challengeability of the US and its conventional military power since 1990 would be the military reserves it holds in comparison to other chief global actors. With the demise of the Soviet Union, which at the height of the Cold War was the most powerful enemy of and threat to the US, the US is currently most likely unchallengeable opposite other major nations. However with the rise of China as a new power it is clear that a new challenge to US conventional military power is fast developing.

The Chinese are not hiding in caves or behind civilians but have (and are building) an arsenal of tanks and aircraft that could very well challenge US military conventional power in the future, were it not for the same nuclear power issues that forced the terrible stalemate between the US and the Soviet Union for so many years in the Cold War.

China has however relatively revently been flexing its muscles in other areas. For example it has started to restrict the amount of "rare earth" materials it is exporting onto the global market. Rare earths are natural elements that are needed to make a variety of different types of sophisticated technology, including weapons. China hold the majority of the World's resources of these key materials. Jeremy Hsu (2010) comments,

'The U.S. once supplied most of the global supply of rare earth elements. But rare earth processing has largely shifted to China since the 1990s. Even if the U.S. resumes mining its rare earth deposits and begins converting rare earth ore into oxides, it lacks the facilities for converting rare earth oxides into refined metals. China has set quotas limiting rare earth exports and added on export taxes, It even warned in an official plan for 2009-2015 that its own industrial demand might force it to stop exporting entirely.'

The relatively new restrictions China has placed on its exports of these materials are of concern to the US who rely heavily on them. These controls could be seen as China trying to control the use and development of certain types of technology (including military technology) and therefore limit US power and otherwise seemingly unchallengeable global dominance in these areas.



Morgenthau, H.J. (1948) Politics Amongst Nations: The struggle for Power and Peace (New York: Alfred P Knopf) (5th edn 1978)

Clausewitz (1832). On war. London: Penguin Classics.

D.A. Baldwin (1985). Economic Statecraft. Prineton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p13

John Baylis, James J. Wirtz, Colin S. Gray (2009). Strategy in the Contemporary World An Introduction to Strategic Studies . 3rd ed. USA: Oxford University Press. pg 555.

Michael Eisenstadt. (November 1998). U.S. Military Capabilities in the Post-Cold War Era: Implications For MiddlreEast Allies. Middle East Review of International Affairs. Volume 2 (4), 1.

Stephen Lendman. (2010). America's Secret Prisons. Available: Last accessed 25 March 2011

Margaret Griffis. (2011). Casualties in Iraq: The Human Cost of Occupation. Available: Last accessed 25 March 2011

Richard Norton-Taylor. (2001). Asymmetric Warfare. Available: Last accessed 25 March 2011.

Jeremy Hsu. (2010). U.S. Military Supply of Rare Earth Elements Not Secure. Available: Last accessed 25th March

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