Two broad forces for change, one driven by the global demographic explosion, the second by new technologies, are affecting societies throughout the world, with particularly severe consequences for the poorer countries of the developing world.
How will these various forces for change affect the United States over the coming decades? What are America’s strengths and weaknesses, and how well is it prepared to meet the newer global challenges? In the traditional domain of “hard” or military-based power, the United States is clearly unequaled by any other nation, including Russia and China. Both possess larger land forces, but there must be serious doubt about their overall quality. In any case, numbers are not as important as morale and training, sophistication of equipment, and capacity to project force to distant theaters; in all those aspects, the United States devoted large resources during the 1980s to ensure the required standards.
Strategically, it retains a panoply of air-, land-, and sea-based missile systems to intimidate another power from attacking the United States and its allies. Technologically, its armed services are equipped to fight so-called “smart” wars, using everything from Stealth bombers and fighters to AEGIS cruisers and sophisticated night-fighting battlefield weapons. Through satellites, early-warning aircraft, and an extensive oceanic acoustical detection-system, its forces usually have the means to spot what potential rivals are up to.
Finally, the US is the only country with a truly global “reach,” with fleets and air bases and ground forces in every strategically important part of the world, along with the capacity to reinforce those positions in an emergency. Its response to the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq demonstrated the flexibility and extent of those abilities. In dispatching over 1,500 aircraft and 500,000 men (including heavy armored units) to Saudi Arabia in a matter of months, and in filling the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean with carrier task forces, the United States displayed military power unequaled in recent times. Perhaps the only modern historical equivalent was Britain’s “force projection” of over 300,000 soldiers, safely protected by the Royal Navy’s command of the seas, to fight in the South African war at the beginning of this century.
As the cold war fades away, the size and extent of United States deployments are being cut significantly; but it would be remarkable if America returned to its pre-1941 policy, where none of its military units was based outside the United States and its insular dependencies. As it is, the existence of regimes like those in Iraq and Libya, and of conflicts like those in Somalia and Bosnia, aids the Pentagon in arguing the need to retain considerable and flexible armed forces. Whatever re-duction in American military power occurs, it is likely …