Saturday, January 12, 2008

An Inconvenient Balance

One of the modern world’s great verities is US military superiority. The United States–my country–can mobilize and apply vast lethal, brutal and destructive force pretty much anywhere on the planet. American military power may rest on a foundation of borrowed money but it is no less powerful. Instant destruction. Instantaneously. We can’t conquer and occupy a major power like Russia but we can easily prevail in the short term at the margins where most international interests intersect.

Therein lies the problem, rooted in one of the oldest human competitions. When one nation dominates, other nations will attempt to check that dominant power wherever possible. Balance of power politics has long defined relations among nations; it rivals national homeland as a factor motivating action with or against others. These days the rest of the world views Iraq as something of a real limit to American power and is content to let that quagmire distract the US from interfering (too much) with their interests elsewhere

Balance of power is written into the US Constitution as a means for checking the actions of a strong executive (read: king) although much of that balance has been lost in recent years. Balance also affects economic relations; unions provide the countervailing power to predatory capital while government provides for equity and justice in law. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work, according to John Kenneth Galbraith. Makes sense to me.

All the world loves balance except America. Well, Americans love balance as long as it’s OUR balance. To make sure that balance never changes, we have built an immense arsenal of destruction that far exceeds any potential threat, an arsenal that is ill-suited to combat non-state international terrorism that is supposedly our greatest threat. In fact, nihilist groups often use terror to provoke our violent response with its inevitable “collateral damage” to create greater hatred toward the Great Satan. It works for them, if not for us.

America can do with far less defense and still be reasonably safe from international terrorism. (Domestic terrorism and random violence are a whole other matter.) What we surrender in military prowess, we will recoup with effective, cooperative diplomacy. This nation has been on a war footing for over 60 years. I believe Americans can secure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense by waging peace, for a change.

It beats fighting the entire world.



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