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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 17:55 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 17:55 | SYDNEY

Big wars or small?

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3 October 2008 15:21

The question of whether the US should design its military to fight a number of small wars (like Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo etc.) or to have a military that can oppose a peer competitor like China is extremely lively in the US, and is directly relevant to how we design our force structure in the upcoming White Paper. The strategist Thomas Barnett is an important voice in the US debate, and in two recent posts he takes on the 'big war' advocates.

To summarise crudely, Barnett's position is that nuclear weapons have made war between great powers more or less obsolete. He believes the future of US warfare lies in what he terms 'the gap', those countries that have not been culturally, politically or economically integrated into the globalised world. He argues the US military should be reorganised into two broad categories: a war-winning force and a multi-agency 'SysAdmin' force that can keep the peace and reconstruct societies.

In both of the recent posts cited above, Barnett takes on Andrew Bacevich (whose book I reviewed briefly here), who argues that US has been far too ambitious, and that what the US needs is not a bigger military, but a smaller foreign policy. I'm not sure Bacevich has ever taken on Barnett directly, but the clear implication of his thinking is that designing the kind of force Barnett wants would just encourage the US into more reckless small wars (I made a similar argument about the ADF).

Barnett has a reply to this argument:

If we're not involved, then other great powers--along with their militaries--will be forced to get involved. I'm not against that, per se (in fact, I welcome their help, properly channeled). I just want us in the picture, because if we're totally missing in action, prepping our big-hammer force, we'll start to interpret the interventions of others as constituting (or re-constituting, to use an old Pentagon term) great power-on-great power war threats, when they'll be nothing of the sort. That will lead to all sorts of pointless arms racing (a favorite of this conservative camp) and brinkmanship that will be ultimately diverting, accomplishing nothing vis-a-vis the Gap and only raising the potential for globalization's pointless partition.

In sum, Barnett argues the US should get involved in small wars because, if it doesn't, some other great power will, to their advantage. And that will just lead to US suspicion of their motives, which will lead to arms racing.

This raises some questions in my mind: (1) What confidence can Barnett have that the US will choose its small wars wisely, and get better at fighting them? On a balance of risks, isn't it riskier to get involved in more small than it is to potentially allow other great powers to encroach on 'the gap'? (2) How can the US ensure that, if other powers do get involved in such small wars, they will do so in a helpful way? Who is going to do the 'channeling' Barnett refers to? And what if the aim of these powers is in fact to constrain the US rather than help it? Won't that lead to confrontation that encourages the great power war threats he refers to?

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