The Danger of Imperial Overstretch

US Army M1A1 tanks at the "Hands of Victory" in Ceremony Square in Baghdad, Iraq
US Army M1A1 tanks at the “Hands of Victory” in Ceremony Square in Baghdad, Iraq

The greatest threat to the United States potentially precipitating a fall into its decline is imperial overstretch. Yale historian Paul Kennedy defines imperial overstretch as the overextension either geographically, economically, or militarily that inevitably leads to the exhaustion of vital domestic resources, decline, and fall.[1] Analyzing the situation the United States is currently facing, however, makes it clear that the danger is not from any one of those Kennedy cites. Rather, the totality of those three factors cumulatively puts the United States on a path to decline.

In his 2005 Foreign Affairs article, Sinking Globalization, Harvard professor Niall Ferguson says the United States is “manifestly overstretched”.[2]  Analysis of the cost of executing dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have a long term, far reaching impact on the American economy. Linda J. Bilmes, a Harvard public policy professor, authored the 2013 report “The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan: How Wartime Spending Decisions Will Constrain Future National Security Budgets.” It posits that the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will cost taxpayers $4 trillion to $6 trillion, taking into account the medical care of wounded veterans and expensive repairs to a force depleted by more than a decade of fighting.[3]

Beyond the costs of the wars, Ferguson also warned of the forthcoming fiscal deficit that will expand as more baby boomers retire and claim Social Security and Medicare benefits.  Entitlement spending alone has gone from 5% to 47% of all government spending in the United States between 1900 and 2010.[4]  Coupled with defense spending, the United States is fighting wars on credit and potentially going down a path where an unexpected catastrophe could devalue the dollar and send the United States towards insolvency. White House budget information shows that in 2012, the United States was spending at a 7% deficit of Gross Domestic Product.[5]

The second area in which the United States is overextending is the military. Aside from the cost of waging military conflict or maintaining United States presence abroad, there is a significant, unsustainable overstretching of military personnel and resources. According to the Center on Research for Globalization’s Jules Dufour, the United States is thought to own a total of 737 military bases in 63 foreign countries.[6]  Ferguson says the United States also suffers from personnel deficits, citing the 500,000 deployable troop limit which he says is not sufficient to win “all the small wars” the United States is waging and will have to wage in order to maintain the current military posture. [7] Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich summarizes the dilemma, concerned that the U.S. military will simply “drop from exhaustion,” as the U.S. tries to be everywhere, all the time.[8]

Finally, geographic overstretch is carefully addressed in Linda Bilmes’ and University of California Los Angeles professor Michael Intriligator’s 2013 article in Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy.  There, they state the United States is currently involved in five simultaneous wars: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia – in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan. They define war to include “conflicts where the United States is launching extensive military incursions, including drone attacks, but that are not officially declared”.[9] If the armed forces have to redeploy the same troops for second and third tours of duty overseas, as Ferguson suggests, then attrition in the voluntary fighting forces is to be expected from an increase in service-members electing not to re-enlist.  Geographic overstretch clearly exacerbates the existing economic and military overstretch problems.

Those who do not see the United States as threatened by imperial overstretch argue that several wars and far reaching military presence can be financially supported and are key to long term security. In light of the financial data presented, this does not seem feasible unless a drastic reduction in either the number of wars, the number of troops, or the amount the United States is borrowing to maintain these fronts is dramatically reduced. The United States’ dependence on foreign credit and resources to continue feeding U.S. consumerism and profligacy positions the nation precariously, so that any number of major world events could send the U.S. economy, and extensive military efforts, into a dangerous free fall. Those that disregard the economic data that indicates unsustainability often do so from a moral stand point, claiming that if the United States has the power and resources to lift up other nations, then there is a moral obligation to do so. But in his 2010 Foreign Policy Research Institute paper “Can the United States Do Grand Strategy” Walter McDougall, professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, disagrees. He stated moral responsibility was the only aspect of the Theodore Roosevelt era “great equation” of federal economic and military policies defining America’s first grand strategy that did not serve the nation well.[10]

The three factors listed above all point toward the imperial overstretch of the United States, in that maintaining an expansive global network of resources coupled with the cost of waging multiple concurrent wars comes at a monetary price that the current spending climate in the United States can’t sustain. McDougall interprets the United States foreign policy as seeking and supporting the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.[11] While this Western view of global democratization seems a noble endeavor, this policy inevitably leads to overstretch. Ferguson cites the pre-World War I British Empire, which declined as a result of distractions from policing old and new commitments in Asia and Africa, as a cautionary tale of empirical overstretch.[12] If the United States does not learn from the lessons learned of other former empires, a similar precipitous decline, economically and militarily, should be expected.

Notes

[1] Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House, 1987. P. 488-514, and 514-535.

[2] Ferguson, Niall. “Sinking Globalization”. Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2005.

[3]Bilmes, Linda J. “The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan: How Wartime Spending Decisions Will Constrain Future National Security Budgets.” HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP13-006, March 2013.

[4] http://www.usgovernmentspending.com

[5] http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historicals

[6] Dufour, Jules. “The Worldwide Network of U.S. Military Bases”. Global Research. February 17, 2013.

[7] Ferguson, Niall. “Sinking Globalization”. Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2005.

[8]Bacevich, Andrew J. “Bush’s grand strategy.” The American Conservative 4 (2002).

[9] Bilmes, L. and Intriligator, M. “How Many Wars is the U.S. Fighting Today?”. Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy. Volume 19, Issue 1, Pages 8–16, ISSN (Online) 1554-8597, ISSN (Print) 1554-8597, DOI: 10.1515/peps-2013-0011, May 2013

[10] McDougall, Walter. “Can the U.S. Do Grand Strategy”. The Telegram, No. 3. Foreign Policy Research Institute. Temple University Consortium on Grand Strategy. April, 2010.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ferguson, Niall. “Sinking Globalization”. Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2005.

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Jeff Janaro

Lieutenant Jeff Janaro is a United States Coast Guard officer currently studying at George Mason University School of Law. He has over 10 years of experience at sea enforcing immigration, counter-narcotics, and environmental protection laws. He has commanded two Coast Guard patrol boats, and was a 2013 Center for Strategic and International Studies Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy International Fellow. 

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  • Javed Mir

    –a total of 737 military bases in 63 foreign countries.–

    US policy makers should learn from China — they hardly get out of their borders and at the same time do not let anyone to cross into their borders.