No matter how hard the United States
seeks for military hegemony, it is denied absolute power in a nuclear era. This is decided by the nature of nuclear weapons. Through the expansion and abuse of its super military might, the U.S. not only failed to secure a "no nuke threat" position in a nuke time, but would damage its long-term national security interests, and probably be unable to sustain due to exhaustion of national strength in mid and long term.
Unprecedented U.S. military might
On the surface, the U.S. is a military superpower whose annual military spending has reached the unprecedented height of $500 billion. In terms of weaponry, the country possesses both world strongest conventional and nuclear arsenals, a phenomenon never seen before in human history.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is also pressing ahead with the development of new concept weaponry including "practical" nuclear weapons. Considering its fight for the space, R&D of kinetic energy weapon, digitalized battlefield information and military integration, the U.S., we should say, has indeed no match or rival in today's world in terms of military strength.
The U.S. military advantages will remain for quite a long period of time. Its military might will inevitably affect its foreign policy and cast certain influence on international relations. However, has the military supremacy brought more security to the country? Has it intensified the U.S. dominance on international affairs? My answer is probably "no".
Different perspectives lead to different understanding on military superiority. Firstly, a revolutionary change has taken place on traditional concept of national security since the mankind entered nuclear era six decades ago. Secondly, national security has become closely related with international security since human society entered the era of institutional security represented by the United Nations also six decades ago. A country of not very strong defense is not necessarily unsafe under the protection of international institutions. On the contrary, a country of super military spending might not bring corresponding security if it damages or runs away from international security mechanisms.
Nuclear weapons leave U.S. "military superiority" vulnerable
Let' s discuss the first question. The U.S. immediately used nuclear weapons against Japan
after it obtained them ahead of other world countries. In 1945, the U.S. national strength reached a peak and it was the only nuke country in the world. But sixty years later, does the country feel safer or not? The answer is obvious.
In last century, Japanese strike could only reach Hawaii. But how about today? The U.S. metropolitan territory already suffered low-tech serious attacks like "September 11", so the country is certainly more vulnerable. Russia, for example, is capable of destroying the U.S. scores of times although it has no intention to threaten the U.S. militarily. On global and regional scopes, there are more factors that prevent the U.S. from feeling completely safe.
Nuclear weapon, due to its nature of extreme destruction, meant a fundamental change in international relations ever since its birth. Just because of its capability of mass destruction, possession of it indicates a significant lift in national security guarantee and probably a louder voice in world affairs.
Developing nuclear weapons is no easy job, but they are not solely owned by the U.S.. What the U.S. can do could also be achieved by other industrial developed countries or even some developing countries such as India and Pakistan. Once got an effective hold of nuclear weapons, relations between nuke countries would follow a direction of mutual deterrence. The U.S. "military superiority" is actually vulnerable given the unacceptable result of any use of nuclear weapons, despite serious imbalance between conventional and nuke weaponry of two nuke holders.
When it comes to national security, the most undesirable thing for Washing would be a nuke strike, even only once, against its metropolitan territory or overseas military bases. Deterrence in a nuke era means that a nuke war would never be waged or won. Unlike in conventional wars, there is no winner in nuclear warfare.
Therefore, in a nuke era, military imbalance between countries is to a large degree offset by the possession of nuclear weaponry. In theory the U.S. reserves the option of striking first, but in practice it is no less than seeking self-destruction if Washington really does so against any nuke holder. Therefore such a possibility is quite remote. As a result, no matter how hard the U.S. seeks for military supremacy, it is all the same denied absolute power in a nuclear era, which is determined by the nature of nuclear weapons.
The following thing is, the U.S. is afraid nothing but nuke proliferation. Although anti-proliferation has become a consensus of the international community, the U.S. more often than not runs against it in concrete measures. For example, on the one hand, the current Bush administration refuses to talk with DPRK or provide security guarantee in law, and has to face a worse result: DPRK declaration of nuke possession. On the other hand, despite its opposition to proliferation, the U.S. use of force against Iraq in a wrong name has left Iran and DPRK feeling more keenly the advantages of owning nuke and thus clinging to it more tightly. When India broke the anti-proliferation the U.S. government recently had to give the incentive of cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. This is a classic example showing that insisting on owning nuclear weapons brings long-term benefits to a country. Since U.S. measures run against its anti-proliferation objective, proliferation can hardly be checked in reality, and the situation will remain in which U.S. military superiority doesn't bring supreme security.
Military supremacy might damage national security in the long run
Then the second question. How the U.S. ensures its security? Like any other country, it depends on defense forces and international cooperation. Considering its military advantages, in practice the country would rely more on its own military strength in achieving security goals. However, result of such an option, or what people call U.S. unilateralism, is more often than not damage on long-term security interests as well as on international influence and soft power of the U.S..
Sixty years ago, the U.S., as an important initiator of the United Nations, still cherished the ideal of securing human peace via international cooperation. In international cooperation, every country would possibly transfer part of its sovereignty in traditional sense in exchange for more benefits through institutional arrangements of the international community. But sixty years later, the U.S. has lost most of its patience and confidence by overestimating its own strength but underestimating international security mechanisms once started by itself.
As mentioned above, military superiority has given the country an upper hand on battlefields, but also fueled the tendency of using force easily. Particularly during the recent ten years, the U.S. has displayed a more serious inclination to leave UN aside and organize "volunteer alliance": the long-term impact is weakened UN role.
As the world's most internationalized country, by neglecting or abandoning international organizations such as UN, the U.S. has to fall back on its own strength and a handful of allies for the same security goals. As a result, this super power would, at a faster speed, exhaust its hard and soft power and reduce itself to relative weakness.
In this sense, through the expansion and abuse of its super military might, the U.S. not only failed to secure a "no nuke threat" position in a nuke time, but would damage its long-term national security interests, and probably be unable to sustain due to exhaustion of national strength in mid and long term.
Besides, the U.S. advantages in national and military strength are exaggerated since currencies of some emerging countries, such as India, are not yet freely convertible. So, the U.S. is still unable to do whatever it desires in international affairs despite its economic output that accounts for more than one fourth of the world and its military expenditure that takes 45 percent of the globe. The fact that Washington is at its wits end with DPRK is a proof that the country's intervention capability is far less strong than its national power as shown in figures.
The author Shen Dingli is deputy director of the Center of American Studies, Fudan University