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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Great Power Vacuum

During much of the Cold War, local and regional conflicts were often instigated or at least encouraged and materially supported by rival Great Powers. Now by contrast it is the absence of functioning Great Powers that is the cause of the world's inability to cope not only with aggressive Small Powers such as Serbia, not only with secessionists of all kinds, but even with mere armed bands on a rampage.


By the classic definition, Great Powers were states strong enough to successfully wage war on their own, i.e., without allies. That distinction is now outdated. The issue today is not whether war can be made with or without allies, but whether war can be made at all. All along there was a tacit precondition to Great Power status: a readiness to use force whenever it was advantageous, accepting the resulting combat casualties with equanimity.


To lose a few hundred soldiers in some minor probing operation, to lose some thousands in an expeditionary venture, were routine events for the Great Powers of history. It suffices to mention the Somalia debacle precipitated by the loss of 18 U.S. soldiers, and the hasty retreat of the USS Harlan County when challenged by a small group of armed Haitian thugs, to expose the unreality of the Great Power concept in our own day.


Historical Great Powers would have viewed the disintegration of Yugoslavia, for example, not as a noxious problem to be avoided but as an opportunity to be exploited. With the need to protect populations under attack as their public excuse, they would have intervened to establish zones of influence for themselves. Thus the "power vacuum" would have been filled to the disappointment of local Small Power ambitions and to the great advantage of local populations.


Nor is the refusal to tolerate combat casualties confined to functioning democracies. The Soviet Union was still an intact totalitarian state when it engaged in its classic Great Power venture in Afghanistan. But Soviet headquarters was under intense pressure from Moscow to avoid casualties at all costs, because of outraged public reaction.


There is a fundamental explanation that can be valid with or without democratic governance, with or without uncontrolled TV war reportage: the societal base of modern, post-industrial societies. In the families that composed the populations of the Great Powers of history, four, five or six live births were common, with eight or nine far from rare. Infant mortality rates were also high. When it was entirely normal to lose one or more children to disease, the loss of one more youngster in war had a different meaning. In today's families, with their two or three children, all of whom are expected to survive, each child represents a larger share of the family's emotional economy.


If lives can only be placed at risk in situations already dramatically prominent on the national scene, that in itself already rules out the most efficient uses of force earlier rather later, to prevent escalation rather than fight it at full strength. More important, to use force only if there is an immediately compelling justification suits only threatened Small Powers. A Great Power, if it is to protect allies, clients and longer-range global interests, must risk combat in situations in which it is not compelled to fight, but rather deliberately chooses to do so.


If the significance of the new family demography is accepted, it follows that none of the advanced low-birthrate countries of the world can play the role of a Great Power anymore. Although they possess the attributes of great military strength or the economic base to develop it, their societies are so allergic to casualties that they are essentially de-bellicized.


The remedies we already have to this situation are certainly inadequate. Having powerfully equipped armed forces is ineffective when intimidation fails and still we refuse to fight. As for collective military action organized by the United Nations, it may include a good unit or two, but it also entails least-common-denominator strategic decisions, chaotic command arrangements, inefficient if not corrupt supporting staffs, and a prevalence of troops neither able nor willing to fight.


We are therefore left with two rather improbable schemes. Both circumvent the societal refusal to accept the casualties of war. Both could be organized. Yet both would be furiously opposed by our military establishment, and undeniably have unpleasant moral connotations.


One scheme would be to copy the Ghurka model, recruiting troops in some suitable region abroad. They would be mercenaries of course, but they could be of high quality, and a common ethnic origin would assure their basic cohesion. In practice, our Ghurkas would provide the infantry units, with "native" U.S. forces providing the more technical forms of combat support.


The alternative is to copy the Foreign Legion model, with U.S.-officered units manned by "de-nationalized" volunteers, perhaps attracted by the offer of U.S. citizenship after a given term of service. Under both schemes, political responsibility for any casualties would be much reduced, if not entirely eliminated.


If we can find no remedy for the passing of the Great Powers, we will have to learn not to see, hear or feel much that would otherwise offend our moral sensitivities. Richer inhabitants of poor countries learn from childhood how to step over the quadruple-amputee beggar in their path without ever actually looking at him, as they enter a restaurant or bank. Blindness too can be learned, and we too will have to learn how to passively ignore avoidable tragedies and horrific atrocities. The experience of Bosnia shows that we have already made much progress in that direction.





Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.