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Paul Monk reflects on America's rethinking of its global commitments


            Before the end of the present decade, the United States will withdraw two heavy combat divisions from Germany and a third of its infantry forces from South Korea, as well as reducing its Marine force in Okinawa. The Cold War is over and American forces are being restructured and redeployed for 21st century contingencies. Those in Australia who have been dragging their heels over similar restructuring and redeployment of the ADF for 21st century warfare should take note.

            There are a number of factors at work which can shape perceptions of what the recent announcement of US force deployments signifies. Since the beginning of the war in Iraq, if not before, the question has been asked, are US forces too thinly spread? In this light, the Bush administration’s announcement could be construed as the beginning of a disquieting retreat by America from the outer perimeters of its global commitments.

            Or again, after the fiscal feast of the Clinton years, the United States is running enormous budget deficits. Perhaps the redeployments are the first signs of fiscal folding under the pressure of imperial overstretch? After all, it is now almost two decades since Paul Kennedy warned that America’s commitments bore a disturbing resemblance to those of the British Empire in the years just before its decline.

            Then there is the rise of China. Just before the turn of the century, Yale strategist Paul Bracken warned that US would have to come to terms with the end of the ‘Vasco da Gama era’ and the rise of military power in Asia, by scaling back its bases and garrisons on the East Asian littoral. Perhaps these new redeployments are the first signs of Washington pulling back from the prospect of confrontation with China?

            Those who oppose American hegemony might take heart from such ideas. Chalmers Johnson, for instance, has called urgently for the United States to withdraw from its far flung commitments before it draws down on itself a tsunami of vengeful rebellion against its arrogant and imperial post Cold War posturing, especially in Asia and the Middle East.

             Yet it is not clear than any of these interpretations is correct. What is actually heartening about the redeployments is that they demonstrate the capacity of the Pentagon and the White House to rethink grand strategy and force structure and take deliberate steps to fundamentally shift priorities in anticipation of various possible or already emerging contingencies.

             The key to understanding these redeployments is the drive to render forces developed for war with the Soviet Union more flexible and mobile in a world of failed states and fluid dangers. This has been the agenda of Donald Rumsfeld since he took office in 2001 and it makes eminent strategic sense.

            The United States aims to reconfigure its forces so that it can project power with greater facility from within its continental territories and around the Eurasian littoral. Those who like to draw parallels between America and the Roman Empire might liken this to Diocletian’s creation, in the late 3rd century, of large, mobile forces that could be moved rapidly to defend various sectors of the empire’s immense frontiers.

            ‘Empire’ is, of course, the watchword of our time. For these moves will occur against the background of a energetic debate about the future prospects of American primacy. Three of the most notable contributions to this debate, Andrew Bacevich’s American Empire (2002), Michael Mann’s Incoherent Empire (2003) and Niall Ferguson’s Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2004) should be required reading right now.

            All three question the sustainability of the unambiguously imperial neoconservative agenda articulated by Paul Wolfowitz as far back as 1992. In a draft paper on defence planning that was leaked to the New York Times, Wolfowitz argued that the United States should aim at “convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests.”

            That specific remark is cited by Bacevich, Mann and Ferguson. It sets the scene for the vigorous debate about the present war in Iraq, the protracted effort to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the struggle against al Qaeda, the efforts to check Iran’s nuclear weapons program (for let’s not delude ourselves, that is what it has); and, not least, the great game with China, which is in its early stages. It also frames the debate in Australia about our alliance with the United States and our own strategic policy.

            That debate centres on two contested propositions. First, that we should work in concert with the United States in maintaining its primacy, because such primacy is the best guarantee of world order. Second, that in order to do so, we need to rethink our own force structure and strategic policy. The first of these propositions is hotly contested, especially by those who believe that the United Nations is a better guarantor of world order than is the United States; that, indeed, American unilateralism is a greater threat to world order than is al Qaeda.

            The second proposition is contested most persistently by former deputy secretary of defence Paul Dibb, the main architect of the Defence of Australia (DOA) doctrine developed in the 1980s, and others who still believe the force structure shaped by it since, serves us perfectly well. Indeed, they go so far as to assert that any significant departure from either the doctrine or the force structure will endanger the country’s security.

            The US redeployment is of interest in relation to both these propositions. This is primarily because it demonstrates an American commitment to flexibility consistent with a world order maintenance role, rather than an aggressive or annexationist role. If the United Nations can be sufficiently revitalized so as to play a more responsible role in maintaining world order, such an American force structure would serve collective security well. In the interim, it will serve the purpose of making American force projection more versatile and more resilient.

            This is, surely, as we should want to see things. It is also, regarding the second proposition at issue, a strong indicator of where our own thinking should be heading. Indeed, the most forward looking strategic thinking in Australia has been heading in the indicated direction for some time. That direction is the reshaping of the cumbersome and barely deployable DOA era ADF into a 21st century armed force, capable of undertaking mobile operations around the Australian perimeter, in the littoral archipelagic environment and in the wider international arena.

            The DOA heel-draggers insist that we should still concentrate on forces for continental defence. They assert that the ADF has shown itself to be perfectly capable of undertaking mobile operations at need, whether in East Timor and the Solomons or to the Middle East. This is a self-serving delusion. We’ve just scraped through. Under the DOA, the ADF was not well structured for any kind of mobile operations. Rapid, sustainable and versatile deployability is what the new strategic environment demands. As the United States redeploys its heavy divisions over the next few years, consistent with this insight, we would do well to take firm steps in the same direction.