It would be unfair to dismiss the administration’s latest assault on the U.S.’s defense capability as the folly and cowardice some commentators are already alleging. Without a worldwide rival of comparable strength threatening all American strategic interests, it is certainly possible to retrench gradually and support regional forces of stability and, preferably, moderation.
President Roosevelt saw that if Nazi Germany were permitted to retain its conquests of 1938–40, and to continue to enjoy the satellization of unoccupied France, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, and much of the Balkans, it would, in a generation or so, have as large a population and industrial capacity as the United States, especially if it tore away and annexed chunks of the Soviet Union as well. Roosevelt responded with the greatest defense buildup in world history; the extension of U.S. territorial waters in the North Atlantic from three to 1,800 miles; orders to attack German ships on detection; the gift, described as a loan, to Britain and Canada, and later the Soviet Union, of any sinews of war they requested; and the enforced expulsion of any German or Italian influence from the Americas.
President Truman saw that the USSR and international Communism were a mortal military and subversive threat to the West, and responded with NATO, the Marshall Plan, and a comprehensive program of containment, from West Berlin to South Korea. Of course, both those strategic responses were successful.
There is no such threat now. Terrorism is a dreadful nuisance, but it lacks central direction and a great and powerful host country devoted altogether to its conduct, and it is incapable of attracting the intellectual and moral support of more than a few homicidal psychopaths and genocidists.
In these circumstances, full advantage can be taken of steadily more precise and efficient defense technology, and the steady proliferation of more capable secondary powers, eager to preserve and reinforce their independence, in every theater.
The most unambiguous success of the George W. Bush administration was the new relationship with India. President Obama had a very positive trip to the Far East at the end of 2011, and it is clear that China — which will not be able to maintain the fiction of an inexorable economic rise much longer — in attempting to assert its primacy in the Far East, is galvanizing its neighbors, who are uniformly unenthused by such a prospect, to the heightened practice of self-reliance and collective security.
The Chinese have effectively been sent packing by the twitching hermit junta in Burma, and their hegemonic antics in the South China Sea have backfired. In modern times, hostile challenges to the established maritime power have never been successful. The leading naval power is always the country that doesn’t really need a large army to assure its own borders: first Britain and then America. The Turks failed against the maritime Mediterranean West at Lepanto in 1571, 17 years before the Spanish Armada was defeated by the British. Napoleon could never focus on naval matters even at the height of his power, and the Germans drove the British into alliance with England’s ancient rivals, France and Russia, by challenging British naval supremacy before World War I. The German High Seas Fleet then put to sea for only three inconclusive days, at Jutland, in all of that war. The U.S. took the scepter of the seas from Britain as a friendly wartime ally in World War II, and saw off a strenuous naval-construction challenge by the Soviet Union from 1965 to 1990.
The alarms being set off now about the Chinese navy are a little hard to take seriously. An improvised aircraft carrier, plans for catamaran aircraft carriers (an insane concept), and new anti-ship surface-to surface missiles should not overawe the United States Navy. The Chinese are never going to exchange fire with the U.S. Navy anyway, and the idea that they will keep U.S. heavy units out of the South China Sea or the Straits of Formosa with this sort of saber-rattling is eyewash.