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Less shock, more awe

The new US defence policy shrinks the activity of the military machine.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2012 23:37 IST
Sreeram Chaulia

The unveiling of a new US defence policy, forced upon Washington by the economic crisis and a ballooning fiscal deficit, augurs significant shifts in international security. When the world's biggest spender on armaments is in retrenchment mode, the positive and negative externalities it had hitherto generated in various regions of the world will undergo modification. America's allies and enemies have to rethink their own security postures and priorities to adjust to the new reality.

A 'leaner' American military that has to absorb budget cuts of $500 billion to $1 trillion over the next decade will be a relatively less capable actor in 'full spectrum dominance' and geographical omnipresence. One consequential change would be the US's avoidance of major land wars such as the costly ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which bled the treasury almost dry over the last decade.

The long policy tussle between the 'counter-insurgency school' (those who favoured prolonged American boots on the ground in strategic locations) and the 'counter-terrorism school' (those who advocated limited American aerial and intelligence operations overseas) has finally been won by the latter in Washington. This means that we are not going to witness forcible regime changes through US military shock and awe campaigns in the foreseeable future. President Barack Obama had already signalled that intent by deciding to 'lead from behind' in the case of Libya last year.

With Europe in fiscal dire straits worse than America, the prospects for Western 'humanitarian interventions' in Africa, Asia and Latin America look dimmer this decade. This may sound as good news for developing countries which looked askance at George W Bush-style ideological wars waged on the pretext of human rights.

But the absence of the threat of an invasion by the US and its allies may embolden genocidal regimes to crush domestic dissent. Whether American diplomacy at the United Nations and in regional organisations, minus the big stick of a US army invasion, would be sufficient to deter mass atrocities is questionable. The saving grace is that Obama is morally conscious not to repeat the errors, indecisions and diplomatic sabotage which marked US foreign policy in the early 1990s vis-à-vis genocides in erstwhile Yugoslavia and Rwanda. America had downsized its military spending right after the end of the Cold War, but it could have made a difference in those two sites if not for the diplomatic mistakes committed under former President Bill Clinton.

The presence of Obama at the helm and his emphasis on demilitarising American foreign policy and fronting the civilian side (read the State Department as opposed to the Pentagon) is a reassuring factor that where the US is required to be proactive diplomatically, it will remain so even with a shrunk military machine.

The reduction in overall US military service personnel levels and in acquisition of more high-tech weaponry is ushering in a triage mechanism, whereby the Asia-Pacific region will now enjoy prime priority for maximum force projection at the cost of other regions. Europe and West Asia are set to lose American troops in sizeable numbers, although Washington has named Iran as a salient foe against which there would be no let-up in strategic pressure.

China has reacted furiously at the new defence doctrine of the US because of the centrality of the Asia-Pacific in this reorganisation blueprint. The geopolitical 'pivot' towards checking China's aggression in its neighbourhood is a strategic reprioritisation by Washington which guarantees that Beijing can no longer take for granted its steady sea-borne expansion in northeast and southeast Asia. The US has eschewed its old priority, simultaneously fighting and prevailing in two wars, but its commitment to Taiwan's independence and to beefing up China-weary states like Vietnam and the Philippines is only going upwards.

An America no longer entangled in western parts of Asia is more flexible to match Beijing's massive military build-up in China's extending backyard. This should come as a relief for India, even though New Delhi is apprehensive about the vulnerability of Afghanistan after the US military withdraws from it. Our own planning for Asian security must now factor in the mixed bag of opportunities and perils offered by the American 'pivot' within Asia's sub-regions. India could free ride a little more on the US navy in East Asia, but we may have to make concrete commitments to securing Asia that flanks us on the western side.

Many unknowns remain wrapped in nitty-gritty details of cutbacks in different segments of the Pentagon's vast empire. The eagle's shadow is shortening, but not uniformly. Forward thinking is a must in this evanescent phase.

Sreeram Chaulia is vice-dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs. The views expressed by the author are personal.