The Change of Global Military Balance Since the Cold War -By Jahra Khathun Kadir


The term superpower was first used by William Fox in 1944 with his main emphasis on the military-economic dimensions of power. At that time, he signified the United Kingdom, United States and the Soviet Union were the 3 superpowers. However, after World War 2, UK was struggling to reign in the damage from warfare, their status of superpower was dropped, thus resulting in the remaining of 2 superpowers: US and Soviet Union. The legacy of the cold war; where 2 superpowers on opposite sides of the world, were capable of total global destruction.
Global threats have changed significantly since the cold war, from nations at arms against each to a new age of ‘war on terrorism’ led by the US. The post-cold war era gave rise to different forms of threats, for example, rogue states, transnational territory networks and regional conflicts.
As threats have transformed and crossed national boundaries, the military culture needs to change to respond efficiently and effectively. After the industrial revolution, the emphasis on manpower within a military was diminishing whilst moving towards more technological advances. During the Cold War, the power and strength of a nation did not lie in the quantity of civilians in the armed force, but rather in the scientific research and possession of nuclear arms. The two superpowers; US and Soviet Union, were the top military forces in the world due to this factor.
In the discourse of global power and balance in international relations, the term hegemony is often used. Hegemony is the capability and willingness of a limited number of nations to project considerable influence beyond their own borders over a lengthy period, these are the nations who are and willing to affect the attitudes and actions of others than others can affect them. Though the term hegemony has been used in recent international relations literature, it was first coined by a Greek philosopher who closely connected the relationship between economic resources and military capability in determining hegemonic power. The rhetoric of hegemony is not new, evidently, however in international relations discourse, it is closely linked to the US. During the cold war, the US was evidently a hegemonic power, using nation states in the developing world as allies and spreading their force and influence against and eventually to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The existence of the Soviet Union stood as a restraint to US power and dominance, i.e., their hegemony. The geo positioning of the US was no longer irrelevant with the rise and prospect of nuclear war, they were no longer immune to threats from across the world, thus positioning the US into forming relationships and allies who opposed the rhetoric of the Soviet Union. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US became the only superpower, unchallenged, which allowed them to exert their power and global reach (Jackson and Towle, 2006). It is an indisputable fact therefore, that the US has been the sole military superpower since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is through certain events where the power, capacity and willingness to engage of the US military can truly be seen. The first significant one was the cold war and how the world interacted with the US in their perception of the Soviet Union as a global threat. The second significant event was the twin tower terrorist attacks on 9/11. A new threat had emerged with no geographical boundaries, attacking the foundation of Western democracies.
Global trends in politics change by either singular events or by a long duration of change over a period e.g demographic changes, this is evident in the arena of international relations in how the world reacted to the end of the cold war and 9/11.
9/11 led the US to war in Iraq in 2003, where Saddam Hussein supposedly was harbouring weapons of mass destruction. With no UN approval, the US invaded Iraq in ‘Operation enduring Freedom’ (OEF). The catastrophic effects of the invasion are yet to be fully seen, however the legitimacy of the war remains in question. Thousand US civilians protested and marched against the invasion, however, then President Bush decided to use the power of US’s military force to wage his ‘War on terrorism’; this shows a legacy of George W Bush Jr. The global war on terrorism demonstrated the unilateral power the US military has. The US military overstepped the sovereignty of Iraq with little to no mandate and against the will of so many American citizens. This demonstrates the strength of the US military, where little legitimacy is needed to exert brute force and coercion. Concern of the sheer power of the US was simply put forth by Tony Blair’s former minister where he mentions the largest political problem in the world is the overwhelming power of the US.
The projection in how a state perceives power places a significance importance in how other states perceive a threat and develop domestic and foreign policies. The US see themselves as morally responsible to police the entire world.
The event of 9/11 brought the world to a standstill, it became clear how vulnerable states can be to a terrorist attack and gave rise to the importance of multilateral foreign policies. The reaction of the US was revenge, to seek out those responsible for the attacks and be at war with them and this caused a ripple effect across the world. Many states supported the US rhetoric and provided military resources and intel.
Spaces the US military occupy are not limited to battlefields only, but are spread throughout across the world. It is argued a truly global military power can only function when its military is spread across the globe, this is true for the US as they have camps and bases in many different regions of the world. Many of these camps have different uses, some are empty and unoccupied until the need arises, others are used for military training purposes. Davis (2011) argues the administration of George W. Bush sought operational unilateralism, the ability to wage war without political agreement of the UN or significant allies. However, as the years passed on and the number of US bases outside of USA increased in number, resistance from locals increased and local governments would be reluctant to provide space for the US military in their region. Despite this, the US have achieved what no other states have been able to; a global military network controlled from key US locales (White House, Pentagon, regional command centres and bases).
Under President Barack Obama, there was a decline in adventurism and rise in regional powers. US foreign policy moved away from the use of military power and force to deal with regional conflicts and moved to regional actors to resolve regional problems. This does not imply US military was in decline, but a recognition of the efficiency of the military as a tool to resolve regional conflicts. This demonstrates the many different use the US military obtains and how effectively they use their dominance.
The global reach of the US military can be reassuring to some states and threatening to others. For example, in the Asia-Pacific region, the presence of the US navy fleet is deemed threatening to China and their regional power. This is evident in the recent focus of the Chinese military in focusing on a Chinese blue navy fleet countering the threat of the US navy fleet and the prevention of operation in or near Chinese territorial waters. However, Australia have expressed their gratitude to the presence of the US military in such areas. According to a Defence White paper in 2009 of the Australian government, they mention how they’ve enjoyed decades of peace in Asia-Pacific because of US strategy, placing the US as a pacifier in this part of the world.
To understand the power of the military, it is essential to talk about the arms industry. The arms industry is used more as a business transaction and a means to build relationships with allies. Over time, significantly after the cold war, threats against nation states have changed, this forces a change in military culture to adapt to respond to different threats. States recognise the importance of exporting arms in a bid to transfer norms and values to another state as a form of power and dominance, the military is identified as an agent of socialisation and change. The US and Russia (remerging as an arms dealer in the post cold war era) are the two-top arms supplier with China edging closer to being third. These nation states can supply sophisticated equipment to their client states and can use their exporting of weaponry as means of soft power. Research by Swed and Weinreb (2015) demonstrate through these arms deals and trade, supplier countries have certain power over client states in their military and political choices. Although the US are the top arms exporter, there’s a certain challenge in their hegemony and trends from their client states to trade with other states instead of the US. In 2014, Egypt, a typically US client, signed a $2billion arms deal with Russia, and Turkey pledging to sign a $3billion long-range missile defence system from China as a ‘snub’ towards the US as Turkey pursue their foreign policy for a more autonomous Turkey.
Historically, China have been and still are to some extent non-interventionists. In conflicts outside of its own borders, China pushes for regional dialogue over intervention. However, since the death of Mao, China have moderated their traditional non-interventionist stance to something more active. Other developed nations would call on China to actively partake in interventions and critique China from abstaining in the UN Security Council. China would excuse themselves from international relations in the military sense as they perceived themselves as still ‘developing’ and not strong enough. However, as mentioned before, China have swayed slightly away and are now seen to increasingly participate in Peacekeeping missions, especially in Africa countries. For example, by 2008, according to Chinese official reports, China had contributed a total of 1,963 troops to serve in the Peacekeeping missions under the UN Security council. China’s economic and military power in Africa was exploited just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the perceived decline of US power, this created a window of opportunities for China to immerse themselves centre stage in the global arena.
The notion of China as a rising power and challenger to US hegemony has been in question since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Chinese and US military took two different paths after the cold war. The US downsized their military assets and expenditure yet still maintained a global reach with their missions and tasks whilst China went through a modernisation process conducting regular smaller operations in the Gulf with its primary focus on missions in East Asia. In 1999, the US led NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia demonstrated the skills and advanced technology of the US military, especially the increasing power of US precision-strike capabilities, therefore, in a bid to challenge US hegemony and secure their own borders, China began importing arms from former Soviet Union to specifically counter US military force projection capabilities during the 1990’s. The power gap between the US and Chinese military is closing as the Chinese economy continues to grow and invest in their military budget, this suggests the US will not be the only regional power in the Asia-Pacific. It is important to note, though China is perceived as a serious challenger to the US military they hold the smallest quantity of nuclear arsenal amongst the 5 original nuclear weapons states. China have demonstrated quality over quantity through modernising their military.
China’s recovery following the 2008 financial crisis and the Western countries still lagging behind allowed the Chinese military to assert its power more aggressively especially in the maritime areas. In early 2009, Chinese ships engaged in several scuffles with US surveillance vessels to hinder the American naval intelligence gathering efforts. Further to this, there is no single centralised authority that the US or China can turn to for help if an aggressor threatens them, this enables an imbalance in military power and drives a hegemony to grow.
Measuring the power projection of a military primarily revolves around the use of hard power according to realists, however this focus in heavily critiqued as the role of soft power is increasingly becoming increasingly relevant in an increasingly interdependent world through sophisticated technology and modernisations techniques. As seen during the cold war, attaining certain types of weapons systems can change the regional balance of power, this is still true today. Technological advances and access to the sciences and equipment have driven the global imbalance and balancing of military power. The US military recognised the significance of the industrial revolution and exploited its advances for military purposes. With their military expenditure high up on their domestic policy list, the US have gained a technological and scientific edge over their threats and other nation states, dominating in scientific research and patenting of military equipment.
In the case of Germany, its economy is far greater than other Western states. However, expenditure on their military is considerably less than that of their allies. This is unique to Germany, their ethics and military values grounded in their history and the motto ‘nie wieder krieg’ meaning ‘never again war’. The German military seeks its legitimacy from civilian opinion and not its GDP. The German military could be a serious challenger to US hegemony, but given its history and where it receives its legitimacy from, it resists in doing so.
There are some adversaries to the US who project more power and influence than they hold, this could be the example of Iran according to Chubin (2014). They have little experience in war in modern times, and are not as economically strong as a country compared to others. The Iranian military do not currently possess sophisticated weaponry or machinery that is any competition to their adversaries, the main threat however derives from their nuclear weapons development. In 2014, the US, UK, EU, Russia and China reached a historic agreement with Iran that would limit Iran in developing nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes only. However, recently this agreement is now facing an unpredictable future under the leadership of Trump.
As it can be seen, military supremacy is does not solely lie in superpower status, the economy of the state and its economic strength must be considered. Though the US suffered from an economic set back and is still in recovery, its military advances is still impressive. However, given the economic rise of China and its thorough techniques in modernising their military, it can be concluded China is potentially on the verge of becoming a superpower. If not that, then a serious challenger to the US superpower.
The 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, holds leadership in a unique way. The rise of social media and an increasingly irresponsible use of its platforms, i.e. twitter, could cost the US a catastrophic war. Allies of the US in the Asia-Pacific region e.g. Japan and South Korea, have looked to the US in confidence for acting as a means for security, however under the leadership of Trump, this confidence is being lost rapidly. The escalation of threats between North Korea and the US has only given rise to Chinese regional power.
To conclude, during the cold war the two military superpowers the US and Soviet Union rivalled and challenged each other until the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. After the cold war, the power and global reach of the US military was unparalleled. It’s vast reserve of nuclear weapons, despite numerous arms control treaties, the number of nuclear weapons the US holds is unparalleled.
The physical presence of military bases across the world, sheer technological advancement in weaponry and many states dependent on the US for sophisticated machinery grounded the US as a top global military power. Post 9/11 catapulted the US to military primacy and to operate its military unilaterally, its ‘war on terror’ is still on going and unrivalled by any other states. However, China’s economy is fast evolving, and its smart and sophisticated investment through modernisation techniques have pushed forth China as a regional power in the Asia-Pacific. The Chinese military has not yet achieved a global reach like that of the US, but its presence in the African countries sets a precedence in a move upwards to more than just a regional power. China’s ability to recover quickly from economic set backs such as the 2008 financial crisis allows the Chinese military to assert their power more aggressively.
However, there are regional powers which have the potential to accumulate certain amount of power and have caught the attention of the international political world such as Iran that pose a certain degree of uncertainty soon if diplomatic agreements cannot be met under the current leadership of Trump.
The power projection of the US remains unpredictable under the leadership of Trump. Threats made on twitter to North Korea as if in passing, has the world on edge. Empty words and threats only give rise to China as a more dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region. If China’s military remains on the rise, soon enough, as many international relations scholars have predicted, China could potentially be the next military superpower to challenge the US hegemony in the post cold war era.

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