Semtext #3: Steven Metz – Deciphering the American Way of Warfare

This SemText is a recap of an impressive talk by Steven Metz, who attempts to “decipher” the American approach to war and conflict over the centuries and how the future would look like.

At first, I was not that interested in the topic of the seminar. The American way of war seemed to be such a bore. It’s about power projection, neo-imperialism, all that conspiracy stuff. However, Steven Metz delivered the topic in such an interesting way, I actually had an actual paradigm shift.

Metz used a historical approach to explain three major points:

  1. How the US got here
  2. How the present looks like
  3. What the future might look like

Now, it would be difficult to actually “decipher” the American way of war as it is highly complex, given that Americans think about security a lot. It is a “moving target” and, according to Metz, we may be in the middle of a transitional phase.

How the US got here

There’s a lot of history on how the US got to where they are right now. Metz thinks that there’s a historical influence on how Americans perceive war and warfare which dates back to the colonial times.

On one hand, there’s the effect of geography. The US is fairly isolated from other great power struggles in Europe and Asia. This means that the US has the luxury of not having to fund massive standing armies like their European counterparts who are at each other’s throats all the time. Since they were far from the battlefield, for a lot of their history, the US fought persistent low-intensity conflicts, mostly versus Native Indians.

Here are some interesting features of the American way of war that Metz thinks still permeates strategic thinking until the late 1990s. First,

First, the normal state of affairs is peace. This means that wars would be considered one-time things; whenever a war broke out, the state would mobilise an armed force, and when the war was over, the soldiers could come home and everything would be peaceful again. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Second, being an ex-colonial state, there was a social resentment against standing armies. Standing armies were often viewed as tools of oppression. The US preferred having a small-scale armed militia rather than a massive standing army. Though the US did implement a standing army after independence, it was still made to be small. However, being a mercantile nation, they were OK with standing navies. Navies were there to protect merchant fleets, not wage war with other people.

What does this have to do with strategic thinking? Throughout history, we’ve seen a pattern of mobilisation unique to the US. They don’t want to be involved in conflict that much. In the 1800s, the US was a highly industrialised nation, but that industrial power did not translate into military power. Even in WW1, the US decided to stay on the sidelines, until Woodrow Wilson decided that a Europe governed by Germany would be bad for the balance of power.

The mobilisation of the armed forces in WW1 also saw the beginning of a US dualism to their strategic thinking. Since it was hard to sell the notion of “balance of power” to the lay public and garner support for the war, Wilson had to say that it was a war to make the world safe for democracy. This “dualism” that Metz identified sorta goes like this:

In private, policy-makers adopt a very realistic attitude of international relations, where everything is viewed in terms of balance of power, etc. However, when in public, the idealistic notions of democracy and good values emerge and are used as justifications for involvement in wars.

Why is that? Simply, it’s hard to sell realist arguments to the American public and even more so to the international community. We’ve all heard of the “democracy” jokes like this one:


Even more so, some Americans really believe that they are a force for good. Of course, that idealistic notion is even harder to sell, since it makes them sound like hypocrites. This “conflict of personalities” is something that remains hard to resolve today.

After the Korean War, the US reluctantly took up the mantle of global leadership, but under several caveats. One, they want to keep costs as low as possible. Second, they want to limit American “blood cost”. Simply put, if the world wanted US protection, they would have to play by American rules based on these two caveats. As such, the US approach to warfare and security became an assortment of the following features:

  1. Reliance on partners
  2. Reliance on strategic air power
  3. Qualitative superiority in human resources and technology
  4. Presence and power projection
  5. Robust intelligence to support the military

Sounds familiar? Yes, that’s the Cold War approach to security.

Now, when the Soviets decided to call “GG”, the US was presented with a choice. Either they would dismantle the military and return to the normal state of affairs or maintain the armed forces. Turns out, the US opted to keep their forces intact to maintain US primacy in the world. And that’s how we’ve arrived at the present condition, where the US is practically everywhere, policing rogue states and maintaining world order. This became even more prevalent after 9/11, when the US decided to expand homeland security and go to the Middle East to “drain the swamps” of Islamic extremism.

How the US is doing right now

So far, we now have seen how the US reached a state where they are virtually everywhere from a state where they were distancing themselves.

The current thinking that permeates in the US is that of connectivity, which is driven by globalisation. Since a small instability somewhere might have a ripple effect on the interconnected world, the US needs to maintain a global presence to sort out those instabilities as soon as possible.

Metz argues that we’re right at a point where a major transition might happen. There are three major “problems” on the US’ plate right now: China, Russia, and ISIS. These three “problems” are in no way similar to one another and each demands a tailored approach. Domestically, the US is strained for resources (read: budget cuts). This also has an effect on how much they can chew. The thing is, Metz thinks, the US just doesn’t know which one to prioritise on. They all seem important, but considering the budget cuts, the US would have to make a lot of strategic trade-offs.

So, where is the US headed?

Unfortunately, that’s a hard question to provide a definitive answer to. The fact remains that maintaining US global presence is becoming more and more of a burden, both economically and politically.

There’s this argument from T. X. Hammes that technology will eventually make the effects of globalisation decline. Since we can 3D-print everything, there’s no need to even care about China’s manufacturing. Renewable energy sources means that the US no longer needs to rely on Middle Eastern oil. In short, what Hammes is trying to say is that technological advances may actually serve to de-link the global economy. As tech advances, the US might see more incentives to disengage from the world economy, and ergo, selectively disengage from problems they don’t give a fuck about.

However, there’s also the politico-strategic dimension to selective disengagement. There’s a heated debate going on between the military whether disengagement would benefit them or put generals and soldiers on suicide watch. Furthermore, there’s also that worry about China using the opportunity to usurp the US throne.

There’s also talk about restoring the previous roots of strategic thinking, or the “peace-war-peace” cycle. The US would selectively disengage in problems that it doesn’t care about and would only be engaged in problems that have major impacts on world order and US survival.

Overall, it’s an interesting future to watch and think of.

Seminar: RSIS Seminar Series

Date of seminar: 4 October 2016

SemText is where I write about the seminars (hence the “Sem” prefix) that I attend. Mostly summaries of speakers’ points, sometimes added with my personal judgment/opinion.

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