With our third and final electoral pageantry behind us, Americans can now gorge on a spate of lucid and provocative articulations of global security in the 21st century. That is, for those bothering to read below the fold. For most of us, our interest peaked with the morning headlines whose typographic excess was reserved for the truly important and widely anticipated fare of the evening:
Nuclear proliferation, Iranian diplomacy, al-Qaeda, China, Osama bin Ho Hum. Yes, we are electing a leader to make life and death decisions affecting countless soldiers and civilians, but foreign policy debates are mostly fodder to keep pundits satiated until the weekend. If the top headlines are any indication of our public appetites, however, then Americans are apparently interested in one question alone — which candidate was the most cutting, the most rhetorically incisive, the most qualified to be our next quippy-in-chief?
From the Associated Press to the Huffington Post and everything in between, Obama emerged as the clear front-runner in this war of wits. In responding to Romney’s diminished tally of naval ships by noting that “we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Obama showcased his own experience in this area while simultaneously casting his opponent as uninformed, naïve and generationally disconnected. While it may not have changed any minds, the the only ones not laughing this morning are those powerful representatives of America’s bayonet lobby.
In all likelihood, Romney’s statement probably had less to do with any reasoned analysis or personal stance on nautical dominance than as a dog whistle for a candidate lacking service history to appear pro-military. His choice of anachronisms may have set Obama up for the easy one-two, but in responding to such platitudes with humor, the president revealed a tacit agreement with his opponent’s underlying assumption that military strength is derived from superior hardware. Unfortunately for both candidates, and our national discourse, this is empirically fallacious.
One reliable data source is the Correlates of War (COW) project begun in the 1960s by J. David Singer of the University of Michigan. COW is a massive data project cataloging all interstate wars since 1816 which have resulted in more than 1,000 battlefield deaths. One subset, the Composite Index of National Capability, assigns proportionately higher scores to states with higher global shares of six resources deemed militarily consequential: personnel, resource expenditure, steel/iron production, energy consumption, total population and urban population. Of course, the fact that these six criteria were chosen to determine military capability is in itself telling of the remarkable hegemony of material preponderance as a presumptive determinant of victory.
Based on the available data, it might surprise readers to know that superior military systems have proven victorious in only slightly more than half of all engagements. In other words, having superior technology, training, and assets predicts victory no better than a coin toss. If this sounds implausible then I ask you to consider Vietnam, the Global War on Terror, Iraq, Afghanistan — all conflicts where the full might of the world’s most superior military systems have yielded tenuous victories at best. Victories asserted, we should recall, only by changing the parameters of success to allow for non-material engagement.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the evening is that for all of Obama’s occasional frontiersman bluster for American exceptionalism, his administration seems to understand that power is vastly more complex than material preponderance. The fact that he has struggled to actualize the soft power espoused in 2008 may explain his unwillingness to make it a centerpiece of this campaign. Yet in stooping to Romney’s level, he abdicated yet another opportunity to bring such insights to the forefront of our national dialogue.