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Washington Quarterly: The Risk of Ignoring Strategic Insolvency

Author: Michael J. Mazarr
October 1, 2012


The post-war U.S. approach to strategy is rapidly becoming insolvent and unsustainable. If Washington continues to cling to its existing role on the premise that the international order depends upon it, the result will be increasing resistance, economic ruin, and strategic failure with consequences harming U.S. credibility, diplomacy, and military operations.

A moment has arrived when a great power with global responsibilities is having a crisis of confidence. Its economy has grown sluggish and it is being overtaken by a number of rising competitors. Financial pressures loom, notably the ability to keep a balance between government
revenues and expenses. It is losing long-standing superiorities psychological as well as technological and numerical in key categories of military power; this great power, whose diplomats and military leaders manage active or potential conflicts from Afghanistan to Europe with treaty alliances as far flung as Japan and Australia, confronts the need for constraints on its global ambitions and posture. This urgent reckoning has been prompted in part by a painful and
largely unnecessary counterinsurgency war far from home that cost many times more than initially thought and exhausted the country's overstretched land forces.

The moment in question is the period 1890—1905, and the power is Great Britain. In one sense, London was riding the crest of her imperial power: As brilliantly narrated by Robert K. Massie, the Diamond Jubilee of 1897 broadcast the image of an empire at its apogee. Yet even as Britain paraded its navy before the world, many of its leaders were suffering through a two-decade surge of pessimism about the prospects for their global role. They saw their economic prospects dimming, their finances unsupportive of endless foreign commitments, and their naval as well as land power strained by global commitments that pressed against the burgeoning power of a half-dozen regional challengers. As Princeton scholar Aaron Friedberg has put it, ''The nation appeared to have its neck in a gradually tightening noose from which no easy escape was possible''; without a national crisis to justify new taxes ''there seemed no way of avoiding
eventual insolvency."

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