The Superpower Paradox – Unusable Power

The paradox of great power is that in the modern world, it can seldom be used, and the superpower’s advantage is often temporary

 By Anil Madan

The withdrawal of all its remaining forces from Afghanistan marks yet another war that America lost or, at least, did not win. Some say that this result was a foregone conclusion.

Certainly, to a discerning observer, President Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban in 2020 culminating in the agreement to withdraw all US and NATO forces by May 2021 made it clear who really was in control and would eventually rule Afghanistan. For the US to have agreed to negotiate with the Taliban and not insisted that President Ashraf Ghani’s government be at the table, thus succumbing to the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with what they described as an “American puppet” confirmed that the Taliban must have had a decided political and tactical upper hand.

True, the deal with the Taliban included a commitment to negotiate a ceasefire with the Ghani government but this was illusory. It was no more than a half-hearted commitment that the Taliban would try to reach an accord with Ghani. Strange indeed, that the government of a country whose fate is about to be decided, is not included in the negotiations from the onset.

The obvious question is why did this latest Afghan war end this way? How is it that the most powerful country with overwhelming firepower could not handle the Taliban? The same question, repeated after almost every major modern-day overseas intervention has vexed American post-war diplomacy and militarism since the end of World War II.

The three major post-war conflicts, the Korean war, the Vietnam war, and the second Gulf War in Iraq suggest that overwhelming military superiority is no guarantee of victory. The more important lesson from these conflicts has been the recognition that the very definition of “victory” has been elusive. And even where there has been no actual military intervention, America’s threats to use overwhelming force have not been an effective approach. Thus, Kim Jong Un and the Iranian Ayatollahs have not been brought to heel.

Aside from the major conflicts mentioned, American president after American president has not been able to resist the temptation to dispatch troops, bombers, aircraft carriers, and destroyers around the world even against minor “enemies” as best exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s Grenada adventure. The one consistent lesson to learn from all this is that if you empower an American President to deploy America’s great military strength, the temptation is not easily resisted. But there is another lesson hidden in this experience and that is of the paradox that all the power that the US has at its disposal can seldom be unleashed to subdue an enemy — even if the “enemy” can be defined or identified. A more subtly hidden lesson is that America has often had trouble defining and identifying who the enemy really is and therefore lacked an appropriate target against which to direct its massive force.

As the negotiations with the Taliban were being concluded, President Trump blustered: “If bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force like no one’s ever seen,” and “If for any reason they come back to our country, we will go wherever they are and use power the likes of which the United States has never used before, and I’m not even talking about nuclear power.”

This begs the question why the US had not already deployed power the likes of which the US has never used before to do away with the Taliban. If it had been possible to defeat the Taliban in that way, surely the war would not have lasted twenty years.

President Trump was not reticent about engaging in bluster and threats in other situations. In his first ever address to the United Nations in 2017, he said: “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission.” That moniker for Kim Jong Un of North Korea was Trump’s derisive reference to recent missile tests by the so-called Hermit Kingdom. Trump went on to say: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” In a comical sequel to this belligerence, Trump would later declare that he and Kim had fallen in love. It’s hard on the heart to destroy someone with whom you are in love. 

And when Iran threatened reprisals after the assassination of General Soleimani, Trump said that the US would respond to any Iranian action with “1000 times greater in magnitude.” 

Trump had barely uttered his words about the total destruction of North Korea when the left-leaning media types predictably went nuts with dire warnings that Trump was unstable and leading the world toward nuclear holocaust. But Trump was not the only American President to muse about the destructive potential of America’s power. President Obama too had made a similar statement without provoking much reaction from either the left or the right media types. Perhaps this was because Obama used slightly more tempered language in saying: “We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals. But aside from the humanitarian costs of that, they are right next door to our vital ally, the Republic of Korea.”

We all remember that when President George W. Bush spoke of going to war in Iraq in 2003, there was much talk of “shock and awe” to start the war. And under President Nixon, the US engaged in carpet bombing of Cambodia in a failed effort to cut the Viet Cong’s supply lines.

America’s lack of success

The answer to America’s lack of success in its overseas military adventures is both simple and complex. At a very high level, the use of strategic nuclear weapons is out of the question. There are two reasons for this. 

First, in the post-war era, perhaps the greatest value strategic nuclear weapons have is to deter nuclear attacks by others. 

Second, no overseas military adventure since World War II has involved the goal of destroying totally another country or a part of it. Japan was, of course, the one exception because it had attacked Pearl Harbour. But the decision to drop two nuclear bombs on Japanese cities had profound consequences for America. Of course, the nuclear attacks forced Japan to surrender. But the attacks left a deep scar on the American psyche.

There were charges that President Truman had overstepped the bounds of decency and humanity. And, of course, there were charges of racism with the suggestion that the US would not have used nuclear weapons against a white European country.

If one reflects on Trump’s recalling an airstrike against Iran because he learned that hundreds of civilians would be killed, one gets a sense of how much pressure is on American presidents to avoid civilian casualties.

The Nuremberg Trials at which Nazis were brought to justice for war crimes created the seeds for an American pledge not to engage in similar conduct. Indeed, the prosecution of Lieutenant William Calley for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam reflected American ambivalence about using massive firepower against other countries and a commitment to avoiding atrocities against innocent civilians.

Nor did the United States go into Vietnam or Afghanistan to destroy those countries but, in a strange reflection of American naïveté, to save them. In Vietnam, it was the Domino Theory at play. If America did not stop the Communist advance in Vietnam, other countries in Indochina and Asia would be in line to fall.

In Afghanistan, the effort was aimed at capturing Osama bin Laden and punishing the Taliban for harbouring him. It was only after the second infusion of American troops into Afghanistan — readers will remember that President Bush withdrew American forces to focus on the Iraq war but then went back into Afghanistan — that the Karzai government was set up and America’s focus changed to setting up a sort of liberal democracy that would, among other things, treat women as equals. Noble goals, to be sure, but given that the Afghan government was not truly representative of the country, not a liberal democracy, and given that to this day, there are reports of corruption at the highest levels, the effort was doomed to fail.

If strategic nuclear weapons were not the answer and overwhelming air power used for carpet bombing was not the answer, what about American ground force superiority combined with air support? And what about tactical nuclear weapons?

Suppress a belief

The problem with American ground force superiority supported by air power is that the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and indeed, the conflict in Syria had no defined enemy. Yes, to some extent, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong Un, and the Iranian Ayatollahs are seen as the embodiment of evil by the US. But destroying those individuals was not the goal of the US. Misguided as it may be, the goal has been either to suppress a belief or an ideology, or, in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, hope that a government supported and propped up by the Americans would in time come to be accepted by the people.

But one cannot shoot at a policy or drop bombs on beliefs or on ideology. Often, in these overseas interventions, the US itself is viewed as the enemy or unwelcome occupier. Here we have learned that Democracy is not an exportable commodity.

This brings us to the subject of tactical nuclear weapons. I bring this issue up not because it is a serious choice for an American victory, but precisely because it is not. 

In the mid-1960s the failure to interrupt the Viet Cong’s supply lines and continuing excursions into South Vietnam raised frustrations to the point that the possibility of using nuclear force was considered. Here, we are speaking only of tactical nuclear weapons, strategic weapons having been excluded from consideration. A study was conducted by a Pentagon group of consultants known as the Jasons or the Pentagon’s “Wise Men.” They concluded that the use of tactical nuclear weapons was a really bad idea. An article from National Interest notes that there had been not infrequent talk among some of the military people involved in planning the war effort, that ‘a few nukes’ dropped on strategic locations, North Vietnamese-Laotian border, would close off routes from North to South Vietnam for good.

The essence of the study is captured in this sentence: “Those conclusions were eye-opening. Although a RAND Corporation study estimated that one tactical nuclear weapon equalled twelve conventional bombing attacks, the Jasons concluded that an all-nuclear ‘rolling thunder’-style bombing campaign would require 3000 tactical nukes a year. Not even the massive US nuclear production complex could support that kind of use.” It does not take much imagination to also realize that America could not then send its troops into zones contaminated with nuclear fallout and radiation.

What we can learn from all of this is that if the superpower’s objective does not include taking over the foreign country, there is no point in undertaking military action in the first place. Nor is the use of overwhelming conventional force possible without inflicting massive casualties on civilians and the foreign country’s infrastructure. It is difficult to make an argument that destroying another country’s people and infrastructure is the way to spread democracy. The very principles that motivate the impulse to spread democracy are the principles that counsel against such use of force. This is another aspect of the paradox of unusable power.

As we watch China’s ascendancy and its increasingly militaristic approach in the South China Sea and in space, one wonders if President Xi Jin Ping will be as hesitant to use overwhelming force. Certainly, China’s actions in Hong Kong, Tibet, on the mainland itself, and in the Pacific Ocean give cause for worry. One should not assume that other nuclear powers faced with existential threats will not retaliate. There is, therefore, a serious downside to any contemplated use of massive force by China outside its own borders.

This may sound Pollyannaish, but the great powers really do have much more to gain from robust and healthy competition than from military conquest. Ultimately, military conquest on a grand scale is unachievable. We see that despite the breakup of the Soviet Union, its successor Russia, albeit much depleted is still a powerful and dangerous force. So too will America be a powerful and dangerous force no matter how successfully China is able to dominate the oceans or space with its burgeoning military.

The paradox of great power is that in the modern world, it can seldom be used, and the superpower’s advantage is often temporary because it cannot garner the support of the population at large.


* Published in print edition on 28 September 2021

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