9 May 2018

The Importance of Military Power in the 21st Century

ISA (International Strategic Analysis) is continuing with its work analyzing the global balance of power, measuring as accurately as possible the relative power of all of the world’s countries and political entities.  Last year, ISA published its Country Power Rankings, something that will be updated and released again later this year.  In the meantime, ISA will also be publishing new reports and forecasts covering the global balance of power in the months ahead. 

Of all of the forms of power that determine the level of power enjoyed by a country, none is more obvious to the lay observer than a country’s military power.  For one, a country with a strong military typically enjoys a higher degree of security and stability than a state that is militarily weaker than its neighbors and potential rivals.  Likewise, a country with an advantage in terms of military power has the ability to seize or reduce another state’s power in many other areas, including economic-, political- or resource-based power. 

For many states, it was the development of their military power that proved to be the catalyst for their rise to great power status.  For others, a lack of military power proved to be the undoing of states that were either once great powers or who had capability to rise to great power status, but failed to do so.  History is littered with states whose ultimate downfall came on the battlefield, even if it was a decline in other aspects of power that resulted in their eventual military defeat.

There are many factors that determine a country’s overall level of military power, including:

  • Offensive Military Power: A state’s ability to project military power beyond its borders in an aggressive manner is one of the most influential factors in a country’s overall power. 
  • Defensive Military Power: This measures a country’s ability to use military power to protect its territory while facing an aggressive action by a rival country, group of countries, or non-state actors. 
  • Land Power: This category reflects a country’s ability to conduct warfare on land.  Once, this was the dominant aspect of a state’s military power, but expansion of sea, air, space and other forms of warfare have lessened the importance of land power.
  • Sea Power: Near all of the world’s greatest powers throughout history have enjoyed substantial advantages over the rivals in conducting warfare at sea. 
  • Air Power: Barely more than a century old, air power is now a key component of a state’s overall military power and is likely to continue to grow in importance. 
  • Advanced Military Power: This broad category encompasses everything from weapons of mass destruction to cyber- and space-warfare.  The disruptive and potentially groundbreaking impact of this category means that its role in determining a country’s military power will rise in the future.
  • Allies: The great wars of the past few centuries have taught us that having strong and reliable allies is a major boost for a country’s military power and its odds in a conflict with rival powers. 

The other factors that determine a country’s overall level of power all play a significant role in shaping that country’s ability to generate and maintain its level of military power.  These include:

  • Economic: Simply put, a country needs the economic means to afford the high costs and technological developments associated with the development and maintenance of a high degree of military power.
  • Demographic: For now, a country needs a large and healthy population of young adult males (and increasingly females) to provide the manpower needed to sustain a large military, although automation may one day make this a moot point.
  • Environmental and Natural Resources: A country’s geographic situation plays a major role in determining its ability to defend itself and to project military power, while its resource wealth plays a large role in helping to develop its military power.
  • Political: A country’s level of political strength and stability is reflected in the strength and stability of its armed forces, while a unified political leadership can provide a clear focus for a country’s military efforts.
  • Technology: Throughout history, states that have been able to develop technologies that add to their military capabilities have emerged victorious in conflicts against their less-technologically-developed rivals.
  • Cultural: Some states have used a cultural focus on martial factors to enhance their military power, while other states have struggled to develop their military power due to cultural factors.

Just as these other power factors influence a country’s ability to develop military power, a country’s military power also plays a key role in its development of these other factors of power. 

  • Economic: A state that can protect its territory, resources and trade routes has a major economic advantage over others that are unable to do so.  Furthermore, military power can be a catalyst for economic growth, if applied properly.
  • Demographic: A state with a relatively high degree of military power has the capability to protect its population and to allow for its population to grow at a healthy pace. 
  • Environmental and Natural Resources: A strong military allows a country to protect its environmental and resource wealth, while giving it the option to seize the environmental and resource wealth of its weaker rivals.
  • Political: For better or worse, armed forces have played a major role in determining the level of political stability in states throughout history.  When political-military relations are strong and stable, a country is able to achieve a higher degree of political power.
  • Technology: The armed forces have been the catalyst and the source for many of the major technological achievements reached throughout human history and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
  • Cultural: Military power plays a lesser role in determining a country’s level of cultural power, although states with dominant military positions are often able to force their cultural norms on weaker states.

Many states throughout history have used their advantages in terms of military power to achieve great power status.  For example, Macedonia under Philip II and Alexander was considered a backwater by other Greek powers, but its military advantages allowed it to become the most powerful of all of the ancient Greek states.  Prussia too was considered a backwater by other European and German states, but its development of a strong military allowed it to unify Germany and emerge as continental Europe’s most powerful state.  The Soviet Union’s great power status was also based upon a foundation of military power, something that it allowed it to emerge as a global superpower in the wake of the Second World War.

While some great powers built their foundations on military power, other great powers were undermined by this same power.  Some states focused too many resources on their militaries, thus undermining other aspects of their power.  Examples of this include the latter Roman Empire, 16th-17th century Spain, and, more recently, the Soviet Union itself.  Other great powers failed to invest enough in their armed forces, and thus undermined their ability to fend off rival powers.  For example, the Byzantine Empire’s military weakness allowed for the Arabs to seize most of its territory in the 7th century, while China’s military decline opened the door for the Mongols to seize control of China in the 13th century.  In more modern times, France’s inability to match German military power cost that country its leadership position in continental Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Today, there is a great disparity in the level of military power among the world’s leading countries.  In most areas of military power, the United States is dominant, as it spends more on its armed forces than the next eight-largest military spenders combined.  Nevertheless, the United States has learned that, while its armed forces may be able to win just about any battle against rival militaries, it is not large enough to maintain a dominant military position in multiple areas of the world today.  In the meantime, a new rival to the US military is emerging in China.  While China is now the clear number two in terms of military power, its level of military power in most areas is still dwarfed by that of the United States.  However, Chinese defense spending is now more than one-third of that of the US, and this gap is expected to close in the years ahead.  As for the rest of the world, their level of military power is far eclipsed by the US and China, and no other country is able to project continuous military power far from its borders, apart from the US and China.  It is therefore no surprise that, as with many other aspects of power in the 21st century, the United States and China remain the world’s dominant military powers and will remain so for the foreseeable future.