This article was originally published in the Summer 1992 issue of the Harvard International Review.
Often when the United States has won a victory in wartime, it has moved quickly to put that conflict, and the military forces that helped win it, in the past. Americans are not a bellicose people. For us, military action is a last resort. However, the decisions we make about our military in peacetime are every bit as critical as those we make in time of crisis, and may be more so.
Today, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States again faces the challenge of making decisions about its forces in peacetime that will determine its military capability and its security for years to come. Our choices will shape the military that we must rely on in the next decade and the new century. They will also help ensure that during a period of global change, this nation has the ability to help fashion the kind of world in which United States’ democratic values and interests are protected and advanced.
In the past three years, the United States and its allies have won significant victories, allowing all of us to look with a sense of accomplishment toward a less threatening future. Soviet communism, freedom’s greatest adversary for more than forty years, has collapsed.
A worldwide coalition in the Persian Gulf has turned back a ruthless dictator, and potential aggressors everywhere have learned that free nations will act to defend their interests.
Our recent successes have radically altered the world’s strategic environment. During the Cold War, the Western democracies had to plan to meet the threat of a sudden Warsaw Pact offensive that could have, in short order, subjugated Europe and pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war. Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of democratic forces in the republics that have emerged from its ruins, our fundamental assumptions about US defense requirements can change.
Cold War confrontation has been transformed into the promise of a new era of strategic cooperation. Today the strongest and most capable countries of the world are our friends. An aggressor would have to overcome our formidable alliances and qualitative military advantages that the United States displayed so impressively in the Gulf War. The United States has a longer warning tune before serious threats could arise, strong alliances in every region to keep the peace, and the quality forces and technological edge to prevail against potential aggressors.
This new international security environment offers the United States an unprecedented opportunity to use the leadership position that it has earned and to influence the course of world events in decades to come. In many respects, the positive developments that have occurred in the world are the result of the American people’s willingness to commit sufficient military forces to resist aggression and protect democracy. That same commitment will underpin our continued progress in the future.
Maintaining the alliances and military capabilities that are so critical to peace can help discourage potential aggressors from beginning regional arms races, raising tensions, or pursuing hostile regional domination. Furthermore, we can achieve these goals and provide more security for much less money and with fewer forces than were required to contain Soviet aggression during the Cold War.
Recent developments have not eliminated all future threats, and the challenge for policy makers is to start developing forces and capabilities today that will be needed to counter threats still too distant in the future to be confidently predicted. World events repeatedly defy even short- term predictions. Early in 1990, few predicted that the United States would be headed for war by Labor Day or that by New Year’s Day the United States would have half a million servicemen in the Persian Gulf region. Early in 1991, few predicted that the Soviet Union would no longer exist by Christmas.
In the coming years, the United States will continue to face critical uncertainties in world affairs. We have already seen that regional tensions, such as the conflict in the Gulf, can pose serious threats to our national interests. In the former communist countries, the road to stable democratic institutions and prosperous free markets will not be an easy one. We hope that Russia and the other republics will make a successful transition to democratic systems and market economies, but seventy years of communist misrule and economic collapse are daunting hurdles to overcome.
A Sound Defense Strategy
The United States cannot base its future security on a shaky record of prediction or even on a cautious recognition of uncertainty. Sound defense planning seeks to help shape the future. This is the goal of the defense strategy announced by President Bush in August 1990.
In designing the new approach to national security policy, the United States made the optimistic assumption that positive developments in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe will continue. It also developed a regional strategy, focusing on the crises and contingencies that would be most likely to affect its security in the years ahead.
The core objectives of the regional defense strategy are to protect United States interests and promote a more stable, democratic world. To accomplish these objectives, the United States must pre- serve its leadership in the world, maintain leading-edge military capabilities and enhance collective security among democratic nations. Furthermore, the United States faces the task of carrying alliances into a new era and turning old rivalries into new cooperative relationships.
The United States regional defense strategy rests on four essential elements. First, the United States will continue to rely on its strategic nuclear deterrent capability and will pursue ballistic missile defenses. All our optimism about the course of events in the former communist world does not minimize the importance of doing everything possible to guard against nuclear conflict. The huge arsenals of the former Soviet Union, including some 30,000 tactical and strategic nuclear warheads, are not the only concern. Today, over fifteen nations have ballistic missile capabilities. By the year 2000, some twenty nations could have them, a number of which could be armed with chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.
It is essential to maintain a secure nuclear deterrent, to work to limit the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons technologies and their delivery systems and to deploy a defense against ballistic missile attack. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, where a single Scud missile strike killed more American people than any other incident, it is imperative that we develop and deploy strategic defense systems to protect the United States, its allies and its soldiers in the field.
Second, as the Gulf War taught us in the first test of this new strategy, the United States must have the ability to respond quickly and decisively to regional crises. In the future, we must be prepared to operate in distant areas of the world and to cope with differences in climate, terrain, and the military capabilities of potential adversaries. We may find our- selves far from home, without significant time to build up our forces where they are needed. The ability to project power quickly and effectively will remain critical to US interests.
Third, the new regional strategy recognizes the need to continue deploying US forces overseas to help provide stability in critical regions of the world. Forward deployments, although in smaller numbers, are an important confidence-builder, assuring the world that the United States can and will act quickly to meet crises that affect its security and that of its allies.
This policy recognizes the importance of alliances, of working with other nations that share our objectives. After all, the “silent victory” of the Cold War was the cohesion of our alliances. The trust and cooperation of allies across the globe has allowed us to act effectively to defend shared security interests. We have encouraged our allies to increase their commitments. In the years ahead, their contribution to collective security will remain important.
Finally, we must maintain the capacity to reconstitute our forces in the event that a broader, major threat emerges and raises the prospect of large-scale global war. That capacity will contribute to deterring any potential adversary from threatening this nation, and it will provide us with a global war-fighting capability should deterrence fail.
As a result of this new defense strategy, the United States is now able to reduce the overall size of its armed forces. We are moving as rapidly as possible to make fundamental changes in our armed forces’ structure. By 1995, the United States will have reduced the number of defense personnel by about one million, including half a million active-duty servicemen and women. Army divisions, Navy ships and Air Force fighter wings are being rapidly retired. The military is closing or withdrawing from nearly 700 bases and facilities around the world. Since becoming Defense Secretary three years ago, I have cancelled more than 100 weapons systems.
In 1987, one in every four dollars of the federal budget was earmarked for defense spending. By 1997, the defense share of the federal budget will account for just one dollar in every six. Defense spending will total just three to four percent of the gross national product, the lowest level since before Pearl Harbor. These reductions are profound, but they have been carefully designed to leave it with a force capable of performing its missions in the post-Cold War era. We have taken a zero- based look at our force structure to ensure that it is able to meet future requirements.
The Department of Defense has but a single job: to guarantee that this nation is prepared to protect itself and its interests. The United States must retain the ability to deploy its forces overseas, retain the ability to defend its national interests and aid its threatened friends. The future may come to depend on others’ perception of our willingness and ability to respond, both in the short and long term. Maintaining that capacity will be absolutely critical in heading off future crises and dissuading potential aggressors from challenging the vital interests of the United States. Reducing the armed forces too far and too fast, as some suggest we do, risks losing the military capability that we have worked so hard to build.
Making Wise Decisions
If the American people choose wisely today, we can do well something this nation has always done poorly before: we can draw down our military force responsibly, without endangering our security. We failed to do this after World War II, and we were unprepared for Korea. We did the job poorly after Vietnam and found ourselves with the hollow forces of the late 1970s. We are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The decisions we will make in the months ahead involve some of the most important national security choices that the United States will face. They have a single purpose: to ensure that the United States is prepared for the next time it must go to war. And, as history repeatedly has shown, there will be a next time. These are not decisions about jobs in a congressional district, a weapons project we do not need or a base we cannot afford to keep open. They are decisions about security, about deterring war, about winning decisively if the country must fight, and about saving the lives of the men and women of its armed forces.
These also are decisions that will determine whether the United States, the world’s only remaining superpower, will exercise the leadership to shape its destiny. They are decisions about whether we will continue to be able to encourage the spread of democracy and respect for human rights that our leadership has instilled in a growing portion of the world.
Note from the Editor
Over a decade before Cheney would serve as vice president in the administration that commanded US forces to invade Iraq in 2003, he was serving as the US Defense Secretary in the 1990s. This article, written by then-Secretary Cheney for the Harvard International Review in the summer of 1992, outlines what would become the cornerstones of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy: an aggressive defense of US interests, negotiating from a place of military strength, and placing a premium on action to secure the world from threats. At the time this was written, the United States was struggling to find a role for itself in the post-Cold War order, and it was increasingly difficult to justify the massive armies of the United States following the fall of the USSR. This article illustrates Cheney’s response to these challenges, a vision for the United States and its military playing a strong role around the world in the name of securing peace.