June 1, 2014

Resilience and the Future Balance of Power

The following article appeared in the June-July 2014 edition of Survival. An excerpt is included below. The full text can be accessed here.  

Not long ago – in the 1980s, in fact – the US policy community was in the throes of a high-stakes debate about the nature and extent of Soviet power. On one side was a large group who believed that the United States was losing ground to an increasingly powerful and aggressive Soviet Union. Proponents of this view pointed to the shifting balance of conventional military power in favour of Moscow, particularly in Europe, and to Soviet aggression in places such as Afghanistan. As a consequence, many American policymakers advocated increases in military spending to balance against the Soviet Union, a position that was also supported by many in the US military establishment. Others who shared this perspective proposed a more conciliatory and accommodating approach towards their rival, one that was helped along by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s move towards glasnost, and which was eventually manifested in arms-control talks between Washington and Moscow.

On the other side of this debate were those who saw the Soviet Union as in decline, particularly economically. Some scholars, notably Paul Kennedy, observed in the late 1980s that the Japanese economy had surpassed that of the Soviet Union in size, despite Japan having just a third of the federation’s population (this was during the same era that yielded the now risible book, The Coming War with Japan). Yet, even while noting the Soviet Union’s long-term and relative economic decline, Kennedy stopped short: ‘this does not mean that the USSR is close to collapse’. By and large, the idea of a Soviet Union at risk of terminal decline or imminent dissolution remained on the fringes of US public and policy discourse.

 Without the benefit of hindsight, the case for continuing Soviet supremacy seemed convincing. In fact, in the early 1980s, using any traditional analytical approach, there was little reason to believe that the Soviet Union would collapse as suddenly and as utterly as it did just a decade later. The federation was governed by an established leader, Leonid Brezhnev, and had become embroiled in the ‘Second Cold War’, a period of intensified competition with the US. In 1980 the Soviet Union had the world’s second-largest economy, after that of the US. Many forget that, in addition to its massive standing army and air force, the Soviet Union rivalled the US as the pre-eminent naval power: it had 273 submarines to America’s 90, and a 184 to 149 advantage in major surface warships. The Soviets also retained enormous international influence, including in large swathes of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. And the Soviet Union was universally acknowledged as a great power, and granted positions in international governing councils corresponding to that status.