The Parallel Falls of the U.S. and the USSR


Within a few months, Washington managed to arrive at a settlement to raise the debt limit in a tragic-comical piece of political theatre, and a few days later, Standard & Poor lowered the country’s AAA credit rating to AA+. Wall Street has since acted bi-polar and America's economic situation continues to be precarious. Through all the economic news, we must question how these developments will impact the military component of American foreign policy.

A selection of recent Atlantic articles raises the question of the F-35 Lightning project, a next generation fighter jet to replace the family of F-15, F-16, and F-18 jets. The main issues are that it is the most expensive program ever undertaken by the Pentagon, and that numerous problems plague the aircraft. The program is a metaphor for a military expense that is going to be unbearable for Washington to make, and a historical comparison with the demise of the USSR may be useful in drawing out what lies in store for the U.S. military.

In 1989, the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan after a costly 10-year war that accomplished nothing and left thousands dead. The cost came at a time when an expensive, but ineffective, economy could not generate enough productivity and revenue to maintain the whole political organization of the USSR, let alone the extensive military-industrial complex. Alongside the Afghan adventure, the USSR was the main supporter of over-sized armies in the Warsaw Pact countries. Internally, supporting peripheral republics in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (i.e. the port of Sevastopol, submarine bases and nuclear assets and delivery systems in Ukraine), alongside the costly nuclear deterrent, meant that this colossal expense would not be manageable in the long-run. 

The inability to finance the USSR was born out of its internal contradictions as a state-run socio-economic model; the trend of its long-term lack of viability was clear years before the collapse. The economic downturn facing the U.S. suggests that, like the USSR, it will be impossible to maintain the existing military-industrial commitments.

In 1991, the Belavezha Accords were signed to dissolve the USSR. As a consequence, the massive military deployments in the Near Abroad were pulled back within the new borders of the Russian Federation. The central budget was freed from transfers to the republics, but the severe economic contraction of the 1990s impacted state revenue to the point where military expenditure ground to a near halt on both personnel and all major types of equipment. Downsizing of the armed forces, lack of maintenance across all branches of the military, the Kursk disaster in 2000, the retreat from strategic aviation and risks associated with the safety of nuclear material all became not only problems for Moscow, but also causes of concern for Western diplomacy. Low army morale and readiness capabilities did come to the fore as issues during the First Chechen War in the winter of 1994-95.

The loss of the military deterrent left Russia in a vacuum for most of the 1990s both from the perspective of geopolitical policy and regional influence, not to mention local presence. The U.S. will face a similar turn of events as deeper cuts take hold in the coming years.

The most pronounced impact for Washington will be the loss of influence in the Middle East. The scheduled withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan will considerably diminish U.S. policy leverage in the region, as Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for regional leadership. The extensive security commitment to Europe will come under fire and recurring arguments about Europe's assuring its own security will rise again; the presence of thousands of soldiers in Germany and the controversial deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons will merit additional debate. At home, cutting the size of active personnel and reducing the size and use of equipment will become hot political issues.

It is illusory to think that the U.S. will be a superpower ever again, but it does have an integral place in the coming multi-polar world. In my next article, I will talk about what choices the U.S. can set in a strategic manner, so as to do more with less available resources.

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