The gorilla in us

Posted: Feb 06, 2002 12:00 AM
The NATO representatives who met in Munich for their 38th annual conference to explore matters of military resources and responsibility were oddly depressed. The reason for it wasn't the insufficiency of their combined might. It was the critical predominance of American might. We learn of the pertinence of national pride, and with it the collateral diminution of influence. The looming question seemed to be: What if NATO, or one of its component nations, committed itself to an enterprise and the United States didn't get into the act? Could the NATO powers go it alone?

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said it flatly. The European NATO allies are "militarily undersized." The spending by NATO on military defense is $140 billion. That isn't enough to give NATO much bang, were it to undertake a serious initiative without the backup power of the United States.

The contrast was illustrated in a piece for the Financial Times by Yale historian Paul Kennedy, and he began it with a snapshot of our force built around the USS Enterprise. The ship is, of course, an aircraft carrier, nuclear-powered. On Sept. 11 it was cruising about in the Indian Ocean and was forthwith directed toward the Near East and traveled 30 miles per hour in the direction of the war zone. Now that carrier has a crew of 3,200. They simply run the ship. The Air Force component has 2,400 pilots and air crew who maintain 70 state-of-the-art aircraft, ready to go on a moment's notice.

Although it is called a dreadnought, in fact aircraft carriers do have things to dread, for which reason they do not go about the world unescorted. The Enterprise is accompanied by an Aegis-type cruiser. This is a large surface ship, charged with intercepting incoming missiles. We have then a "bevy" of frigates and destroyers, out there searching for enemy submarine activity. Then, lurking about, are hunter-killer submarines, at least one, perhaps two. In the rear are the supply vessels. Marine troops and their helicopters are on board.

We now have 12 of these floating garrisons, and when the USS Ronald Reagan is launched, we'll have a 13th. When time came for action against Afghanistan, our B-1 bombers flew in from the continental United States and B-52s came up from Diego Garcia. The war was won with fewer casualties than New York loses in one week to murderers.

Now this colossus, in the language of professor Kennedy, has been "stupefying to the Russian and Chinese military, worrying to the Indians, and disturbing to proponents of a common European defense policy." Because, in military terms, we are the only player. We spend more than the next nine largest national-defense budgets combined.

This rise in military power is the result of providential developments. Twenty years ago the Soviet Union was struggling for nuclear supremacy, and Japan was assumed to be the economic behemoth of the ensuing decade. Exit Russia as a potential aggressor -- they have left only nuclear bombs, and these, in modern warfare, are all but useless. And exit Japan, which is left behind, engrossed in learning simple economic arithmetic.

Then we've had in America the explosion of technological prowess. At the meeting of the cyber people in San Francisco on Monday, we learned that Moore's Law has been anachronized. That law was the hubristic fancy of the scientist Gordon Moore, who toyed with the idea back in 1965 that every 18 months, the power of a computer chip would double. What discredited Moore's fantasy is, we learn, that chips will increase in power a lot faster than that. Add to it all the increase in U.S. economic power, and lo, the creature that sprung from the loins of America the Beautiful dominates the air, land and sea.

"It is as if, among the various inhabitants of the apes' and monkeys' cages at the London Zoo, one creature had grown bigger and bigger -- and bigger -- until it became a 500-pound gorilla. It couldn't help becoming that big, and in a certain way America today cannot help being what it is either," writes Kennedy.

The implications of it all are enormous, causing us concern less for the old maxim that we ought not to get involved in the affairs of other nations, than concern over the implications of failing to get involved when a sophisticated political and strategic polity tells us how much American power is needed. Not to colonize, but to help ensure stability and keep the muscles of our allies in shape, so that they can render critical service in predictable crisis points, this being an age when a half-dozen rowdy nations have realistic prospects of putting their hands on the ultimate weapons, biological and chemical, and of course nuclear.