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17.2: On Global Watch

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  • Today, the American population of 325 million is the third highest in the world. Still, that total is less than five per cent of the world population and small by comparison with the billion-plus populations of China and India. However, the United States accounts on its own for over 40 per cent of global military expenditures, exceeding those of the next ten nations combined. The current amount it spends on defence per year is similar (adjusted for inflation) to its military spending during the Cold War when it faced a direct military competitor. Perhaps more significant is the legacy effect, as the United States has been investing tens of billions of dollars per year in defence technology since the Second World War. That investment has built a capacity that gives it a peerless military advantage in nearly every aspect of warfare. As we enter a period known as the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, when drones and other types of advanced – and even autonomous – weaponry become the new norm, the United States has a significant head start.

    The United States Armed Forces is the only military with the ability to carry out truly global operations. It has a worldwide network of nearly 700 bases and other military-related facilities that supports its overseas deployment of more than 200,000 military personnel. Command and control for these forces is provided by several redundant and protected communications, intelligence and surveillance systems. Orbiting above the earth are dozens of US military satellites. Constantly circling the skies above several of the earth’s trouble spots is an air armada of American military drones. Finally, roaming the world’s oceans are ten US aircraft carrier groups – perhaps the most illustrative statistic as no other state has more than two. This military is substantially bigger than is needed to defend the American homeland. The United States is a geographically advantaged nation with oceans on two of its sides and non-hostile states (Canada and Mexico) on the other two. It is a nation that is hard to invade because of those oceans and even harder to intimidate because of its scale and wealth. Although reachable by missiles, the United States maintains a formidable nuclear deterrent force that has global reach.

    The US military is scaled to maintain what it describes as global stability. In other words, the tempering of regional conflicts via deterrence and engagement. But, no one elected the United States to the position of global security manager. When the Cold War ended, no force stood in the way. It had the global presence, the alliance and aid relationships and the extra military resources to intervene anywhere to prevent conflicts from escalating and to provide assistance when famine or natural disasters struck. Some viewed this as a moral obligation as they believed American leadership was an indispensable force for good in the world. For others, the United States was acting more narrowly and using the opportunity of a lack of a rival to embed its position as the world’s dominant power and gain a long-term advantage over any future rivals.