Conference Overview

Harrier jets

“Rarely do scholars and practitioners of security policy, foreign affairs and grand strategy get the opportunity to discuss the arc of American leadership in today’s world in such a setting. When it takes place it is usually encumbered by some over-riding or immediate rationale that limits the scope and tone of such a discussion. I imagine that the session at Norwich University will offer the participants an opportunity for a free and much needed exploration of the elements of strategy and the resulting policy instruments that can produce new insights and perspectives on the role of the U.S. in a changing global environment.”

—Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, Ph.D.
University of Nebraska Omaha

From time immemorial a simple equation has governed geopolitics: the more powerful a nation is the better the odds that it will prevail against a weaker adversary. What then to make of the fact that after 12 years of war, the United States, a country with a GDP of $15 trillion and a military budget that is greater than most of the world’s military budgets put together, has not been able to prevail in Afghanistan against the Taliban, an enemy with virtually no GDP? If overwhelming might no longer ensures the ability to prevail, what is the new governing geopolitical equation?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the US has been the beneficiary of Pax Americana—the ability to set the rules of the game and enforce them anywhere in the world. However, with the rise of other geopolitical poles, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, it is today increasingly accepted that Pax Americana is ending. Is this true? With or without Pax Americana, the US will for the immediate future remain the world’s richest country with an unrivalled store of economic, entrepreneurial, cultural, educational and creative advantages that give it a global attraction and influence that no other country possesses. How can these apparent paradoxes be reconciled?

Together with these changes in the global geopolitical environment there is the continued weakness of the US economy, a persistent national debt, rising internal needs (such as $3 trillion in repairs to maintain the existing infrastructure) and a measurable change in the willingness of Americans to involve themselves throughout the world. A recent Pew Research Center Survey found that

“…52% [of Americans] say the United States ‘should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.’ The most lopsided balance in favor of the US ‘minding its own business’ in the nearly 50-year history of the measure.”

America’s political history and even its global leadership have been marked by extremes of engagement and retrenchment. So is the current period any different? How will the US feel about engaging in this new world not necessarily as a leader but rather as one of many poles? Conversely, how will the rest of the world, especially US allies, view this new arrangement?

During the conference, we will examine whether the current US military and diplomatic infrastructure needs recalibrating. In the modern age of cyber-warfare, drones, social media and an increasingly networked battlefield, how should the US military be reorganized. Why, for instance, does the military still have separate cyber networks for the different services? Why maintain the United States Air Force as well as separate air forces for the Marines and the Navy? With weapons to prevent the projection of US power within national territories in wide circulation, is there still a need for massed airborne or amphibious forces? Is the symbol of US global power, the aircraft carrier strike group, headed for irrelevance?

Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has observed that there are more musicians in the military than diplomats in the State Department. Does this not imply a need for a significant increase in the budget of the State Department and an increase in its global responsibilities? Can a case be made for including State Department assets in a new Special Operations Command (SOCOM) type of structure, one that currently mainly recruits special operations personnel from the military. What should the State Department’s new remit be in a world where non-state actors increasingly call the geopolitical shots and ISIS is demonstrating that non-state actors have the ability to morph into states?

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