Updated: Mar 31, 2021
Throughout history political scientists and world leaders have maintained that military power is essential, as Napoleon famously once said, ‘God is on the side of the big battalions.’ The great emperor’s words certainly held true throughout his lifetime and through the 20th century, but I believe that times are changing. In this article I will seek to show that military power is declining using contemporary examples to support my claims. I will also look at the flip side of the coin and acknowledge that in some cases military power may still be necessary.
To understand whether military power is diminishing or not we must define what military power is. Military power is the use of armed force to achieve geopolitical objectives, the military power of a country is judged by the quantity and quality of their navy, air force, army, and weapons (such as tanks and artillery). Countries with a high military expenditure usually have a powerful military since they can purchase more equipment and employ more soldiers. Military power is regarded as a type of hard power as it uses coercive force to achieve goals.
The first piece of evidence that supports my argument is the decline of inter-state conflict in the 21st century. As recent as the 20th century inter-state war was common, several wars were fought in the 1900s including 2 world wars. Small incidents could trigger major wars, however that is not the case now. For example, the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand was ‘important’ but it should never have triggered something as big as world war 1. In comparison the assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was equally important but it did not cause a major conflict. This is because in modern global politics organisations such as the United Nations ensure that these issues are approached in a diplomatic manner so that there is no escalation in tensions. Countries that expand their military capabilities and show hostility are often sanctioned. A modern example of that would be the sanctions placed on Iran due to their development of nuclear weapons without UN approval.
A possible counterclaim to my arguments could be that while inter-state conflict is declining intra-state conflict is increasing, surely this would warrant an increase in the relevance of military power? Although this argument would be easy to believe in it is in fact misleading. Most intra-state conflicts are not caused due to a battle for pure supremacy but rather due to differences in beliefs. Military power can crush tanks and cities, but one thing it cannot do is crush ideologies and beliefs. There is evidence that the importance and relevance of military power is declining. NATO (North Atlantic treaty organisation); was once was the most powerful military alliance in the world, in recent times its most important member the USA has threatened to leave it. This further shows that countries are losing interest in military alliances and are now preferring to use ‘smart power’ rather than brute force. The primary reason for USA wanting to leave NATO is that it costs too much for them to support and subsidise other countries armies while there is very little to gain from it. The USA spends 700 billion dollars plus on their military whereas countries such as Bulgaria and Croatia barely spend a billion dollars per year, yet despite this huge gap in expenditure USA is bound by NATO to protect these countries. This again goes to show that USA has nothing to gain by forming military alliances with small countries because they can barely offer them any support.
However, it should be acknowledged that in some cases military power is still essential, although it is not the correct long-term solution militaries are still required to deal with groups such as ISIS and the Taliban. Militaries are also needed to ensure security against aggressive state actors such as China and North Korea. Militaries are still required in modern global politics, but the point remains that their relevance is in relative decline. The case in point would be the response to Chinese aggression, experts agree that the most effective way of countering China would be to implement economic sanctions. The biggest contributor to the Chinese economy is their exported manufactured goods, levying sanctions on these Chinese exports would significantly weaken the Chinese economy causing them to reduce their aggression so the sanctions can be removed and their economy can recover.
In conclusion military power is declining due to the reluctance of states to engage in conflict since there is more to lose than gain. The fear of economic sanctions and retribution is a more important issue for most states than expanding their influence and winning wars. The modern geopolitical situation is a chessboard not a battlefield, the effective use of smart power is now much more efficient than brute force.