If there was one strong signal in President Obama’s speech to the United Nations this week, it was this: Don’t expect the American ship of state to tack in a different direction anytime soon. This address is more evidence that there are no big changes coming in the president’s defense and foreign policy. That could set the stage for some dramatic shifts from the next administration—and one of the first ones could be rethinking the size of the U.S. ground forces.
No historian with a straight face will be able accuse the Obama White House of not being consistent with how it tackled foreign affairs. After just a few years in the Oval Office, the vectors of the Obama Doctrine were pretty clear. The president wanted to rely less on “hard” military power. He wanted to engage with competitors and seek solutions that accommodate their interests. Further, the administration wanted to maximize the use of structural instruments including international agreements and multinational institutions to mitigate conflict and promote international cooperation.
It is hard to argue that Obama has not followed through on the Obama Doctrine. From the New START agreement with Russia to the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) with Iran, from withdrawing troops from Iraq to downsizing in Afghanistan and “leading from behind in Libya,” the president has stuck true to this course.
Obama’s U.N. speech sounded many of the same familiar themes.
Yes, there were some tough words for potential adversarial countries and a presidential assertion that “I lead the strongest military that the world has ever known, and I will never hesitate to protect my country or our allies, unilaterally and by force where necessary.”
Those pronouncements don’t necessarily represent serious departures from the Obama Doctrine. “[A]ctions speak louder than words. Occasional criticism cannot substitute for habitual lack of resolve,” wrote Heritage Foundation analyst Brett Schaefer. “After almost seven years of foreign policy mismanagement, abdication of leadership, and deflection of responsibility, this disappointing speech is par for the course.”
When the next president takes office, he or she will have to decide whether to continue along the Obama Doctrine flight path. In making that decision, the central question is this: Has that doctrine taken America to a better place?
One metric says “no.” The Heritage Foundation’s “Index of U.S. Military Strength” assesses not just the state of the armed forces, but also the threats to vital U.S. interests and the operating environments where the U.S. might have to exercise its power. The overall result of the annual assessment in 2015 was that U.S. military might is at merely “marginal” strength. That’s not much to show for six years of presidential leadership.
One area where the shortfalls in capability are particularly glaring is the capacity to protect national vital interests with ground forces. The Index concluded that U.S. ground forces are already short of what they need. Other imbalances exacerbate these shortages in certain theaters. For example, the Pentagon has only about a quarter of the force it needs in Europe.
In his latest book, “The Future of Land Warfare” (2015), Michael O’Hanlon, a respected national security analyst at the Brookings Institution, examined the demand for ground forces from a different perspective. He analyzed what future requirements there might be for ground power including Russia, China, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. That analysis also cautions against substantial reductions in land forces.
The next president might well conclude that it’s important to increase the nation’s military capacity to protect its own interests. If so, one necessary step will be to rebuild U.S. ground forces into a more credible deterrent.
Originally published in Forbes.