Obsessed With War – How Western States Lost their Strategic Edge

This article (edited, shorter version) was first published by the National Interest on 8 September 2018 titled “Big War Is Back” 



The Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War came to an abrupt end almost 30 years ago. This watershed event started a process, during which international security and war have been redefined – in many cases on Western terms. In addition, some 10 years has passed since the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008. Today, many conceptualize it as a Russian starting shot for an aggressive policy of primacy in the post-Soviet space.  Looking back some 30 years, it is reasonable to presume that there is enough – or at least some – empirical historical material for analyzing the way that Western states have redefined their take on international security and war during the post-Cold War era. This timeframe – 30 years – seems appropriate as strategy formulation, defence planning and military capability development are long-term endeavors – measured in decades, not years.




Jyri Raitasalo is a highly valued member of the editorial expert team at Defence and Intelligence Norway. He is Military Professor of War Studies at the Finnish National Defence University. (The views expressed here are his own)

By Jyri Raitasalo

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War and almost 30 years ago were watershed events in international politics. The “culture” of hostility and confrontation between the West and the East were suddenly gone. The threat of a nuclear war vanished – as did the fear of large-scale conventional war in Europe. This all happened almost overnight. Western states – led by the United States – won the Cold War, and they were in an unprecedented position to redefine the very essence of international security and guiding principles concerning relations between states. Optimistic notions such as co-operative security or an “Agenda for Peace” bloomed. Sadly enough, some 30 years later, this optimism on the future of international relations has waned. Great power rivalries are back. And worse still, most Western states have been engaged in warfare – wrong kind of warfare – for the good part of the post-Cold War era.

What was supposed to become a “New World Order” never materialized. Instead, we have witnessed a “New World Disorder” and perpetual war. Perpetual war for the Western states that is. They have developed a culture of “strategic trigger-happiness” and overreliance on the use of military force to solve political problems that in many cases are on the fringe of vital national interests or national security agendas. What is the most striking – and dangerous – development during the period we call the post-Cold War era, is the decrease in high-end Western defence capability: almost 20 years of continuous counterinsurgency warfighting with several humanitarian interventions or stability operations on the side have eaten away a lion’s share of the military capability that was not lost during the years of enjoying the post-Cold War era “peace dividend”. Moreover, focusing on counterterrorism, irregular warfare, counterinsurgency operations and military crisis management for so long, much of the know-how and military ethos related to defence and deterrence have been lost – touching European states the most. Rebuilding the needed military capability, not to mention the mental perspective on “real defence”, will take at least a decade.

The problem-statement is simple: Western states have during the post-Cold War period focused mostly on wrong security issues with bad policies. They have overused the military tools at their disposal. Being engaged in practically endless warfighting ever since the early 1990s, the defence planning assumptions within the West became twisted. Today’s militaries in the United States or Europe are not up to the tasks that they might be ordered to perform: deterring or combating peer adversaries – Russia and China – that for long have focused on building high-end military capabilities to trump – and ever surpass – Western military superiority. Western warfighting for the last 30 years has been all about technologically-focused taming of rag-tag third rate adversaries somewhere “out there” in missions, operations and campaigns with scant connection to state security, national interests or alliance security.

The situation is most ominous in Europe, where only a handful of states (if even that) today possess some warfighting capabilities that would be credible and useful for the purposes of “traditional” deterrence and defence. Most European militaries have become dysfunctional under the pressures of cashing in the “peace dividend”, recent austerity policies and the need to build really expensive high-tech professional armed forces. Most European states have lost traditional fighting power measured by the strength of their armed forces or by the military capabilities at their disposal. A typical European military is small in size, with only a very limited number of “bang” (bombs, missiles etc.) as showcased by the ill-fortunate war against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Then, after discharging the opening salvo, most European armories were practically depleted of precision-guided munitions, the weapons of choice ever since the Western way of war went expeditionary and became detached from state survival and defence of territory or national interests.

The 30-year history of the post-Cold War era offers some insights on the process in which Western states have lost much of the edge that they inherited at the Cold War’s end. If the notion of an American “unipolar moment” captures the monumental power shifts that took place in the very early 1990s, today’s world system is most accurately described by multi-polarity and great-power rivalry. What went wrong? This will be analyzed next.

Getting the security environment wrong

Moving beyond the confrontational Cold War era mindset, Western security policy since the early 1990s was based on the notions of engagement and cooperative security in an interdependent globalizing world of positive-sum outcomes. This depiction of world politics went astray as it mixed up Western security and defence policy with objective analysis of the security environment. Globalization and interdependence were not – and are not – just happening “out there” like forces of nature. Similarly, the “New World Order” was a Western policy construct – not an accurate description of world politics after the Cold War. The emergence and maturation of globalization was dependent on political decisions made within the West. And since the early 1990s, Western states made these decisions by the handful: creating the European Union, enlarging NATO and the EU, promoting democracy and, free trade and the unlimited movement of individuals and capital etc. Thus, the very nature of the globalizing world order that emerged out of the ashes of the Cold War was mostly a Western creation. Later it has become challenged by non-western great powers adhering to very traditional zero-sum logic and spheres of influence thinking in international politics, namely Russia and China.

During the post-Cold War era, we have witnessed a process of slowly accumulating pressures from the political stratum towards Western military establishments to be able to “do something” when something bad happens in the world, even in far-away locations with zero strategic significance to Western security. The narrative of an interconnected, chaotic, violent and dangerous post-Cold War world with ethnic conflicts, terrorism and “new wars” has been accepted without critical analysis. Much of this narrative has no connection to the reality of international security. In fact, throughout the post-Cold War era Western states have been much more secure than they had been throughout the threat-penetrated Cold War era.

When the Cold War ended, the number of wars – that for 70 years have mostly been intra-state in nature – started to decline. This trend lasted for some 20 years. Also the number of casualties from these wars declined. The globalization-inspired perspective on Wester security policy, which accentuates the stability of the international system as a referent object of international security, has blurred the significance of territory and distance. Hindu Kush is not important to the West – even though it might be a useful tool to say so in order to sway public opinion to back a military operation in an effort to tame the entire world system militarily, one piece at a time. Unfortunately, political rhetoric, repeated for years and decades, slowly but steadily changes “reality” – in the minds of the audiences and even the orators themselves. Threat perceptions – even faulty ones – are social facts that are created and maintained through rhetorical action. After “9/11” it was not particularly difficult to redefine Western threat perceptions and launch a Global War on Terror. Although the militarization of the Western responses to terrorism have not decreased international terrorism, it is always possible to argue how much worse the situation could be without the needed military actions. Before 2001, we witnessed a similar process of making dictators and rogue states enemies of the West – the same dictators and states that 10 years prior were in many cases friends, partners or not important at all.

While Russia was trying to cope with the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union and China was still building its economic, political and military power, Western states were rushing to transform their security and defence policies as well as their armed forces. Based on hasty analysis of the international security environment, troops were axed and military budgets cut. Army corps and divisions were disbanded at the same time as deterrence and defence of territory were deemed obsolete. The problem at everybody’s lips in the West was: what are armed forces supposed to do in the post-Cold War era? Similarly, NATO faced the problem of “going out-of-area or out of business”. For many Western states solving humanitarian crises, ousting dictators, spreading democracy or killing terrorists have become their armed forces’ new raison d’être. This has happened at a time when Russia and China have been accumulating military power to challenge the West. Unfortunately, Western states have, through their own actions and policies, amplified the possibilities of China and Russia to redefine international security on their terms. We are seeing this every day in Crimea, Donbass, Syria, the Taiwan Strait as well as the East and South China Seas.

Bumper-sticker military strategy

When the Cold War was coming to a close, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein made a fatal mistake by invading Kuwait. It was fatal – with a delay – to Saddam Hussein himself. It became almost fatal to the Western states as well. After Iraq was forced out of Kuwait in 1991 with the tools of AirLand Battle that were designed to deal with the Soviet Union in Europe, many within the Western defence community sought refuge in the high-tech warfare that was displayed on CNN day in day out in January and February 1991. “The Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) had supposedly arrived – and was widely heralded as the new imperative around which defence could be organized as the Soviet threat was on its way out. Military transformation became the new Western norm according to which military power and military credibility became evaluated. It was all about getting rid of military mass, avoiding friction in warfare, overcoming the “fog of war” and speeding up one’s OODA-loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). In reality, as we have been able to witness in Afghanistan and Iraq – and a lot of other places – technology has not revolutionized warfare, strategy or the way that political goals are attained in the international system. The United States may be in the position to put a bomb anywhere on the planet within a few minutes or hours after the decision has been made, but this capability does not translate, however, easily into politically meaningful outcomes.

For the Western states that were almost desperate to find a new logic for their militaries in the post-Soviet “threat vacuum”, the RMA provided an easy way out: without any serious military threats facing Europe or the United States, it sufficed to field some “revolutionary” high-tech systems at the same time as Cold War era conventional military capability was axed. Unfortunately, warfare is not – and has never been – about technology only. As we have seen, the United States, attended by its European allies, have not been able to tame Afghanistan or Iraq militarily. And one cannot blame the US and some European states for not trying: the war in Afghanistan has continued for 17 consecutive years – and the War in Iraq took eight years to “finish”. And in Iraq the end result was a failed state that today is a more severe international security threat than Saddam Hussein ever was. Not to mention about the “birth” of ISIS, which was facilitated – if not caused – by the destruction of state structures of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The story of NATO’s war over Libya in 2011 is another bad example of Western security strategy (or the lack thereof) and overreliance on military tools to sort out political problems.

Based on the notion of the RMA, advanced C2-systems, precision weapons and the possibilities of force protection never before seen in the battlefield, Western states have militarized – over time – their security policy. Many “new” security issues have become military issues as the tools of RMA have made the application of military force in precise and small quantities possible. Political problems have been solved with military means as the RMA has made it possible – and supposedly an effective way to operate. In addition, many non-strategic problems have been transferred to the security and defence agenda as the tools of the Revolution in Military Affairs and military transformation has made military action practically without risk possible. Western air wars over Bosnia and Kosovo are prime examples of this. In addition, the war in Afghanistan (2001–) and Iraq were started based on the notion of effective high-tech capabilities that would facilitate a quick and successful campaign.

Defence planning myopia

The RMA-induced concept of military transformation is probably the worst thing that ever happened to Western armed forces during the post-Cold war era. Military transformation implies a foundational change that needs to be implemented quickly. But as anyone even remotely familiar with defence planning acknowledges, big and quick changes in the field of defence are impossible. Surely enough, getting rid of existing military capability can be done quickly – in a matter of years. Nothing similar is possible on the procurement side of the equation. Today’s armed forces fight with systems (weapon systems, C2-systems etc.) that have been developed and procured since the 1960s (and even before that as for example B-52 Stratofortress testifies). Cutting old “excess” capability – to get rid of the legacy military overweight – will not make building new capability any easier or faster. Nor will governments pour in additional money for military investments – particularly in an age when the “peace dividend” and austerity measures rule.

A true military transformation thus takes decades. But what differentiates this so-called military transformation from the “normal” process of defence planning that looks some 20 years into the future taking into account the legacy systems that are in the armories today and well into the future? Here is where the problem lies. Western states decommissioned, disbanded and cut a huge number of platforms, troops and military systems as useless during the 1990s and after that. “Big wars” were supposedly over. But these Western states did not get any new systems, troops or platforms to replace the lost capability. They started building some new capabilities with low investment resources in a process that takes years – or decades. Cutting the Cold War era military overweight was not so much an American problem as it had the numbers to make significant cuts. It was – and is – mostly a European problem. Still today, many European are trying to recover from past decisions – in a tense international security situation where both Russia and China have been able to surprise everyone. Even the best niche capabilities for multinational military crisis management or counterinsurgency warfare are mostly useless – or of little use – for deterring a great power adversary, not to mention defeating one in the battlefield.

A way forward

History of the last 30 years could teach us several things about how to approach future defence policy formulation and military capability development. First, technology is important, but it will not revolutionize warfare in the coming years. Today many analysts are focusing on AI, robotics, nanotechnology et al. They are all becoming buzzwords, just like cyber war or the revolution in military affair before them. These new fields of technology will have an important impact of the future character of war. But they will not make quick foundational changes in how wars are waged. Technology does not a strategy make. Nor will new technological discoveries escape the long-term logic of defence planning or the action-reaction cycle of weapons and counter-weapons. We live in a world where information is really moving at light-speed.

Second, the use of military force to solve political problems should be the last option in the tool-box of statesmen. We should use restraint much more than has been the case during the post-Cold War era. Many of the security threats facing the West today are at least in part self-inflicted. Today’s costs of war – in blood, treasure and the wear and tear of military capability – in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere are staggeringly high when compared to the strategic significance of these countries for Western security. The 5 trillion dollar price-tag of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for the Unites States alone is indicative of the problematic choices made some years ago. Not to mention the thousands of dead soldiers and the boost to terrorist recruitment that these wars have caused.

Third, the West should stop trying to manage international stability militarily. According to the 2018 fragile state index, there are 61 states in the world that are either categorized as “high warning” (29), “alert” (19), “high alert” (7) and “very high alert” (6). If Western states intend to continue on the path of stability operations, military crisis management and even counterinsurgency warfare, business is going to be good for the next 100 years. Unfortunately, the empirical evidence from the last 30 years suggests that rather than be capable of solving acute crises with the force of arms out-of-area, the West could actually end up less secure trying. And at the same time, Western states would continue developing wrong kind of militaries in a situation where a big war approach would be needed.

A good example of the pervasiveness of the counterinsurgency warfare tradition can be located around the “buzz” concerning urban combat in third world megacities of the future. Surely enough, from a tactical or operational perspective, urban combat in megacities is something that needs to be addressed.  But from a strategic perspective, focusing on these megacities is like throwing good money after bad. If we should learn anything from the experiences of the post-Cold War era, it is the very limited possibilities to achieve anything good by kicking in doors at foreign countries trying to solve their problems.

Big war is back

Ditching aside the long-term view needed in defence planning, many Western states (mostly in Europe) have ended up with militaries that are not well-suited to perform in the emerging adversarial multipolar world with great-power competition and the potential large-scale use of military force to conquer territory. Having exuberant ideas about what can be achieved with the use of military force in the post-Cold War era, Western states have militarized their security policies. This is ironic, as the end of the Cold War was supposed to be a start of something different. It was supposed to be all about cooperative security, increasing interdependence and the strengthening of international institutions. Instead, by redefining their perspective on international security, Western states have waged war almost continually for 30 years. And they have done so amid an international security situation that has been extremely benign, without any serious security threats directed against the West. Now that potential existential threats are back in the horizon, Western states need to overcome the wear and tear of the past wars of choice and at the same time prepare themselves for the next potential war. If it comes, it is going to be a big war. Being prepared is the best way to avoid it.


Jyri Raitasalo is Military Professor of War Studies at the Finnish National Defence University. The views expressed here are his own.