Second to None

Does the United States aim to remain the world’s sole superpower? Defense Policy Undersecretary Michelle Flournoy Tuesday said, “Yes,” but with some strings. Speaking at the Defense Writers Group in Washington, D.C., Flournoy said, “I think, as a nation with both global interests and a global leadership role to play, yes, I do believe our military needs to remain second to none. But what that means is changing” and will be debated in the Quadrennial Defense Review now underway. She said, “The world watched Desert Storm” and understands that if anyone confronts the US military “head on … you’re going to lose.” But that has spurred adversaries to “invest in highly asymmetric approaches aimed at undermining our strengths and exploiting our weaknesses, so that is the world we have to adapt to.” Flournoy seemed to shrug off the notion—persistent since Les Aspin’s 1993 Bottom-Up Review—that the US needs to maintain an ability to act alone if allies or coalitions won’t back its policies. “This Administration, when we look at the whole range of security challenges we face—whether it’s terrorism, proliferation, … climate change, pick your challenge—there is not a single one that the United States alone can deal with effectively,” Flournoy said. She added, “By definition, you need coalitions and partners to deal with these challenges,” and the US is “uniquely positioned to play a leadership role in many cases.” It’s worth noting Flournoy’s language: “second to none” means equal, not superior, and was invoked in the early 1970s by Richard Nixon to smooth over the fact that the US had been matched or eclipsed in conventional and nuclear arms by the Soviet Union.