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The Tyranny of Distance: Assessing and Explaining the Apparent Decline in U.S. Military Performance

Presented by Professor Erik Gartzke of Center for Peace and Security Studies at UCSD

This is the first in a series of Q-Step Seminar talks for Autumn 2018. The talk will address the growing sense that U.S. military effectiveness has been on the wane in recent years. Is this the case? If so, what are the reasons for the decay in American combat performance?

Event details

We first examine the available systematic evidence for American military decline, showing that the United States has indeed experienced an overall drop in outcomes of its military contests. This trend is most obvious when analyzing the much larger number of minor U.S. disputes and armed conflicts than when examining the relatively small number of U.S. wars. Observers have offered a number of explanations for declining American military success. Critics often emphasize normative themes, implying moral or organizational shortcomings in various U.S. institutions. We offer a compatible, simpler and less pejorative account that relies on physical geography and previous successes. Precisely because the United States did so well in the past, any remaining conflicts are bound to be less tractable. For example, previous victories in the Western hemisphere mean that the United States is increasingly fighting farther from home. Distance is tyrannical. It saps military strength and increases the cost of contests, even as it reduces U.S. motivations to prevail. Indeed, the natural attenuation of U.S. interests and abilities with distance provides an objective basis for advocating a policy of military restraint.

Professor Gartzke is widely regarded as a leading American expert on the impact that information and institutions play in war and peace. In addition to working at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), Professor Gartzke was a Visiting Scholar at the University of Essex. He is the founding director of the center for peace and security studies (cPASS) at UCSD.

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Forum Seminar Room 01