The "Correlation of Forces," Then and Now

Mackubin T. Owens

February 1, 2004

During the 1970s, the usually cautious Soviet Union began to pursue an uncharacteristically aggressive foreign policy. The Soviets sought nuclear superiority at both the strategic and theater levels, in the first case deploying the SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile and in the second, deploying the SS-20 intermediate range ballistic missile. The Soviets also invaded Afghanistan and pursued an increasingly activist policy in Africa and Central America.

Some analysts attributed this adventurism to the apparent Soviet belief that the trends during this decade indicated a favorable shift in the “correlation of forces” (COF). Indeed, the Soviet military press during this decade was filled with numerous references to the COF. For instance in 1975, General Yevdokim Yeogovich Mal’Tsev wrote that “the correlation of world forces has changed fundamentally in favor of socialism and to the detriment of capitalism.”

Soviet analysts have long disagreed about the importance of COF as a practical guide to action. In 1951 Raymond Garthoff, a prominent Soviet policy observer summarized the concept: “The calculation of the relation of forces is a most convenient means for internally and externally rationalizing the interpretation of Marxian ideology in pure power terms.” As “scientific socialists,” the Soviets believed that history led inexorably to a revolutionary communist future. But following the lead of Lenin, they believed that the Party was necessary to sustain the momentum of revolution by orchestrating actions appropriate to the historical situation. COF was an attempt to correctly assess the historical situation.

Many of those Soviet observers who took COF seriously attributed Soviet adventurism in the 1970s to Soviet perceptions of US weaknesses. According to this analysis, the Watergate crisis that ended the presidency of Richard Nixon, the US defeat in Vietnam, the incredibly weak administration of Jimmy Carter, the decline of the US defense budget, the contraction of US naval force structure and the reduction of land force readiness, the abandonment of Taiwan, negotiations intended to give up control of the Panama Canal, and the Iran hostage crisis, indicated to Soviet leaders that the position of the United States relative to the USSR was weakening and that an assessment of the COF indicated that the time had come to exploit the situation. One result was the articulation of the Brezhnev Doctrine, which essentially declared that no country could leave the socialist camp—there would be no counterrevolution permitted here—limiting the struggle with capitalism to the zone of the latter. The Soviet Union seemed poised to win the Cold War.

A decade later, the Soviet Union was in retreat: This retreat may have initially been the sort of tactical retreat that characterized, say, the Brest Litovsk treaty, understood as a temporary defensive measure making it possible for the Soviet Union to fight another day. But the setbacks soon constituted a strategic retreat of a kind that Lenin or Stalin could never have imagined, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.

What was the cause of this reversal? The short answer is the rejection in 1980 of President Jimmy Carter’s politics of malaise by the American people and the election of Ronald Reagan. The Reagan administration abandoned Carter’s policy of playing the game of Cold War geopolitics according to the rules of the Brezhnev Doctrine. Indeed, Reagan attacked it, both directly and indirectly. An example of the former was the cost-incurring strategy of supporting anti-Soviet insurgents in Afghanistan.

But for symbolism, nothing quite matched Grenada­­­—a small operation that had a major impact by calling into question the viability of the Brezhnev Doctrine. Those who have ridiculed this operation have missed its impact on Soviet planners.

These explicit attempts at “roll-back” complemented an aggressive defense buildup that negated the Soviet Union’s bold bid for military superiority. The defense buildup in turn constituted part of the most important element of the Reagan strategy: the deliberate targeting of the weak Soviet economy. Indeed, the great accomplishment of the Reagan grand strategy was to identify the Soviet economy as the “strategic center of gravity” upon which to focus its efforts. The Reagan administration adopted an asymmetric and cost-incurring strategy to exploit the mismatch between the large and growing US economy and the much smaller Soviet economy. This economic strategy included such measures as trade sanctions against the USSR and the deregulation of oil prices in the US, which caused the OPEC cartel to crumble and the price of oil to plummet. As a result, the Soviet Union was deprived of a major source of hard currency.

At the peak of the Reagan buildup (FY1985), the United States spent 6.3 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense. Part of the reason for the declining US national security burden was the continued growth of the US economy during the Cold War, enabling the US to maintain a relatively constant and robust level of defense spending during the period.

The cost of the Cold War to the USSR was substantially higher than to the US. From the 50s through the mid-70s, the CIA estimated that the burden of Soviet defense spending was consistent with or even lower than that of the US, i.e. about 6 % of GNP and declining. But in 1975, the CIA concluded that its earlier estimates had been in error: the ruble prices of Soviet weaponry were twice as high as previously estimated—the USSR was spending 11-13 % of its output on defense. Some analysts argued that the figure was even higher: 14-17% and rising.

Even the lower estimates meant that the burden of defense for the USSR was three to four times that of the US since analysts believed that the Soviet economy was only one-half to two-thirds the size of the US economy. Subsequent research has indicated that these intelligence analysts consistently overestimated the size of the Soviet economy, meaning that the relative burden of defense to the USSR was even higher than previously believed.

That the Reagan administration stressed the economic component of grand strategy to cause the Soviet Union to collapse is suggested by a revealing passage from the first edition of the National Security Strategy of the United States issued by President Reagan in 1987. According to this document, a major objective of US strategy was “to force the Soviet Union to bear the brunt of its domestic economic shortcomings in order to discourage excessive Soviet military expenditures and global adventurism.”

The Reagan administration’s cost-incurring strategy forced the USSR to expend resources the Soviet economy could not afford. The combination of the US defense buildup, support for anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan, and other pressure on the Soviet economy was more than it could withstand. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the result of a strategy that targeted the economy.

It is intriguing to consider the possibility that in the 1990s, jihadis and other Islamic terrorists such as Osama bin Laden engaged in the same sort of COF assessment as the Soviets did in the 1970s and that they may have adopted adventurism for the same reasons that the Soviets did: their belief that the COF was shifting in their favor.

Some students of Osama bin Laden argue that his ultimate goal is the reestablishment of the Caliphate and an Islamic empire stretching from the Maghreb to the Indus. The major obstacle to this goal has been the support that the United States provides to Israel and Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. To achieve the unity necessary to achieve the dream of a restored Caliphate, it was necessary to drive the United States from the region, at which point the corrupt regimes that the United States has supported would collapse.

The American response to events in the Greater Near East during the 1990s may well have convinced Osama bin Laden that the United States could be shocked into leaving the region. The United States rapidly withdrew from Somalia once a mission went awry. When US embassies were bombed in East Africa and a US warship was attacked, the United States responded with “drive-by shootings” with cruise missiles. An earlier terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was treated as a criminal justice issue rather than an issue of national security. An assessment of the “correlation of forces” on the part of Osama bin Laden may have convinced him that surely 9/11 would drive the United States out for good and open the way to the reestablishment of the Caliphate.

But rather than driving the United States from the region, the spectacular 9/11 attack on the American homeland galvanized the country and set in motion a process that may do to the culture that has given rise to Islamic terrorism what Ronald Reagan did to Soviet communism. That this is the case is indicated by both unexpected things that did happen, and predicted things that did not.

The Greater Near East constitutes the geopolitical center of that part of the world at war with the liberal principles of politics and economics underpinning the freedom and prosperity of the West. Regimes in this region traditionally have been limited to secular fascist states, e.g. the Ba’athist regimes of Saddam’s Iraq and Syria, Islamo-fascist states such as the mullahs’ Iran and the Taliban’s Afghanistan, and more-or-less corrupt monarchies, e.g. Saudi Arabia. The confluence of culture, politics, and bad economic choices has rendered this region the heartland of anti-Western resentment, which if not reformed, will continue to fester and likely give rise to more attempts to attack the West.

Since 9/11, the United States has destroyed the Taliban’s Islamo-fascist regime in Afghanistan and overthrown the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad. This has sent a shockwave through the region, and palpable change is already afoot. Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Libya have made significant diplomatic and political concessions. Not only have there been no Islamist triumphs in the Greater Near East or an uprising of Islamic masses, but many if not all Muslim governments have become more active in attacking al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia in particular has begun to recognize the threat that al Qaeda poses to its continued existence.

The most startling concession is that of Libya, which has essentially sued for peace and given up its plans for developing weapons of mass destruction. Of course, the striped-pants set have claimed that Gaddafi’s concessions are the result of years of diplomacy. That may be true but the timing of the concessions is instructive. After all, diplomacy usually works best when the other side sees that it is backed up with credible force. Frederick the Great observed that “diplomacy without force is like music without instruments.”

Gaddafi seems to have understood this point. According to the London Daily Telegraph, a spokesman for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi reported that Gaddafi had telephoned Berlusconi in September and told him: “I will do whatever the Americans want, because I saw what happened in Iraq, and I was afraid.” To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, the prospect of imminent US military action concentrates the mind wonderfully.

It is too early to say for sure whether George Bush’s policies will do to Islamic terrorism what Ronald Reagan’s policies did to Soviet communism. But there is reason for optimism. What once seemed to be little more than an insignificant military operation in Grenada can be seen today as the event that signaled the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire. Future generations may well see Afghanistan and Iraq as playing the same role in the defeat and rollback of Islamic terrorism.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.