The "Correlation of
Forces," Then and Now
by: Mackubin T.
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
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 campóthere would be no counterrevolution
permitted hereólimiting 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 Grenadaóa
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
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 estimatedóthe 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
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
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.