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Writing in The American Interest, Eliot A. Cohen notes to his chagrin that Hillary Clinton’s appearance before the committee investigating Benghazi eclipsed everything else in the news that day. This is unfortunate, he notes, because on the same day, he took part in another hearing, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Capital Hill.
“Vanity aside,” he remarks, “I wish that my hearing had received a bit more attention.” My vanity isn’t at issue here, but I too wish that his hearing had received more attention.
The coming election campaign should be, in my view, a chance for voters to learn more about how the candidates view the issues he and the other speakers raised at that hearing, and to discern how prepared they are to address them as Commander-in-Chief.
Here you can watch the hearings in their entirety, including the testimony from Thomas G. Mahnken, Walter Russell Mead, and Kathleen H. Hicks.
I’ve extracted some of their comments below.
Testimony Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, October 22, 2015
… Our task on this panel, as I understand it, is to bring together three things: a view of our international circumstances and American foreign policy; an assessment of the adequacy of our defense organization; and suggestions for directions this committee might pursue in exploring the possibilities of reform. …
The Roots of Our Current Defense Organization and Strategic Posture
The theory taught at our war colleges—and I have taught at them myself—would say that we should begin by looking at our interests and policies, and then design a military to meet them. I am going to start the other way, with what kind of forces we have, for two reasons. First, as we all know, you do not get to redesign your forces afresh unless you experience utter calamity, and sometimes not even then. Secondly, because it is important to recognize the ways in which the military experiences and geopolitical assumptions of the past shape even seemingly technical questions today. It will be helpful to begin by appreciating how peculiar, from an historical point of view, many of the features of the armed forces that we take for granted really are.
Today’s military is the product chiefly of 75 years of history. World War II, of course, not only provided a great deal of its physical infrastructure, including the Pentagon, but has left organizational legacies. No other country in the world, to take the most striking example, has a Marine Corps remotely sized like ours—today, it is larger than the entire British army, navy, and air force put together. That is a result of the Marines’ performance in World War II, and the legacy of raising a force six divisions strong for that conflict.
But it is primarily the roughly 45 years of the Cold War, and some 15 years of unchallenged American preeminence thereafter, that have most left their mark.
The Cold War has left us many, indeed most, of the platforms that equip the military today, including M-1 tanks, B-2 or B-1 bombers, and AEGIS class cruisers. Even weapon systems coming into service today such as the F-35 reflect Cold War assumptions about which theaters we planned to fight in, what kind of enemies we thought we might encounter, what kind of missions we would be required to conduct. From the Cold War as well emerged our highly professional career military built on the ruins of the draft military of the Vietnam War. Our weaving together of reserve and National Guard units with the active duty military reflects ideas first expressed in the late 1970’s.
Even deeper than these things go certain assumptions about what war is, and how it should be waged. The Cold War military was largely a deterrent military, designed to put up a credible defense against Soviet aggression, while taking on lesser, included tasks such as peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention.
The conventional tasks were assumed to be extremely intense but short—nothing like the multi-year wars of the mid-20th century. The result was an army, for example, that honed its skills in armored warfare at installations like the National Training Center to a level never seen in a peacetime military, even as it shunted aside the tasks of military governance that had characterized it through the 19thand 20th centuries. In this world, a large nuclear arsenal was designed for deterrence of more than use against the USSR. Naval power was to be used chiefly to protect the sea lanes to Europe and to project power abroad, not to contest command of the seas with a major naval power.
When the Soviet Union fell and the Cold War ended, a period of unchallenged supremacy began: It has lasted barely 15 years, and although the United States is still the world’s strongest power, that supremacy is now contested. I doubt we will ever get it back. But it too has left legacies of thought and action. With great reluctance, a military that had pledged to itself after Vietnam that it would not do counterinsurgency again (as it similarly pledged to itself after Korea that it would not do land war in Asia) embarked on a mission that it found strange and distasteful in Afghanistan and Iraq. It learned, or rather re-learned, old lessons, but at a cost.
One organizational legacy of this period has been the rise of special operations forces, particularly after the September 11 attacks and the ensuing conflicts. Others include the tremendous emphasis placed by combatant commanders on the conduct of military diplomacy, giving rise to multinational exercises that are less substantive than political in nature. Similarly, today’s senior officers often dwell on the importance of what they call Phase 0 operations—acts of military diplomacy to set the conditions under which we might fight. I believe that much of this focus has come at the expense of hard thinking about Phase III—war.
From the transitional period between the Cold War and the age of supremacy arose strategic doctrines too, characterized by terms such as “end state” and “exit strategy” that previous generations would have found meaningless and that today are downright dangerous. In this period, as in the past, the heart of America’s strategic alliance system was to be found in Europe. Thus, it was (absurdly) with a NATO command structure that we have attempted to fight a war in Afghanistan. Thus, too, officers dismayed by the unfamiliar challenges of irregular warfare came to blame all other departments of government for failing to be able to understand problems and provide capabilities that, as history should have taught them, would have to be found within the military itself.
The New World Disorder
The assumptions of both the Cold War and the brief period of American supremacy must now be cast aside. Instead of one major enemy, the Soviet Union, and its various clients and supporters, we face four major strategic challenges.
- China, because of the sheer size and dynamism of its economy, poses a challenge utterly different than that of the USSR, and, unlike the Soviet Union, that challenge will take place in the Pacific, in an air, sea, and space environment unlike that of Europe.
- Our jihadist enemies, in the shape of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and like movements, are at war with us, and we with them. This will last at least a generation, and is quite unlike any other war that we have fought.
- We face as well an array of states that are hostile to our interests and often, in a visceral way, to our political system as well: These include, most notably, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, but others may emerge. All of these states are, or will be, armed with nuclear weapons that can reach the United States.
- Finally, while our policy in the past has been to secure “the great commons”, as Alfred Thayer Mahan once put it, for the use of humanity, today ungoverned space—to include outer space, the high North, and cyberspace—poses new and deepening problems for us.
This means that our strategic problems are quite unlike those of the previous two periods. We can imagine, for example, conventional conflict with China that might not end after a few days, or be capped by nuclear threats. We are, right now, engaged in protracted unconventional warfare that is likely to spread rather than be contained. New technologies, from cyber-weapons to long-range cruise and ballistic missiles to unmanned aerial and maritime vehicles, mean that defending the homeland against conventional or semi-conventional attack must again be a mission for the armed forces.
We live in an era when our old strategic partners are weakening. One need only look at the appalling decline of the British military—the Royal Navy, which struggles to man the ships it does have, has a fleet less than half the size of semi-pacifist Japan’s just now—to measure the self-inflicted weakness of old allies. At the same time, new partners are emerging, particularly in Asia, with Japan, Australia, and even India coming into closer association with us.
And it is not just the external politics of security that has changed: Our domestic politics is more deeply divided by questions of the use of force today than at any time since the worst periods of the Vietnam War. On the one hand, every President from now into the indefinite future has to accept that he or she will be a war President, ordering the pinpoint killing of terrorists in far corners of the earth, and probably sending our armed forces into harm’s way every few months. On the other, at no other time since the 1970’s have the American people been so reluctant to commit large forces abroad, or rather, so uncertain about the purposes that would justify it.
I could extend this analysis indefinitely, but will not. After the Cold War there was a resizing of the military, a reconfiguring of its basing structure, and some realignment, but the sheer busyness of the post-1989 period has in many ways deferred a fundamental rethinking of what kind of military we need, and to what ends. Now is the time for such a rethinking.
New Directions for Defense Policy and Organization
The time, then, is ripe for what the committee is undertaking. Of course, one scholar can only offer so much by way of recommendations, but I would like to suggest four, which flow from this fundamental diagnosis: that our problems will be so complex, so large, and so different from the past that we need to design a system that is much better at redesigning and reinventing itself than what we have got. It will not do, in other words, to conceive a new pattern of organization and impose it upon the Department of Defense. We will assuredly fail to foresee the crises and opportunities to come. We need, rather, to recover the creativity and institutional adaptability that produced in astonishingly short time the riverine flotillas of the Civil War, the massed bomber and amphibious fleets of World War II, and the Polaris program and espionage from space of the early Cold War.
Here, then, are four ideas.
First, remake our system for selecting and promoting general officers.
Nothing, but nothing, is more important than senior leadership—especially creative leaders like Arleigh Burke or Bernard Schriever in the early Cold War. Our problem is that our promotion systems, in part because of the natural tendency of bureaucracies to replicate themselves, and in part because of the wickets (including joint service) that all have to pass through, is making it hard to reach deep and promote exceptional talent to the very top.
We take it for granted that some of the best leaders of World War II were field grade officers when it began. For some reason, however, it does not occur to us that maybe there was something good about such a system that we should be able to imitate. Other large organizations—businesses and universities, among others—can seek out exceptional young leaders and bring them to the top quickly. We are long past the day when General Curtis LeMay could become head of Strategic Air Command at age 42, after having led one of the most important campaigns of World War II in his late thirties. It was a minor miracle when President Carter passed over scores of Army generals to make General Edward C. “Shy” Meyer Chief of Staff of the Army in 1979—I am not sure whether we could even do that today. Moreover, we need to find ways to promote and retain general and flag officers who are so unorthodox, so off the usual career path, that the system left to its own devices would crush them. Where would the nuclear Navy be without that unique, exceptionally difficult man, Hyman Rickover, for example? And where will the next one come from?
Second, overhaul the current system for producing strategy documents on a regular basis.
The Quadrennial Defense Review system, which consumes vast quantities of labor in the Pentagon and much wasted emotional energy as well, seems to be predicated on the notion that the world will cooperate with our four-year review cycle. It does not. The 2000 QDR, to take one example, was invalidated as soon as it hit the streets by September 11. So too will any document that has a fixed schedule. Moreover, most public documents, including the National Security Strategy of the United States, are the vapid products of committees. A much better system would be something like the White Papers produced by the Australian and French systems, not on a regular basis but in reaction to major international developments, and composed by small, special commissions that include outsiders as well as bureaucrats.
Third, re-discover mobilization.
Throughout most of the history of the United States, and into its colonial past, a key assumption was that the forces we would have at the outbreak of war would be insufficient in number and composition for the challenges ahead. Since the 1950’s, mobilization thinking and planning has languished. To be sure, under pressure from an active Secretary of Defense the Department can acquire mine-resistant vehicles or speed up the production of some critical guided weapon, but that is hardly the same thing.
Serious military planning not only for expansion of the existing force, but for the creation of new capabilities in event of emergency, would be a worthwhile effort. For example, had serious thought been given before 2003 to identifying civilians who might contribute to military government in an occupied country, and thinking through the organizations needed, the Iraq War might have looked very different in 2004 and 2005 than it did. Mobilization thinking and preparation would require a willingness to contemplate unorthodox measures (direct commissioning, for example) on a scale that the Department is unwilling to consider in peacetime. Worse yet, it would require some brave thinking about the kinds of crises that might require such measures.
Fourth, renew professional military education at the top.
Our war colleges do a capable job at the mission of broadly educating senior officers at the O-5 and O-6 level, even as they help create a network of foreign officers who have been exposed to our system. But they do not create an elite cadre of strategic thinkers and planners from all the services and the civilian world. To do that, measures would have to be taken that would be anathema to personnel systems today: competitive application to attend a school, rather an assignment to do so as a kind of reward; extremely small class sizes; no foreign presence, or only that of our closest allies; and projects that are directly relevant to existing war planning problems. A two year institution would graduate no more than thirty or forty top-notch officers a year who would, in all but name, help constitute a real joint general staff. Of course, to manage the careers of such officers would require further departures from our current personnel system.
Our current professional military education system produces extremely able tacticians and unit leaders; it does not produce, at least not in large numbers, officers who make their names as deep thinkers about the nature of modern war. Yet surely that is the heart of the military profession. You will see very few books or even deeply serious articles on modern war written by serving officers; fewer yet that transcend a service perspective. That is a pity, and a deficiency.
While it is flattering to think that academics or think tanks can fill that void, the truth is that they can only do so much without the current knowledge, exposure to the most sensitive secrets, and sense of professional responsibility of top-notch officers. In the long run, a revitalized American armed forces requires that senior leadership, in Congress as well as the executive branch, pay a great deal of attention to military education, whose budget is trivial, but whose impact is potentially tremendous.
These are, inevitably, but preliminary thoughts that will not be welcome in some quarters. But of this I am quite convinced: Our country faces a more turbulent world than it has at any time since the end of World War II. It is, in many ways, a more dangerous world, in which our children or grandchildren may live to see nuclear weapons used in anger, terrorism that paralyzes great societies, war in new guises brought to the continental United States, the shattering of states and seizure of large territories by force. As in the last century, the United States will be called upon to play a unique role in preventing those things from happening, maintaining some general standards of order and decency, and leading a coalition of like-minded nations. As ever, we will have a strong hand, thanks to the institutions of government under which we live, and the spirit of the American people. But that does not mean that we should take our military power for granted, or neglect thinking hard and creatively about how to mold it in the interval of peace that we have, such at is. New crises await, and alas, may not be far off.
First, we need to think more seriously about risk than we have in recent years. Strategy is all about how to mitigate and manage risk. However, over the past quarter century, we have grown unused to having to take risks and bear costs. We have become risk averse. All too often, however, the failure to demonstrate a willingness to accept risk in the short term yields even more risk in the long term. As a result, our competitors increasingly view us as weak and feckless.
Among other things, we need to have a serious discussion about risk within the U.S. Government and with the American people. And we are going to have to begin to take actions that are risky and costly to us to demonstrate our resolve to both our allies and our adversaries.
Second, we face a series of long-term competitions with great powers and regional powers. China and Russia, Iran and North Korea have been competing with us for some time; we have not been competing with them. As a result, we find our options constrained, and we find ourselves reacting to their initiatives.
To achieve our aims over the long term, we first need to clarify what our aims are and then develop a strategy to achieve them. Such a strategy should seek to expand the menu of options available to us and constrain those that are available to our competitors. It should seek to impose costs upon our competitors and mitigate their ability to impose costs upon us. And it should give us the initiative, forcing them to respond to our actions and not the other way round. That is, of course, easier said than done in 2015 Washington, but it must be done if we are to gain maximum leverage from our considerable but limited resources.
We need to do a better job of understanding our competitors. For example, the Chinese military publishes a vast number of books and articles how it thinks about modern war, strategy, and operations. These books are freely available for purchase in Chinese bookstores and on the Chinese version of Amazon.com, but remain beyond the reach of scholars and officers who do not read Mandarin Chinese because the U.S. government has yet to make translations of them broadly available. Similarly, in past decades the U.S. government invested vast sums in building intellectual capital on the Russian military. Today that capital has been drawn down to dangerously low levels, so that we are surprised by or misunderstand Russian actions that should be neither surprising nor mysterious. Additional investments in this area are sorely needed.
Finally, we need to take seriously the possibility of great power competition and conflict. This means that we need to think seriously about a host of national security topics that we have ignored or neglected for a generation or more. These include the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy, how best to mobilize the nation’s resources for war, and the need to wage political warfare and counter its use by our competitors. We will also need to re-think the educational requirements of an officer corps that has experienced little but counter-insurgency and policy makers who came of age after the Cold War.
After the Second World War, the United States replaced Great Britain as, in Col. House’s phrase, the “gyroscope of world order.” The U.S. assumed the burdens of global leadership not because we desired power—in fact, we had spent twenty years before the war, and two after it, trying to avoid global responsibilities—but because Americans needed the benefits of a stable world order to be safe and prosperous at home. Maintaining an open global economic system is vital to continued American prosperity. Maintaining a stable geopolitical order is vital to continued American security. And promoting values of freedom and self-determination worldwide is a critical element of these two missions.
… The question before us today is whether we can continue to afford and manage the global commitments this policy requires. If, as I believe, the answer is that we can, we must then address questions of strategy. How do we harness the means we possess to secure the ends we seek, what priorities do we need to establish, what capabilities do we need to cultivate, and to what allies can we look for help as we seek to promote a peaceful and prosperous world amid the challenges of the 21st century?
We can begin by examining some of the advantages and disadvantages that the United States and its allies have as we consider how to adapt a 20th century strategy to the needs of the contemporary world.
Disadvantages & Advantages
Surveying the global landscape, we can see several disadvantages that make it difficult to maintain the global system we’ve built into the 21st century. At the most basic level, one of the chief disadvantages facing the U.S. is the never-ending nature of our task. America’s work is never done. Militarily, whenever the United States innovates to gain an advantage, others quickly mimic our developments. It is not enough for us to be ahead today; we have to continue to innovate so we are ready for tomorrow and the day after.
The U.S. is challenged by the products of its own successes in ways that extend far beyond weapons systems. The liberal capitalist order that the United States supports and promotes is an engine of revolutionary change in world affairs. The economic and technological progress that has so greatly benefitted America also introduces new and complicating factors into world politics. The rise of China was driven by the American-led information technology revolution that made global supply chains possible and by the Anglo-American development of an open international economic system that enabled China to participate on equal terms. The threat of cyberwar exists because of the extraordinary development of the “Born in the U.S.A.” internet, and the revolutionary advances that it represents.
In this way, American foreign policy is like a video game in which the player keeps advancing to new and more challenging levels. “Winning” doesn’t mean the end of the game; it means the game is becoming more complex and demanding. This means that simply in order to perform at the same level, the United States needs to keep upping its game, reforming its institutions, improving its strategies, and otherwise preparing itself to address more complex and challenging issues—often at a faster pace than before, and with higher penalties for getting things wrong.
America’s competitors are becoming more capable and dynamic as they master technology and refine their own strategies in response to global change. The world of Islamic jihad, for instance, has been transformed by both the adaptation of information technology and adaptation to previous American victories. In both these regards, Al-Qaeda represented a great advance over earlier movements, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia yet another advance, and ISIS a further step forward.
In the world of international geopolitics, Russia has also made much of information control and its current leadership possesses a keen eye for the weaknesses of American-fostered successes such as the European Union. And China is also emerging as new kind of challenge, one that on the one hand plays “within” the rules much more than Russia or ISIS, but on the other, is still willing to break the rules—viz. the OPM hack or industrial espionage—when Beijing feels it is necessary. Far more than America’s other competitors, China has used this combination to develop its own economy and to lay the foundations for long-term power.
Meanwhile, many of America’s traditional allies in Europe are losing ground in the global economic race, and NATO, the most successful military alliance in world history and the keystone of the worldwide American alliance network, is in trouble. Many of Europe’s leading economies—which is to say, many of the top-ten economies of the world by GDP—are stagnating, and have been for some time. This has corrosive, follow-on effects on the social fabric of nations like France, Italy, and Spain. Further, the EU’s organizational mechanisms have proven inadequate to both the euro monetary crisis and the current refugee crisis, and secession movements (whether from the EU itself, as in “Brexit,” or within EU nations, e.g. Scotland or Catalonia) are likely to strain them even more going forward. Finally, prospects for European adaptation to the 21st century tech economy are dimmer than one would like. Entrenched interests are using the force of government to repress innovation, start-ups are thin on the ground, and major new tech companies—“European Googles”—are nowhere to be seen.
Since the Great Recession, the European members of NATO cut the equivalent of the entire German military budget from their combined defense expenditures. Many of our mainland European allies are also at least somewhat ambivalent about the extent of their commitment to defend other NATO members, particularly the new member-states in the Baltics—a fact that has not escaped Russia’s notice.
More broadly, the international security system promoted by the United States is based on two principles, alliance and deterrence, that greatly amplify our military capacity—and which we have undermined in recent years. Our alliances allow us to do more with less; they also repress competition between our allies. For instance, mutual alliances with America help to keep Japanese-South Korean tensions in check today just as the American presence helped France and Germany establish closer relations based on mutual trust in the past. Deterrence is key to the alliance system and also to minimizing the loss of U.S. lives as we fulfill our commitments around the world.
Recent events in the Middle East demonstrate what happens when alliances fray and deterrence loses its force. Iranian and Russian adventurism across the region has undermined the confidence of American allies and increased the risks of war. American allies, like Saudi Arabia, who fear American abandonment, have grown increasingly insecure. Saudi freelancing in Syria and Yemen may lead to great trouble down the road; Riyadh is not institutionally equipped to take on the burdens it is attempting to shoulder.
Another significant disadvantage facing U.S. policymakers is that the international order is based on institutions (like the UN) that are both cumbersome to work with and difficult to reform. As we get further and further from the circumstances in which many of these institutions were founded, they grow more unwieldy, but for similar reasons, nations who were more powerful then than now grow more deeply opposed to change. The defects of the world’s institutions of 4 governance and cooperation are particularly problematic for an order-building, alliance-minded power like the U.S.
Meanwhile, many of our domestic institutions relating to foreign policy are not well structured for the emerging challenges. From the educational institutions that prepare Americans for careers in international affairs (and that provide basic education about world politics to many more) to large organizations like the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon, the core institutions on which we need to rely are not well suited to the tasks they face.
In the Cold War era, the challenges were relatively easy to understand, even if developing policies to deal with the threats was often hard. Today, the policy challenges are no less difficult, but the threats themselves are more diverse. A revanchist Russia, competing radical Sunni and Shia jihadist movements, and a rising China all represent important challenges, but they cannot be addressed in the same way or with the same tools. Americans, particularly those in public service but also the engaged citizens whose votes and opinions sway foreign policy, will have to be more nimble and nuanced in their understanding of the problems we’re facing than ever before.
In spite of these serious disadvantages and problems, the United States is much better positioned than any other country to maintain, defend, extend and improve the international system in the 21st century. We should be sober about the tremendous challenges facing us, but we should not be pessimistic. We cannot do everything, and we will not do everything right, but we can be more right, more often than our adversaries.
The United States remains an adaptable society that embraces change, likes innovation, and adjusts to new realities with enthusiasm (and often, an eye to enlightened self-interest). Indeed, in many ways, these truisms are more true now than ever. We remain on the cutting edge of technological development. We’re better suited than our global competitors to weather demographic shifts and absorb new immigrants. And despite significant resistance to change among some segments of society (in particular, ironically, the “public-service” sector), we are already starting to re-engineer our institutions for the 21st century.
One of the United States’ greatest advantages is our exceptional array of natural resources. We possess a tremendous resource base with energy, agriculture, and mineral wealth that can rival any nation on earth. Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal well drilling have fundamentally transformed the American energy landscape overnight. Oil production is up 75 percent since 2008, and new supplies of shale gas have millions of Americans heating their homes cheaply each winter. New U.S. oil production has been a big part of the global fall in oil prices, and shale producers continue to surprise the world with their ability to keep up output, even in a bearish market. In 2014, the U.S. was the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Energy policy debates have shifted from issues of scarcity to those of abundance: we’re now discussing what to do with our bounty. Do we sell LNG abroad? End the ban on crude oil exports? These are good problems to have.
The United States also retains the most advantageous geographical position of any of the world’s great powers. We have friendly, resource-rich neighbors; Canada is a rising power with enormous potential, and Mexico and many other countries in Latin America have made substantial progress. We face both of the world’s great oceans, which allow us to engage in trade while still insulating us from many of the world’s ills.
The United States has an unprecedented network of alliances that gives us unmatched global reach and resilience. The vast majority of the world’s developed nations are U.S. allies. In fact, of the top 50 nations by GDP according to the World Bank, only four—China, Russia, Venezuela, and Iran—are adversaries. Likewise, only two of the top fifteen military spenders are not friendly to the U.S. Largely, we have the kind of friends one hopes to have. Moreover, the world can see that The United States stands for something more than its own power and wealth. The democratic ideals we honor (even if we do not always succeed in living up to them) resonate far beyond our frontiers. The bedrock belief of American society that every woman and every man possesses an innate and inalienable dignity, and our commitment to ground our institutions and our laws on that truth inspire people around the world. The American creed is one that can be shared by people of all faiths and indeed of no faith; our society’s principles stand on common ground with the world’s great religious and ethical traditions. This American heritage gives us a unique ability to reach out to people in every land and to work together to build a more peaceful and prosperous world.
The United States also has a favorable climate for investment and business that ensures we will remain (if we don’t screw up) a major destination for investment. These factors include: America’s traditional devotion to the rule of law; long, stable constitutional history; excellent credit rating; large internal market; 50 competing states offering a range of investment possibilities; rich science and R&D communities; deep financial markets adept at helping new companies grow; stable energy supplies (likely to be below world costs given the advantages of pipeline gas compared to LNG); and an educated workforce. We’re not at the top of every one of these measures globally, but no country can or likely will match our broad strength across them.
This might not be the most popular thing I’ve ever told a room full of politicians, but one of the biggest ways in which America is fortunate is that, as I’ve written elsewhere, “the ultimate sources of American power – the economic dynamism of its culture, the pro-business tilt of its political system, its secure geographical location, its rich natural resource base and its profound constitutional stability – don’t depend on the whims of political leaders. Thankfully, the American system is often smarter and more capable than the people in office at any given time.”
One way to look at our position is this: at the peak of its global power and influence in the 1870s, the United Kingdom is estimated to have had about nine percent of the global GDP. America’s share today is more than double that—and likely to remain at or close to that level for some time to come.
American power today rests on strong foundations. Those who argue that the United States must accept the inevitability of decline, and that the United States can no longer pursue our global interests do not understand America’s strengths. The United States, in association with its growing and dynamic global alliance system, is better placed than any other country or combination of countries to shape the century that lies before us.
Opportunities & Challenges
The U.S. has several opportunities in the coming years to significantly advance its interests around the world. In Asia, a large group of countries want the same kind of future we do: peaceful, full of opportunities for economic growth, and with no one country dominating the rest. Two generations ago, this was a poor, dictatorship-ridden region; today, it’s full of advanced, high-income economies and contains many more stable democratic states than in the past. The regional response to China’s assertive policies in the East and South China Seas demonstrated that many countries are willing and indeed eager to work with the United States and with each other to preserve the way of life they have created from regional hegemonic threats.
In Europe, despite some quarrels and abrasions, our longstanding allies have worked together to build the kind of zone of democratic, peaceful prosperity that the U.S. hopes the whole world will someday enjoy. But what we’re finding, not for the first time in our history, is that Europe works best when America remains engaged with it. While it’s tempting to think that a bunch of first-world, prosperous democracies can handle their own corner of the world (and perhaps some of the neighboring bits, please?), America is the secret ingredient that keeps this historically contentious, rivalry-ridden area, full of states of differing size and capacity, with different attitudes toward economics, defense, social organization, and much else, working together. When Europe works well, it’s the best advertisement for the American vision to the rest of the world. It offers us the chance to work together with partners who share our belief in rule of law and human rights. And fortunately, the fixes that our relationships with European nations need are relatively cheap, easy, and even pleasant: more time, more engagement, more mutual cooperation.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity in the 21st century is not geopolitical, however, but economic and social. The tech revolution has the potential to boost standards of human happiness and prosperity as much as the Industrial Revolution did. It will likely give our grandchildren a higher standard of living than most of us today can imagine.
We should not underestimate either the extent of this coming transformation, or the enormous power it has to make our lives better. Take, for instance, the environment: 21st-century technology is moving the economy into a more sustainable mode. The information service-driven economy is rising even as the manufacturing economy becomes less environmentally problematic and shrinks as a portion of the total economy. From telework to autonomous cars, innovations are likely to cut down on emissions in the new economy, even while improving standards of living across the world.
The information economy will be more prosperous, more environmentally friendly, and more globally interconnected than what came before it. The U.S. can lead this transition—not by hampering economic growth or by instituting expensive subsidies, but by promoting and accelerating the shift toward a greener but richer and more satisfying economy.
Filled with opportunity as it is, the new century also contains threats: conventional threats like classic geopolitical rivals struggling against the world order favored by the United States and its allies, unconventional threats like terror movements spurred by jihadi ideology, regional crises like the implosion of much of the Middle East and a proliferation of failed and failing states, emerging threats like the danger of cyber war, and systemic problems like the crises in some of the major institutions on which the global order depends — NATO, the EU, and the UN for example. The United States government itself is not exempt from this problem; whether one looks at the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security or the State Department one sees organizations seeking to carry out 21st-century missions with 20th or even 19th-century bureaucratic structures and practices.
Additionally, the United States faces a challenge of strategy. While the United States has enough resources to advance its vital interests in world affairs, it does not have the money, the military power, the know how or the willpower to address every problem, intervene in every dispute, or to dissipate its energies in futile pursuits. The United States faces an array of conventional and unconventional threats, as well as several systemic dangers. Our three principal conventional challengers are China, Russia, and Iran. All aim to revise the current global geopolitical order to some extent. In the years to come, we must expect that revisionist powers will continue to challenge the existing status quo in various ways. Moreover, the continuing development of “second generation” nuclear weapons states like Pakistan ensures that geopolitical competition between regional powers can trigger global crises.
Meanwhile, we are also confronted by an array of unconventional threats. Despite the fondest hopes of many Americans, Sunni jihadism has not proven to be a passing phase or fringe movement. Al-Qaeda was more resourceful and ambitious than the previous generation of radical salafi groups; its Mesopotamian offshoot (AQIM) was still more effective; today, ISIS has leaped ahead to develop capabilities and nourish ambitions that earlier jihadi groups saw only in their dreams. Unfortunately, the radical movements have lost inhibitions as they gained capacities. Wholesale slaughter, enslavement, barbaric and spectacular forms of execution: these testify to a movement that becomes more depraved, more lost in the pornography of violence, even as it acquires more resources and more fighters. This movement could become significantly more dangerous before it begins to burn out.
Yet radical jihadis may well prove to be less of a threat than the emerging dangers of the cybersphere. Cyber conflict is a new arena of action, one in which non-state, quasi-state and state actors are all present. With almost every day bringing stories of utterly lamentable failures of American cyber security, it must be clearly said that the U.S. government has allowed itself to be made into a global laughingstock even as some of our most vital national security (and corporate and personal) information is captured by adversaries with, apparently, impunity.
But problems like these are pinpricks compared to the damage that cyber war can cause. Not only can industrial sabotage disrupt vital systems, including military command and control systems as well as, for example, the utilities on which millions of Americans depend for their daily necessities, cyberwar can be waged anonymously. Threats of retaliation lose their deterrent power when the attacker is unknown. Worse, the potential for destabilizing first strikes by cyber attacks will complicate the delicate balance of terror, and leaders could find themselves propelled into conflict. Cyber war could accelerate the diplomatic timetable of the 21st century much as railroad schedules and mobilization timetables forced the hands of diplomats in 1914.
Beyond that, one can dimly grasp the possibility of biologically based weapons as a new frontier in human conflict. It is far too soon to know what these will be like or how they will be used; nevertheless one must postulate the steady arrival of new kinds of weapons, both offensive and defensive, as the acceleration of human scientific understanding gives us greater access to the wonders of the life sciences.
Finally, there are systemic or generic threats, which is to say, dangers that are not created by hostile design, but emerge as byproducts from existing and otherwise benign trends that are likely to pose significant challenges to the United States’ interests and security in coming decades. We do not usually think of these as security problems, but they can create or exacerbate security threats and they can degrade our abilities to respond effectively.
For all its promise, the tech revolution entails an accelerating rate of change in human communities that has destabilizing effects. In the U.S., and especially in Europe, these take the relatively benign, but still problematic, form of the breakdown of what I have called the “blue social model”—a tightly integrated economic-social model built during the 21st century that linked lifetime employment and fixed pensions into a socio-economic safety net. Now, the structures that were designed to secure prosperity and economic safety in the 20th century are often constraining it in the 21st.
But elsewhere, the strains of the modern economy may yet be worse, and produce more malign results. In the Middle East and North Africa, government institutions and systems of belief are overwhelmed by the onslaught of modernity. For better or worse, the pressures of modernity will increase on societies all around the world as we move deeper into the 21st century. To date, the United States has demonstrated very little ability to help failed or failing states find their feet. Failing states provide a fertile environment for ethnic and religious conflict, the rise of terrorist ideologies, and mass migration. The United States will need to be ready to deal with the fallout – fallout that in some cases could be more than metaphorical.
Finally, the United States and its allies must recognize and overcome a crisis of confidence. The West’s indecision, weak responses, mirror imaging of strategic competitors who do not share our values, and our tendency to rely upon process-oriented “solutions” in the face of growing, violent threats have encouraged a paradox: our enemies and challengers have become more emboldened, and disruptive to the world order, exploiting the opportunities that the open order supported by the United States and its allies provides.
Western societies have turned inward, susceptible to “there’s nothing we can do” and “it’s not our problem” political rhetoric. As history shows, the combination can carry a very high cost and take many years to unwind. Grand strategy has to take this into account: American leadership is critical to highlighting and thwarting problems that may fester into major global threats. Even the best strategic planning and the best procurement of equipment to meet serious strategic threats is insufficient should current Western leaders lack the wit to recognize and the will to meet challenges as they arise.
What can the United States Congress and the armed services do to prepare the country for the strategic challenges of the future? The Committee invited me to look beyond the day to day problems and to take a longer view. Here are some thoughts:
1. Invest in the future.
The apparently inexorable acceleration of technological and social change has many implications for the armed services of the United States. It is not just that weapons and weapon platforms must change with the times, and that we must continue to invest in the research and development that will enable the United States to field the most advanced and effective forces in the world. Technological change drives social change, and conflict is above all a social activity. Military forces must develop new ways of organizing themselves, learn to operate in different dimensions, understand rapidly-changing cultural and political forces and generally remain innovative and outward focused.
New tech does not just mean new equipment on the battlefield. As tech moves into civil life, the structure of societies change. Insurgencies mutate as new forms of communication and social organization transform the ways that people interact and communicate. The need for flexibility is heightened by the diversity of the world in which the Armed Forces of the United States, given our country’s global interests, must operate. American forces must be ready to work with Nigerian allies against Boko Haram, maintain a base presence in Okinawa while minimizing friction with the locals, operate effectively in the institutional and bureaucratic culture of the European alliance system, while killing ruthless enemies in the world’s badlands. Our combat troops must work in a high tech electronic battlefield of the utmost sophistication even as they work to win the hearts and minds of illiterate villagers.
The armed services must continue to reinvent themselves to fit changing times and changing missions, and they must be given the resources and the flexibility necessary to evolve with the world around them. The bureaucratic routines of Pentagon business as usual will be poorly adapted the kind of world that is growing up around us. A focus on re-imagining and reengineering bureaucratic institutions is part of investing in the future. Private business has often moved more quickly than government bureaucracy to develop new staffing and management patterns for a more flexible and rapidly changing environment. Government generally, and the Pentagon in particular, will need aggressive prodding from Congress to adapt new methods of management and organization. Investment in better management and organizational reform will be vital.
2. Address the interstitial spaces and the invisible realms.
The United States, like Great Britain, is a power that flourishes in the ‘spaces between’. In the 18th century, think of sea power and the world markets that sea power guaranteed. Britain rose to world power by mastering the ‘spaces between’ the world’s major economic zones. In the 19th century Britain added telegraph and cable communications to its portfolio, developing and defending the world’s most extensive network of instantaneous communications. Similarly, the British build a global financial system around the gold standard, the pound, and the Bank of England. Again, the focus was less on dominating and ruling large land masses than on facilitating trade, communications and investment among them.
In the 20th century, the nature of this space changed again: air power, radio and television broadcasting, satellites and, in the century’s closing years, the internet created new zones of communication. The United States was able to retain a unique place in world affairs in large part because it moved quickly and effectively to gain a commanding position in the development and civil and military use of these forms of communication. Whether it is the movement of goods or of information or of both, Anglo-American power for more than three centuries has been less about controlling large theaters of land than about securing and expediting trade and communication in the ‘spaces between’.
This type of power, most evidently present today in the world of cyberspace, remains key not only to American power but to prosperity and security in the world. Information is becoming the decisive building block of both economic and military power.
American defense policy must remain riveted on the developments in communications and information processing that are creating the contemporary equivalent of the sea lanes of the 18th century and the cable lines of the 19th. The recent series of high profile hacker attacks against key American government and corporate targets suggests that we have lost ground in one of the most vital arenas of international competition. This needs to change; cyber security is national security today and at the moment, we don’t have it.
3. Establish a Congressional Office of Strategic Assessment.
In order to perform its oversight functions more effectively, the Congress should consider establishing a professional, nonpartisan agency that can be a source for independent strategic research and advice, and which can evaluate executive branch policies in a more systematic and thorough way than current resources allow. Similar in some ways to the CBO, a COSA would provide in-depth analysis and other resources to members and staff. Such an office would ideally be able to analyze anything from the strategic consequences of a given trade agreement to the utility of a proposed weapons system. This office would also allow a much more sustained and effective form of Congressional oversight, restoring a better balance to the relationship between the Executive and Legislative branches of government.
The intersection of military, political, social, technological and economic issues in our world is constantly creating a more complex environment for both military and political strategic policy and thought. Even the most dedicated members with the hardest working staff cannot fully keep up with the range of problems around the world and their impact on American interests and policy. Yet effective Congressional oversight is necessary if the American system of government is to reach its full potential in the vital field of national security policy. A non-partisan office under Congressional control that had a strong staff and the ability to engage the best minds in the country on questions of national strategy would help Congress fulfill its responsibilities in this new and challenging environment.
Every day, it seems Americans awaken to a new crisis signifying a world out of their control. In Europe, our Allies and partners are coping with Russian aggression, ranging from cyberattacks and energy coercion to conventional military might and a renewed emphasis on nuclear weapons. There are two important doctrinal trends occurring in Russian military thought. First, it has shifted its doctrine over the past five years to the high-risk proposition of relying on its significant strategic capabilities—nuclear, cyber, and space—at the outset of conflicts. Its goal is to deter US and NATO intervention by adopting an early escalation strategy. In short, Russia may seek to de-escalate conflicts quickly by escalating them to the strategic realm at the outset. Second, Russia has been steadily improving its means for unconventional warfare, as we saw in Crimea. This includes extensive information operations capabilities, development and use of proxy forces, and funding for sympathetic local movements. The seeming goal, successful in the case of Crimea, is to achieve Russian security objectives without need for a costly and domestically divisive traditional military campaign.
At the same time, Europe grapples with the world’s most significant migration crisis since World War II. The prospects for European political cohesion are uncertain. The debt crisis has fueled popular support for extremist political parties, including some with strong ties to Moscow. Freedom House’s 2014 Nations in Transit report found that only two out of ten Eastern and Central European countries (Latvia and the Czech Republic), which joined to the EU in 2004 and 2007, have improved their overall democracy “score card” since their accession. Russia’s annexation of Crimea to NATO’s east and its military maneuvers in Europe’s north compete with the threats posed by ISIS and others to NATO’s south for priority. All this is occurring in an overall environment of declining resources, although since NATO’s Wales Summit, there have been modest defense spending increases among some allies. NATO leaders hope that the Alliance can “walk and chew gum”—attending to disparate threats in various geographical regions—but the real test for European cohesion is occurring over migration, which is less directly a NATO issue and more centrally a test for the European Union.
In Asia, satellite images of China’s aggressive island building activities are widely viewed as corroborating that nation’s designs to control the air and sea space far from its shores. These efforts by China are significant. China has been schooling the United States about its territorial interests in East Asia for some time and has slowly eroded international norms regarding freedom of the air and seas along its periphery. It has also embarked on an extensive military improvement plan, focused largely on air and maritime capabilities. China will be the pacing challenge for the United States in most areas of high-end military capability over the coming decades, although Russia is likely to be at least an equal challenges in nuclear, cyber, and space capabilities. Meanwhile, Kim Jung Un appears to be building on his family’s legacy of dangerous force provocations and nuclear ambition. Although North Korea’s large conventional military is probably no match for South Korean combined armed forces, and certainly no match for the U.S. military, the North Korean threat today is worrisome not because of its sizable manpower but because of its increasing missile capability, emergent nuclear technology, special operations forces, and likely reliance on chemical and biological weapons.
As significant as the security situation is in these two regions, no area of the world is in greater tumult than the Middle East. From the destabilizing role of Iran, to the chaos of Libya, to the complete destruction of Syria and its implications for Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, and beyond, the upheaval is dramatic. Iran has some impressive conventional military capabilities, especially with regard to conventional missiles, but they are currently not on par with the United States. The most concerning threat posed by Iran today is instead its use of unconventional capabilities, manifest largely in its support for terrorist groups, to threaten US interests throughout the greater Middle East and beyond, and its ability to create a crisis in the Arabian Gulf due to its strategic position along the Strait of Hormuz.
Beyond those regional challenges, the global interconnectedness of peoples will continue to grow. However, the very tools that support globalization, especially social media, will also facilitate increasing segmentation along ideological, religious, familial, and other lines that individuals and small groups may choose to create. Moreover, individuals and small groups who are bent on using violence will more easily be able to acquire the means to do so, with militarily relevant technology increasingly coming from the commercial sector, in accessible ways, and at accessible prices.
Moreover, we should expect to see some national security effects from climate change by the middle of this century, particularly the potential for conflict over changing natural resources and food and attendant migration patterns as well as worsening natural disasters. The growth of megacities on the littorals is a particular concern in this regard, as they are more at risk from disasters. The United States will also need to address challenges that arise when the Arctic begins to experience greater commercial, scientific, and military traffic.
Implications for US National Security Strategy
As this brief recitation of the international security environment demonstrates, the international system itself is shifting in ways not yet fully understood. The well-worn frameworks of “the unipolar moment,” “the post-9/11 era,” or even “globalization” cannot singularly explain the seeming growth of coercive tactics from major powers—manifest as provocations that fall short of traditional war—or the appeal of a quasi-state espousing militant Islamist ideology. Indeed, no single, compelling frame may exist that adequately captures the complexity and breadth of the challenges we face. As we seek to understand more fully the implications of changes now underway, we can already identify five important insights that should help guide policymakers devising a national security strategy.
Changing Power Dynamics
The first key factor shaping the role of the United States today is the paradox of enduring superpower status combined with lessening global influence. The United States will likely remain the world’s sole superpower for at least the next fifteen years. The nation boasts enviable demographics, economic and innovative capacity, natural resources, cultural reach, and of course military power. At the same time, its ability to shape the behavior of other actors is lessening. How well the United States can wield power, and how much it chooses to do so, will vary by region and issue. Non-state problems, for instance, are particularly difficult to tackle with existing U.S. foreign policy tools. On the other hand, where there is an assertive nation-state competitor—such as Iran, Russia, North Korea or China—traditional U.S. security strengths tend to be more influential. Even in these cases, however, the United States has had difficulty deterring a wide range of provocations and coercive actions that run counter to its security interests.
Enduring American Support for Engagement
A second factor that shapes the likely U.S. role in the world is the constancy of American public support for international engagement. If there is a theme in American grand strategy that has persisted for the past seventy years, it is that taking a leading role in the world is generally to the benefit of U.S. interests. Those interests have themselves remained remarkably consistent: ensuring the security of U.S. territory and citizens; upholding treaty commitments, to include the security of Allies; ensuring a liberal economic order in which American enterprise can compete fairly; and upholding the rule of law in international affairs, including respect for human rights. Each presidential administration has framed these interests somewhat differently, and of course each has pursued its own particular path in seeking to secure them, but the core tenets have not varied significantly. An isolationist sentiment will always exist in American politics, but it is unlikely to upend the basic consensus view that what happens elsewhere in the world can affect us at home and, therefore, requires our attention.
The Reality of Selective Engagement
Equally important is a third factor that policy-makers should take into account when thinking through the U.S. role in the world: a selective engagement approach to U.S. foreign policy is unavoidable. Despite the enduring, modern American consensus for international engagement, the United States has never had the wherewithal nor the desire to act everywhere in the world, all the time, or with the same tools of power. We have always had to weigh risks and opportunity costs and prioritize. The current budget environment makes this problem harder. Realizing greater security and military investment, through increased budgets and/or more aggressive institutional reforms and infrastructure cost cuts, should be pursued. Nevertheless, when it comes to the use of American force to achieve our ends, we should be prepared to surprise ourselves. As Robert Gates famously quipped in 2011, we have a perfect record in predicting our next crisis—we’ve never once got it right. Democracies, including the United States, can prove remarkably unpredictable. Policy-makers need to understand this reality and not lead the public to expect a universal template that governs when and where the nation may act in support of its interests.
Importance of Preventative Approaches
Another imperative for US national security strategy is to pursue an engagement and prevention approach. Driving long-term solutions, such as improved governance capacity in places like Iraq, takes a generational investment and typically a whole-of-government and multinational approach. Problems are seldom solvable in one sphere nor by one nation alone. The United States needs all instruments of power—diplomatic, economic, informational, and military—to advance its interests. It also needs to work closely with the private sector and non-governmental partners as well as allies and partners abroad. The United States has proven neither particularly patient for nor adept at such lengthy and multilateral strategies. It is also difficult to measure the success of such approaches in ways that can assure taxpayers and their representatives of their value. Our national security strategy needs to put action behind a preventative approach, to include developing ways to measure the results of such efforts. Importantly, a whole-of-government approach also means ensuring sufficient funding for intelligence, diplomacy, and development. This is why the uniformed military is often the most vocal proponent for adequately resourcing the intelligence community, United States State Department, USAID, and other non-military foreign policy tools.
Challenges to Deterrence
The March 2014 events in Ukraine were a stark reminder that state-based opportunism is alive and well. If the United States ignores the challenges posed by major powers such as Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, it does so at its own peril. Although we have an excellent record of deterring existential threats to the United States, we face a deterrence challenge for so-called “grey area” threats. The United States must better shape the calculus of those states that wish to test our response to ambiguous challenges. This will mean clearly communicating those interests and our willingness and capability to act in defense of them. It also means carrying out threats when deterrence fails. Without that commitment, the value of deterrence will continue to erode, and the risk of great power conflict will rise.
The paradox of superpower status yet lessening influence, the American inclination toward international engagement, and the near-inevitability of selective engagement are realities that American policy-makers and prospective presidents would be wise to understand. They create imperatives for national security strategy and for the tools of foreign policy. Discerning the shifting nature of the international system, and designing an effective set of American security tools within it, are monumental tasks, but they are not unprecedented. It is the same task that faced “the wise men” who helped shape the U.S. approach to world affairs at the end of World War II. Our circumstances today are equally daunting, requiring a similar re-examination of our strategies and capabilities for securing U.S. interests.
I think this conversation — and the questions to which it gives rise — is much more important than the question of what Hillary knew about Benghazi and when. In future debates, I’d like to see every candidate — of either party — asked how he or she proposes to face all of these threats. I’d like to know which one might have the wit to recognize and the will to meet these challenges as they arise. I’d like to know which candidate most deeply seems to grasp that he or she will be a war President, ordering the pinpoint killing of terrorists in far corners of the earth, and probably sending our armed forces into harm’s way every few months — even as at no other time since the 1970s have the American people been so reluctant to commit large forces abroad, and so uncertain about the purposes that would justify it. I’d like to know whether he or she has what it takes to explain to the American people what needs to be done — and why.
Would you prefer debates that allowed you to gauge the answers to those questions?