The war colleges are given to teaching that the development of strategy is simply the aligning of resources to reach national goals and that there is a kind of logic that will show the way for military and civilian policymakers, if applied expertly.
In fact, though, the making of strategy and the aligning of resources are profoundly difficult and full of surprises. Even the best of those in the strategic sausage-making process have only a foreshortened view of the field before them. Discriminating between today’s crisis and the long-term objects of true strategy is hard; it is made harder because not only is the view foreshortened, but also because human nature puts bumps and obstacles in the way of even the most prescient vision. That is particularly true today.
What is developing today is the emergence of a new world order, in upheavals not unlike the waves of liberation and enthusiasm that accompanied the breakup of the colonial empires. Almost a hundred years ago, the events that began in August 1914 ended the rule of kings and emperors; millions died in consequence. Later, the Cold War held the end of World War II in a kind of suspended animation, while the two postwar blocs followed the development of nuclear missiles to the point of being capable of blowing up the world — the culmination and negation, simultaneously, of WWII-type security strategy. Thankfully, the world escaped that snare, but we can never, never forget that nuclear weapons are steadily proliferating into increasingly unstable hands.
We are now seeing — or beginning to see — the real aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet empire and the churning that accompanies the beginnings of a new international order. Today, the powerful but opposing forces of globalization and nationalism are running at cross purposes around the world, like a rip tide, disrupting not only relations between states, but, thanks to the communications revolution, societies within states. This will be an era of change unlike any seen before, with dramatic, unimaginable changes in governments, in technologies and in war, with warlords wielding powers unthinkable a century ago.
The position of our country in this unfolding drama is critical to the century’s outcome. Without a strong and viable United States in the world, there is no guarantee that messy, liberal democracy will be any more likely to survive than some more efficient version of Chinese-style totalitarianism, or whatever other form of tyranny comes along. History plays no favorites; the U.S. has escaped many disasters because of its “bigness” and its relative isolation, but that’s no way to bet in the 21st century.
Here are some thoughts about American security strategy in upcoming decades.
First, the U.S. has got to get its own political house in order. The polarization of American politics isn’t so much about budget deficits or Medicare — the small change of great events — but a reaction to the forces of globalization and change that are sweeping the world, provoking fear in a good part of the American population in a manner reminiscent of the “Know Nothing” movement of the 19th century. The result is government frozen in place, fighting over social divisions and unable to make the relatively simple adjustments necessary to restore the economy and the vital middle class; invest in infrastructure necessary for the new century; and educate the population, especially the rising tide of nonwhite citizens, on the values of Jeffersonian democracy. How long this division will continue is tough to say; technology in the hands of professional and well-funded propagandists may delay the usual swing back to the middle. Until the middle is restored, though, the United States’ present course will remain its most serious vulnerability.
The great gift of the West to the world in the past four centuries has been the unsteady, bumbling, but always progressive, growth of the rule of law. As one scholar put it, the West is so accustomed to the pervasive way law orders democratic societies that we are “like a fish that doesn’t know it’s wet.” Emerging societies know instinctively that law is necessary to survive and compete in the emerging world, and indeed the turmoil in the Middle East today following the “Arab Spring” is in large part over what legal system will govern new states and their people. Into this is generally folded the relationship of the individual to the state and specifically the role of women in society. The emergence of the liberated, fully equal female, Ralph Peters argues, is the most significant social development since the birth of Jesus Christ. This challenges many societies, including segments of our own. The dignity and worth of every human being, though, is implicitly a part of the American creed, and in the new century, the U.S. must come down on the side of protecting human rights worldwide. Such a move is not only right, but will be shrewd politics as the information age continues to raise individual consciousness and new expectations are made of government. The good news is that there are many in the U.S. government who understand this, and some effective agendas are going forward. The not-so-good news is that foreign aid, small as it is, continues to be on the congressional chopping block.
This is a strategic misalignment of resources. Nearly 80 years ago, an American president said that the U.S. must be an “arsenal of democracy.” In the coming century, the U.S. must be the arsenal, not just of democracy, but of civilization itself, providing hope and assistance to emerging states and groups struggling against cynical combinations of crime and terrorism aimed at civil society and law. The Mexican drug cartels, for example, are only the first wave of a new kind of transnational criminal class that allies itself with criminal states to prey on weaker governments and to attack the United States itself. Facile, one-dimensional solutions — e.g., “let’s legalize drugs and take their profit away” — ring as hollow as the universal disarmament pleas of the 1930s. This is a new face of warfare fought not with deployed armies (though military readiness is important) but with other means: agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration; members of the Treasury Department who hunt down illicit funds; Coast Guard cutters; local police; but most importantly, by the threatened states themselves, supported through training and equipment by the U.S., until a network of capable, democratic states emerges to ensure that the rule of law continues to survive and prosper. This is the heart of American security strategy in the new century: security provided by supporting allies who likewise will stand for human dignity and worth.
This does not obviate the need for strong conventional forces; they continue to serve a vital deterrent role against opposing states that might be tempted to use force overtly. Increasingly, though, and because we have strong conventional forces, states that are likely to be threats to the U.S. are also deeply involved in transnational criminal and terrorist activities that can threaten to strike indirectly or through proxies at the U.S.
And into this comes the nuclear question. Can a nuclear device be smuggled into the U.S.? Customs and border police organizations, counting both federal and state bodies, number in the tens of thousands. Our borders, though, can still be penetrated; for example, the drug cartels are now running fully submerged, diesel-electric submarines from South America to the United States.
Real security will only come when border protection is only part of a worldwide community of effort that includes strong states, information-sharing on a global scale, and a denial of sanctuaries to transnational criminal and terrorist groups that can obtain and use nuclear devices, factory or homemade. That is ultimately the United States’ 21st century security strategy.