May 1, 2011  

A Darwinian world

Libya points to a new era of aggression and turmoil

As these words are written, U.S., British and French warplanes are striking Libyan ground forces along the Mediterranean littoral; American and other NATO troops are pounding out “fragile and reversible” gains in Afghanistan; and unrest continues to roil governments in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. To our south, criminal cartels and violent gangs murder government officials, civilians and one another in Mexico and points south. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, whose state policy protects cocaine production and smuggling, invites into his country the Iranian Republican Guard and Hezbollah, while, over the horizon, China continues its naval buildup.

Whatever happened to the “peace dividend” and the long rest the world was supposed to get after the end of the Cold War? Those days are long gone, obviously, in the tectonic forces moving the world forward into a century more unstable than many had predicted.

Three years from now will be the centennial of the 1914 disaster that set the 20th century careering down the road to two world wars and the mass murders of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. We can hope that the 21st century is more peaceful, but it’s not looking good. For all the hope that globalization and the communications revolution would bring people together — and they have — at least part of the result has been to make aggression and murder more practical.

For defense planners, this is truly terra incognita. Competition between nation-states has not stopped, and power balances remain important to prevent miscalculation and war; we still need expensive military hardware such as ships and planes, and the rise of cyberwar has added a new and potentially devastating dimension to war as our society has become more and more dependent on computing.

Yet there is also a sense that the underpinnings of societies are under attack, and that old social realities are giving way to new and vigorous political movements. Here are five assumptions that military planners should take to heart as they plan for the next decades:

1. International boundaries don’t matter as much any more. With one or two exceptions, armed intervention across international boundaries into the internal affairs of other states is now accepted, provided a United Nations or regional justification of some kind can be found. It’s not just the U.S. or Western countries; the regular armed forces (or paramilitary police) of countries from Russia to Saudi Arabia have been moving across previously guaranteed borders for a decade or so without plunging regions into general war. In the electronic realm, of course, computer-generated and supported attacks on data systems have been going on for years. Most recently, outright attacks on state banking and information systems have become almost routine, with origins suspected in Russia, China and — in the case of the attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities — from the U.S. or Israel. The only frontier left to violate is space, and that is probably just a matter of time. The “Westphalian” ideal of noninterference in the internal affairs of states is as dead as a doornail.

2. Raw power still matters in a Darwinian international order. As borders have become less important, power — economic and moral, of course, but above all military — matters more and more. Georgia learned that lesson when the Russians invaded in 2008, and the Mexican government is relearning it as it fights the cartels. While some may believe that “soft” power and Facebook revolutions are the wave of the future, no revolution thus far has succeeded when government forces were committed against it; Libya may be an exception because of NATO support and, at this writing, Syria is an unknown. As the writer Bob Kaplan observed recently, in foreign policy, moral questions ultimately boil down to questions of military power, and with borders less relevant than before, military power is more important, not less, as the world adjusts to a post-Cold War century. The United Nations, the World Court and the various international trade organizations all play a role in reducing the potential for brutality and anarchy in a world where boundaries aren’t as important. But so far, no substitute has been found for a sufficient supply of good soldiers, ships and planes that will be the ultimate grantor of national safety in the years ahead.

3. Lines between peace and war and among crime, terrorism, insurgency and warfare will continue to blur. As the importance of traditional political boundaries fades, the vulnerability of societies to disruption and conflict will grow. Further, high-tech societies will spin off disaffected minorities who will have an exaggerated ability to attack important institutions and vital supply chains. The search for security will continue to intensify, aided by technological advances that will make intrusion into private life more pervasive if less obvious (and societies will be less sensitive about privacy, as is happening now). The result will be continued terrorist challenges to the state and to societies, ever-larger state security organizations and fewer distinctions among criminals, terrorists and large-scale criminal activities amounting to insurgencies. Integrated military and police forces will counter these merged crime and insurgent activities, producing paramilitary security forces that are prepared to fight everything from high-end, state-on-state warfare through drug running, kidnapping, corruption and other asocial activities.

4. Nuclear weapons will continue to be a game-changer. Pakistan is attempting to become the fourth-largest nuclear power in the world. North Korea continues its program to put nuclear weapons aboard intercontinental missiles. The Iranian nuclear program progresses, though slowed somewhat by computer network attack and international sanctions. The lesson the world’s tin-pot dictators will take from Moammar Gadhafi’s overthrow will be to continue their quest for nuclear weapons — built, bought or stolen. Military planners in the future will never be able to overlook the possibility that a nuclear weapon, or a homemade terrorist device, may fall into the wrong hands. The world will likely change a nanosecond after such a device is detonated in the downtown of one of the world’s great cities. Underlying the U.S.’s quest for a stable and peaceful world, and for similar efforts on the part of our allies, is the realization that a nuclear weapon in the wrong hands could drastically change the direction of the 21st century for the worse.

5. It’s the economy, fellows. Increasingly in this interconnected world, the root cause of instability is the large number of unemployed, often well-educated, young people who are frustrated by their inability to make a life for themselves and their families. Many years ago Barbara Ward, in “The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations,” highlighted the growing gap between rich and poor states and pointed out that, in the 1950s, rulers of undeveloped states were trying to jump-start their societies by using communist models. Those attempts failed — because communism doesn’t work — leaving behind frustration and an eventual swing to radicalism to justify the failures of broken economic models.

The winners in the 21st century will be those states that nurture and protect the entrepreneurial abilities of their people — or, put bluntly, that have laws encouraging ownership of property and the building of capital. The “Arab spring” began with the suicide of a frustrated sidewalk vendor in Tunisia. The inability of the Egyptian people to progress economically under Hosni Mubarak’s rule led to the rebellion against his government. There will be further rebellions unless people’s basic need for stability and economic security is addressed.

At this point, U.S. defense and economic policies should begin to merge. It will make no sense to help our allies fight insurgencies, for example, if the root causes of individual economic stability are not addressed by the host country acting in its own self-interest. In the future, helping states shift economies from socialistic, quasi-feudal nonsystems to ones that empower individuals and satisfy ambition will be as important — or more — than weapons and tactics.

The term “Darwinian world” describes a world order in transition from the Westphalian ideal that prevailed, more or less, through the Cold War. The question is what replaces it. It may be that the growing influence of world organizations — the United Nations, the World Court and other bodies — will eventually provide a framework for a new international order. Power, though, will still matter, and the U.S. and other like-minded democracies will be required to protect allies and occasionally impose penalties for overly aggressive or disruptive behavior — as we are seeing in Libya, as this is written. It won’t always be pretty, and it certainly won’t be comfortable to be the one carrying a big stick, but that’s the way the future is shaping up. AFJ

Col. Bob Killebrew is a retired infantryman and a regular AFJ columnist.