Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: A Review

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is one of those magisterial overviews of five centuries of world history. Paul Kennedy does a very good job and takes a quasi-Marxian approach to this, in that economics do in large part determine the trajectory of nations (e.g., a materialist explanation). The macroeconomic state of a nation – its accounts payable, its gross national product, its collective receipts – are, to Kennedy, inextricably linked to its place on the world stage. The correlation is obvious, but is the causation there?

While Kennedy admits that earlier history is not his area of expertise, he does a decent job explaining how the “East” fell behind, given the increasing insularity of Ming China and the internecine struggles in South and East Asia that consumed resources and attention. It’s not a wholly convincing explanation but other historians have done a fairly good job examining this; I am reminded mainly of Kenneth Pomeranz’s alternate history essay in Unmaking the West , “Without Coal? Colonies? Calculus?: Counterfactuals and Industrialization in Europe and China.” (One of Pomeranz’s points is that in the United Kingdom, coal deposits were mined in relatively close proximity to waterways and also the metropole; in China, much of the coal is to be found far in the northwest hinterlands, far away from a means of transportation and major population centers.) In Kennedy’s telling, it is the governance failures of China and the Mughals – and in the case of the latter, an increasingly rapacious program of taxation, offering nothing by way of return to the tax base – coupled with a lack of industrialization that can explain their relative early fall.

Kennedy has written a remarkable qualitative history based on ballpark quantitative statistics, which is an approach I can very much get behind. Relative national “incomes” in the seventeenth century, for instance, are exceedingly difficult to find data for, much less calculate (part of the reason Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was so celebrated was its painstaking collection and analysis of detailed financial records dating back centuries – one of the first times it had been done). And yet Kennedy manages to paint a convincing picture of ebbs and flows in currencies and commodities, in relative power balances and military expenditures, tracing continuities in national approaches towards almost the present day.

It is here, on the doorstep of the present, that perhaps reviewers have, with the benefit of hindsight, come to blame Kennedy for his failure of prescience. Indeed, he comes close to an accurate prediction in terms of the overall trajectory of Russia, but in the specifics (i.e., the collapse of the Soviet Union), he just misses the mark:

On the other hand, the Soviet war machine also has its own weaknesses and problems … Since the dilemmas which face the strategy-makers of the other large Powers of the globe are also being pointed out in this chapter, it is only proper to draw attention to the great variety of difficulties confronting Russia’s military-political leadership – without, however, jumpting to the opposite conclusion that the Soviet Union is therefore unlikely to ‘survive’ for very long. [Emphasis in original]

Kennedy was writing in 1987, just two years before the overthrow of Communism in much of eastern Europe, and four before the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. But despite failing to predict its collapse, he nevertheless successfully identified a downwards socioeconomic and geopolitical trajectory for Russia that has since been proven accurate. Similarly, Kennedy’s prognosis for the United States seems, especially now, to have been borne out, almost frighteningly so:

Although the United States is at present still in a class of its own economically and perhaps even militarily, it cannot avoid confronting the two great tests which challenge the longevity of every major power that occupies the ‘number one’ problem in world affairs: whether, in the military/strategical realm, it can preserve a reasonable balance between the nation’s perceived defense requirements and the means it possesses to maintain those commitments; and whether, as an intimately related point, it can preserve the technological and economic bases of its power from relative erosion in the face of the ever-shifting patterns of global production. This test of American abilities will be the greater because it…is the inheritor of a vast array of strategical commitments had been made decades earlier … In consequence, the United States now runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of what roughly might be called ‘imperial overstretch’.

And though he never quite describes it as a future strategic competitor (and, to be fair, it is only in the past fifteen years that the contours of Sino-American relations have really begun to solidify), it is clear to Kennedy that the eventual rise of China is perpetually lurking in the background. “The most decisive” international fissure of the Cold War, he writes, “was the split between the USSR and Communist China,” which served to make even that era less of a totally bipolar system than is typically conceived of. China is one of five extant or emerging power centers he identifies, and sees a gradually strengthening power with some of the highest growth rates on Earth – this towards the tail end of Deng’s rule, before it really took off.

And so, what then for the United States? In keeping with his theme of “imperial overstretch,” Kennedy points out that the United States in 1987 had “roughly the same massive array of military obligations across the globe as it had a quarter-century [prior], when its shares of world GNP, manufacturing production, military spending, and armed forces personnel were so much larger.” All the military services will inevitably demand more resources and cry poverty, yes, but that is because what passes for American “statecraft” in the 21st century manages to avoid any hard decisions, any downscaling of commitments, and any meaningful reassessment of available ways and means – with an eye towards determining commensurate ends.

Here again, Kennedy is prescient: “an American polity which responds to external challenges by increasing defense expenditures and reacts to the budgetary crisis by slashing the existing social expenditures, may run the risk of provoking an eventual political backlash.” We’ve almost certainly watched that unfold in the years since 2001. In keeping with the rest of Rise and Fall, the United States is in fact headed for decline, but in a relative sense, one that is manageable if approached reasonably. This doesn’t single out the country; instead it might be seen (and is by Kennedy) as a reversion to the mean:

It may be argued that the geographical extent, population, and resources of the United States suggest that it ought to possess perhaps 16 or 18 percent of the world’s wealth and power, but because of historical and technical circumstances favorable to it, that share rose to 40 percent or more by 1945; and what we are witnessing at the moment is the early decades of the ebbing away from that extraordinarily high figure to a more ‘natural’ share.

Kennedy also offers a warning: “the task facing American statesmen over the next decades, therefore…is a need to ‘manage’ affairs to that the relative erosion of the United States’ position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage.” This is wise counsel for the years ahead, as the unipolar moment continues to rapidly fade. But if this is the predominant challenge to the United States in the 21st century – a superpower in decline – than so far we have surely failed to meet it.

Learning to Live With Pyongyang’s Bomb

I have a new article out in The Diplomat, on the strategic advantages of coming to terms with North Korean nuclear weapons:

As the North Korean “crisis” continues to unfold, any negotiations, including the possible (albeit unlikely) Trump-Kim summit, represent a significant strategic opportunity for coming decades — even if today’s official policy goals are never achieved.

Pyongyang and Washington must come to terms with two realities: North Korea will not surrender its nuclear arsenal; the United States will not withdraw its support for South Korea. But once the U.S. policymaking apparatus accepts this, the aperture of the possible widens. By tacitly acquiescing to North Korea’s nuclear status — and in the process, securing concessions on advance warning and notifications, among other subjects — the United States could partially supplant China as a patron (in a limited sense), simultaneously shoring up peninsular stability and presenting China with a new security challenge on its own border, requiring the diversion of forces and materiel.

A North Korea no longer beholden to Beijing would dilute Chinese strategic attention, with the Yalu River joining the Western Pacific Ocean, Indo-Chinese flashpoints, Belt and Road, and mounting internal unrest as key security foci for the Central Military Commission. None of this requires in any way weakening the U.S. commitment to South Korea. Continued joint exercises and a military presence are key both for the United States’ overall Indo-Pacific posture as well as its readiness to defend Seoul if North Korea should renege or a more revanchist leader emerge. Nor does it mean abandoning U.S. nonproliferation obligations. This is the geopolitical jujitsu of nuclear recognition: rather than allow China to use North Korea as a wedge between Washington and Seoul, by dislodging North Korea from its current firmament it would be positioned as a potential threat to China as well, tying up forces and resources in the Northern Theater Command that might otherwise be deployed elsewhere. Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo would have the freedom to turn their attention to the larger looming strategic issue: China itself.

Quick Thoughts on Korea

It’s wild, it’s crazy, it just might work?

I’m not going to pretend as if I have supreme confidence in the negotiating skills of President Deals, but one of the vanishingly rare points of optimism with this administration all along has been, perhaps, the chance for some faits accomplis to be revisited, for some of the baggage of old to be revisited. Not in the sense of blowing up the international order, but in rethinking some of the assumptions that have persisted in the postwar and post-Cold War era, for better or worse. I’ll avoid dignifying either of the present regimes with the title of “Muhammad” or “mountain,” but regardless, the twain shall meet.

Well, this is one of those moments. No sitting president has ever met with a North Korean head of state (Carter and Clinton did so, but in their post-presidencies). Donald Trump is perhaps not the most likely of candidates to send on such a vital mission, but you go to negotiations with the one you’ve got, particularly if he insists.

But that aside, an in-person summit represents a real opportunity to shed some of that baggage and to rethink our relationship with the Koreas and the region for decades to come. Kim is likely unserious about denuclearization – at least, that would be my own prior heading into a negotiation like this – and we’ve been equally adamant about not halting our exercise regime nor abandoning our alliance with South Korea. If we can accept these constraints, however, the room to maneuver is significant, and at the very least might lead to confidence building measures.

As Victor Cha ominously concludes in a New York Times opinion piece, this is certainly not a move without significant risk.

Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have “run out of road” on North Korea.

Given that these negotiations would be taking place at the highest levels of government, it is hard to say what comes after a failed session. Is that it?

Of course, this all concedes the idea that talks would even be productive. Cha also suggests, rightfully, that the Trump administration is probably singularly susceptible to flattery and deception on the part of North Korea. He asks what might we be willing to give up, and suggests the possibility of radical change:

A second path might be bolder, and for this reason it might be more appealing to Mr. Trump. This would put much bigger carrots on the table, including diplomatic normalization of relations and even the conclusion of a peace treaty ending the Korean War in return for denuclearization. It would be ironic if Mr. Trump, an avowed hawk on North Korea, adopted this “big bang” approach to diplomacy advocated for years by doves.

But, he says, “the unanswered question going forward is what the United States is willing to put on the table for a negotiation.” This is an open question, not in the least because Rex Tillerson will be replaced by Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, and who will presumably be playing a large role in any upcoming negotations. Pompeo is a man who, as recently as this past Sunday, “said on Fox News that the United States would offer not a single concession in negotiations with Pyongyang. ‘Make no mistake about it,’ he said.” This could very well mean that negotiations are dead on arrival. But Pompeo still has to be confirmed, and Tillerson’s lingering until 31 March, so who know what might change in that time.

Meanwhile, Jeff Lewis thinks that Trump and Kim have goals for these talks that are fundamentally at odds.

Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula.

And of course, as he and I would agree, Lewis goes on to say that this would be a bad idea (so let’s call this a better-case scenario). But, he adds, what if that isn’t what Trump does? “What if Trump, having deluded himself into thinking he’s going to pick up Kim Jong Un’s bombs, suddenly decides that he’s been double-crossed? He could use the summit outcome to discredit diplomacy and open the pathway toward war.”

As Lewis and Cha agree, this meeting has an immense downside: it might foreclose on any possibility of avoiding a senseless war on the Korean Peninsula. But at the same time, the steady drumbeat coming from EEOB seems likely to march us in that direction anyways, and so the possibility of a real, dramatic diplomatic breakthrough must be seized upon and prepared for. The possibilities are tremendous, as are the risks.

As John Bolton’s stock rises, and his presence in the West Wing looms ever more likely, it’s more important than ever that we refresh our ways of thinking and what constitutes a “desired outcome.” Before it’s too late.

Rethinking National Security (or, What the People Want)

T. Greer has published an absolute corker of an essay on Scholar’s Stage. Intended as a call to action against the complacency and stagnation of the modern foreign policy and national security community, he points to the continued disinterest most people from across the American political spectrum hold for foreign affairs, and submits that we will never be able to meet the challenge posed by a rising China without obtaining the consent – and desire – of the public writ large.

The piece is commendable, not least for Greer’s clearheaded thinking on what it means to have a strategy in the first place:

Responding to the rise of the People’s Republic will be a challenge of a scale America has never faced before. We cannot do that, deter Pyongyang, Tehran, and Moscow, and wage war against a thousand little terrorists at the same time. We simply do not have the means. This is true in 2018. It will be really true in about fifteen years time. We must decide which contests demand our attention, forces, and funds, which can be handed off to allies, and which need to be conceded. Deciding between them all will be difficult. It will create storms of animosity among the commentariat. But it must be done. To do anything else is not serious.

Even if you don’t believe that it’s China, specifically, which poses a looming threat to the United States and the West writ large, the idea that tradeoffs are necessary is one sorely lacking from today’s modern defense discussions. So too is language that reflects what analysts truly believe. Those debates we do have are petty and trivial while ignoring core, fundamental questions: what is the national interest? What actually constitutes a threat? What can we safely table and deemphasize because we cannot emphasize everything? Phil Walter has talked about “majoring in the minors,” and that’s an apt phrase for what American foreign and security policy has been for the past 20 years: a focus on penny ante terrorism and third-rate regional countries (I hesitate to call them “powers”) at the expense of anything resembling big-picture thinking.

Dismantling the careerism and shibboleths of the defense establishment will be vital in charting a new course for the future. What we’re doing now, to the extent it can be characterized as a coherent strategy or even a singular set of goals, clearly isn’t working. We are long overdue for a major reassessment. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of my generation’s lifetime so far, and the people who advocated it should forever be unwelcome in The Discourse (and certainly never listened to if hawking an even more devastating overseas intervention). North Korea can be managed and contained without requiring military action or bellicose language.

Our endless obsession with the Middle East is equally ripe for rethinking. If we are to continue championing the appeal and righteousness of liberal democracy around the world, alliances with fundamentalist Wahhabi monarchies would seem anachronistic at best. Which vision of Islam best aligns with our own self-conceptions? And in terms of “fighting over there to avoid it here,” the threat posed by terrorism is vanishing at most. For the vast majority of the American people, requires but a reassessment of the slight personal risk before accepting it into their everyday lives, on par with the remote possibility of nuclear annihilation or a lightning strike from a vengeful god. The ISIS convert with a panel truck doesn’t worry me, but what does is the exhausted delivery driver from Queens who mistakes the gas pedal for the brakes; not the jihadi with a Kalashnikov but the disgruntled man with an Armalite.

Merely questioning the continued relevance of NATO is enough to send gasps through the national security community. And yet, it is worth considering at the very least what a European security architecture might look like if designed from scratch today. What threats might it counter? To what larger political project and integration might it contribute? What would be the geographical limits of its membership? Its operations? In short, we must evaluate what we need rather than what we have, and then try to make up the difference. This, too, is an area where the foreign policy establishment seems to be blind to alternatives and focused solely on preserving some version of the status quo. To question the existing way of things is not a radical act; it is in fact a best practice to periodically evaluate changes in the environment and adjust accordingly.

In the grand realm of national strategy, there frankly is not much from without that can pose a threat to the United States and the “American way of life,” whatever that might now consist of. Truly “existential” threats, to sidestep a semantic debate, exist solely in form of Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals, and in terms of broader geopolitical security, China looms as a true challenger in the medium term. Little else is important. And our other “adversaries” are security problems to be managed (and waited out), not solved.

Even with this handful of real challenges, what “the people” demand are peace abroad and reconstruction at home; in the NBC polling that Greer cites, far more millennials are concerned with health care and education in the United States than nebulous threats from abroad. To win them over for those issues we do deem worthy of concerted national effort, it will be necessary to prove that this country is something worth fighting for; that it is part of an international system worth preserving. That this hasn’t been self-evident in recent years is an indictment not of my generation but of the system that has failed us, a system that will have given us worse living standards than our parents. Nobody’s moving, physically or socially. Infastructure is crumbling. Even those few places worth moving to, with decent jobs and transit (though that, too, is crumbling) don’t have enough housing for those fortunate enough to be able to relocate. Segregation and institutionalized racism manifest themselves more prominently than any other point in our lifetimes. And yet we’re tasked with preserving this system?

The first priority of the national security community must be to acknowledge this. To continue blithely on as before, pretending we have still enjoy the highest living standards in the world for everyone and that this will and must be defended at all costs, is ignorant of reality and will achieve nothing.  Acknowledging that this political economy is unsustainable, and that it will require investment, sacrifice, and change of its own on the part of this entire national security community and other certain privileged sectors will be one of our greatest challenges in the years to come.

What is “Systems Analysis”?

“Systems analysis,” as a concept, can be difficult to define and pin down. For much of my life, I assumed it was some sort of generic back-office IT function (see, for instance, the hundreds of man-on-the-street “American Voices” interviews in The Onion, which describe respondents in equal measure as ‘unemployed’ or ‘systems analyst’). But given the complexities of almost, well, everything in the modern era, an understanding of the logical underpinnings of systems analysis is critical.

Essentially, single variables cannot be considered in isolation. A new weapons platform or technological development or re-basing movement must be thought of in the context of existing technology, logistics capacity, weather, enemy reaction, enabling capabilities, fixed facilities, power projection, and so on, down an otherwise infinite fractal list of factors.


Dr. Bernard Brodie, RAND Corporation (Wikimedia)

But all this is a long-winded introduction to Bernard Brodie’s hypothetical systems analysis example in Strategy in the Missile Age is one of the best,  most succinct ways of describing just how complex this interplay is. Brodie, of course, had a front-row seat to this effort, as the RAND Corporation was the earliest home to a methodological approach to the field. Beginning on page 381 in the 1967 edition:

Let us consider, for example, the problem of choosing between two kinds of strategic bombers. Each represents in its design an advanced “state of the art,” but each also represents a different concept. In one, which we shall call Bomber A, the designers have sought to maximize range. They have therefore settled for a subsonic top speed in a plane of fairly large size. The designers of Bomber B, on the contrary, have been more impressed with the need for a high dash speed during that part of the sortie which involves penetration of enemy territory, and have built a smaller, shorter-ranged plane capable of a Mach 2 dash for a portion of its flight. Let us assume also that the price of the smaller plane is about two-thirds that of the larger.

Perhaps we can take both types into our inventory, but even then we should have to compare them to determine which we should get in the larger numbers. Let us then pick a certain number of specific targets in enemy territory, perhaps three hundred, and specify the destruction of these targets as the job to be accomplished. Since we know that both types can accomplish this job with complete success if properly supported and handled, our question then becomes: which type can do it for the least money?

We do not ask at this stage which type can do it more reliably, because within limits we can buy reliability with dollars, usually by providing extra units. Some performance characteristics, to be sure, will not permit themselves to be thus translated into dollars-for example, one type of plane can arrive over target somewhat sooner than the other type, and it is not easy to price the value of this advantage but we shall postpone consideration of that and similar factors until later.

Let us assume that Bomber A has a cruising range of 6,000 miles, while Bomber B is capable of only 4,000 miles. This means that Bomber A has to be refueled only on its post-strike return journey, while Bomber B probably has to be refueled once in each direction. This at once tells us something about the number of “compatible” tankers that one has to buy for each type (“compatible” referring to the performance characteristics which enable it to operate smoothly with a particular type of bomber). Up to this point Bomber B has appeared the cheaper plane, at least in terms of initial purchase price, but its greater requirement in tankers actually makes it the more expensive having regard for the whole system. In comparing dollar costs, however, it is pointless to compare merely procurement prices for the two kinds of planes; one has to compare the complete systems, that is to say, the weapons, the vehicles, and the basing, protection, maintenance, and operating costs, and one must consider these costs for each system over a suitably long period of peacetime maintenance, say five years. These considerations involve us also in questions of manpower. We are in fact pricing, over some duration of time, the whole military structure required for each type of bomber.


A B-36 Peacemaker, B-52 Stratofortress, and B-58 Hustler from Carswell AFB, TX en route to the former’s retirement in 1958. The B-52 would long outlive the more advanced Hustler. (Wikimedia)

Now we have the problem of comparing through a process of “operations analysis,” how the two types fare in combat, especially the survival expectancy of each type of plane during penetration. In other words, we have to find out how much the greater speed (and perhaps higher altitude) of Bomber B is worth as protection. If the enemy depends mostly on interceptors, the bomber’s high speed and altitude may help a great deal; if he is depending mostly on guided missiles, they may help relatively little. Thus a great deal depends on how much we know about his present and projected defenses, including the performance characteristics of his major weapons.

If our Bomber A is relying mostly on a low altitude approach to target, which its longer range may just make possible (we are probably thinking in terms of special high efficiency fuels for wartime sorties), it may actually have a better survival expectation than its faster competitor. Also, we know that penetration capability is enhanced by increasing the numbers of bombers penetrating (again, a matter of money) or by sending decoys in lieu of extra bombers to help confuse the enemy’s radar and saturate his defenses. Perhaps we find that the faster plane would outrun the decoys, which again might tend to give it a lower penetration score than one would otherwise expect. But decoys are expensive too, in acquisition costs, basing, and maintenance, and involve additional operating problems. The faster plane may be less accurate in its bombing than the other, which again would involve a requirement for more aircraft and thus more money.

We have given just barely enough to indicate the nature of a typical though relatively simple problem in what has come to be known as “systems analysis.” The central idea is that no weapon can be considered independently of the other weapons and commodities that are used with it, that all endure through some period of time and require men to service them and to be trained in their use, that all these items involve costs, and that therefore relative costs of different systems, as considered against some common standard of function, are basic to the problem of choice between systems. Systems analysis, which brings what is modern to present-day strategic analysis, is mostly a post-World War II development.

The challenges herein are immense, which in part explains the explosion not only of defense research and development but also of the defense bureaucracy as a whole. It’s a sprawling, tangled mass that can in many ways only be understood in relation to itself. But systems analysis is at least an attempt to build that into other assumptions and considerations.

Using this technique is not only a way to compare technologies with like missions; it’s an excellent tool for use in wargame design. This too is in fact an iterative process, as the insights from a wargame itself might reveal further interrelationships, which might then be used to craft a more complex operating environment (or refine the mechanics used to select force lists), and so on ad infinitum.

Practicality aside, Brodie’s writing serves as an excellent primer to what systems analysis entails, and more broadly, to the change in strategic thought and analysis since the end of World War II.

The “Utility” of Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons

The B61 family of modifications

The B61 family of modifications

An article in the New York Times made the rounds last week, asserting that the new modification (“mod”) of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb was of a lower yield than its predecessors, and arguing that lower-yield, precision weapons are destabilizing to nuclear strategy and that their relatively limited destructive capabilities in turn render them more likely to be used than the multi-megaton, Cold War-era city-busters. It was also proclaimed that this was the death knell for the Obama Administration’s disarmament and arms control efforts, and represented a “new arms race” between nuclear powers.

The argument is well-intentioned, but misguided.

The article quotes the usual suspects – James Cartwright, Andrew Weber, William Perry – and offers some assertions that are patently false on their face.

David Sanger and William Broad, the authors of this piece, focus solely on US weapons development and policy in a bubble, ignoring the larger context of the world in which nuclear weapons exist. As they and their interview subjects characterize it, the United States is the one upsetting the nuclear balance:

Already there are hints of a new arms race. Russia called the B61 tests “irresponsible” and “openly provocative.” China is said to be especially worried about plans for a nuclear-tipped cruise missile. And North Korea last week defended its pursuit of a hydrogen bomb by describing the “ever-growing nuclear threat” from the United States.

This, of course, ignores the fact that Russia has violated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, China has refused to enter into any arms control arrangements and is busy expanding its own arsenal (including the production of new nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles; the former something that the United States still will not do), and North Korea has rejected carrot and stick approaches alike dating back several decades. If the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives in the aftermath of the Cold War – or the past 30 years of sanctions – were insufficient to dissuade Pyongyang from nuclear proliferation, it’s hard to envision what would. Continue reading

Threat Inflation

According to this calculator, one 1989 dollar is the equivalent of nearly two dollars in 2012 money ($1.82, to be precise). What had an intrinsic worth then seems to be even more nowadays. But what are you getting for your money?

That’s a really unsubtle preamble to a simple concept: that of threat inflation since the end of the Cold War (man, the Cold War has apparently been on my mind a lot lately). We talk about the threats posed by violent extremist organizations (VEOs) and non-state actors and rogue states and the possibility of state-on-state violence arising once again. But except for wars of choice, the latter two have certainly not materialized, and the more effective parts of our counterterror and counter-VEO strategies have involved a light footprint. A base in Djibouti, an airstrip in Saudi, and you’ve got the makings of a regional proactive defense (the merits of the “SOF-n’-drones approach” are, of course, debatable, but that is a separate issue).

While small, covert actions might point towards a way forward, the simple truth is that these threats in no way pose anything like the existential one represented by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

If you were to make a ranking with relative numbers for budgetary purposes with say, a notional ranking of the hierarchy of threats faced by the United States and the dollar amounts needed to counter them, a Cold War version might have looked something like this (obviously this is really, really crude, but bear with me):

  1. Soviet Union: $50 billion
  2. Soviet Union: $40 billion
  3. Soviet Union: $35 billion
  4. Soviet Union: $30 billion
  5. Soviet Union: $25 billion
  6. Third-world nations: $2 billion
  7. Nuclear proliferation: $1.5 billion
  8. Terrorism/non-state actors: $500 million

By 1992, the top five lines were all wiped out. Or at least, the entry in the threat column was. The sensible thing to do might have been to just lose that funding entirely, much like the how the current DoD hiring freeze is preventing new blood from circulating throughout the Pentagon (when someone retires now, more often than not that billet is lost entirely, rather than being re-filled). No threat = no money necessary to counter it.

To put it another way, what was a $2 billion threat during the Cold War was probably also more or less a $2 billion threat afterwards (in relative terms).

But rather than just wipe out the top five items, budgeted dollars and all, what we get instead is an upwards shift of the bottom-tier threats. What was #6 becomes #1 and so forth – including all the funding commensurate with such a position as a dire threat to the nation.

But of course, neither terrorism nor Iran nor cyberwarfare pose an existential threat to the United States. And that’s really an impediment to policymakers these days. I will grant, that out of all the banal clichés used to describe our modern threat environment, that “complexity” is in fact the case, and is in fact a difficult problem to surmount. The sheer number of threats might have increased – what was once a two-item list of 1) the Soviet Union and 2) everything else has now dramatically expanded – but the relative threat they pose is far, far lower.

DNI Clapper’s opening statement to Congress introducing this year’s Intelligence Community Worldwide Threat Report included the line: “I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.” Sure, the sheer number looks a little daunting. But that hardly signals the imminent end of the Republic.

Like last year’s report, the 2014 edition singles out cyber as the most critical threat to US national security, and specifically mentions the financial and health care sectors as vulnerable, as well as industrial SCADA, 3D printing, and “smart objects” as potential targets. Which, as they’re new, must be feared.

What are we defending ourselves again? Our life and liberty seem increasingly assured in the face of terrorism (even the Boston bombings have not done injury to the American psyche at large), and our longstanding freedom from invasion remains unchallenged. But what is the business of US national security becoming? Unless the defense establishment of the United States of America wants to embrace a role as digital security guard for Big Finance, or as the ultimate arbiter of just what Americans – that wellspring of ingenuity and innovation – can use a computer to manufacture from the comfort of their home, it seems that grasping for something to defend the nation against has reached increasingly dubious conclusions.

We’ve defined threats in order to match budgets and huge dollar flows, and it’s fairly clear that we’re boxing with shadows and posturing against dreams.  Patrick Porter recently wrote something to this effect for War on the Rocks (his article deals more with the “small world” of globalization and its unintended consequences, but there is a degree of overlap). As usual, Porter’s entire piece is worth reading, but especially:

In the name of taming the dangerous “Global Village,” governments resort to anticipatory war, extraordinary rendition, torture, continual drone strikes and mass surveillance. Instead of containing threats in pursuit of affordable security, the US-led coalition sought to eradicate them in pursuit of absolute security. It set out to destroy rogue regimes, fix broken states, to wipe out terrorism itself. Some now argue that the American President should have an internet “kill switch,” creating a cyber as well as nuclear monarch. The stakes are high.

A closer look shows that the belief in a small world misconceives the security environment. Consider terrorism, supposedly borderless. On 9/11, Al Qaeda attacked under open skies. Yet Bin Laden’s pilots hit America not from Afghanistan, but from forward operating bases such as flight schools in Arizona and meeting houses in Berlin, bases that America quickly shut down. Its training camps and sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the US-led coalition destroyed. The unspectacular steps of intensified police work, tighter border controls, international collaboration, the strengthening of the Nunn-Lugar program for locking down “loose” nuclear material, and strengthened airport security widened the space between Al Qaeda and America. For the budding nuclear terrorist, America the “far enemy” has effectively become more distant.

Porter’s piece concludes that this trend “makes us all less powerful, but more secure, than we think.” And if this is the case: what are we all so afraid of?


American Stuart and Lee tanks advance on a German position.

I gave the real-time strategy game R.U.S.E. a quick whirl last night. Expect a formal review at some point, but here are some initial impressions:

– From what I’ve played, it already seems somewhat more historically accurate than others in the this genre, at least with regards to the campaign. So far I’ve been operating in a support role in the Battle of Kasserine Pass (the North Africa campaign itself is woefully underused in games), and it seems to have a fairly accurate order of battle, down to the Italian bersaglieri regiments and Free French units you’re operating with.

– The actual “RUSE” system has so far been limited to “spies” and “decryption,” the former of which reveals the identities of units in a given sector, and the latter which reveals movements only. Used in tandem, it is a neat trick to predict enemy attacks and move to ambush. Presumably as the game progresses, more elaborate ruses will become available.

– Selecting and issuing orders to units is less easy than one would expect, and the imprecision with which you move a given unit compares pretty unfavorably with something like Company of Heroes. It’s hard to get, say, an infantry squad exactly where you want it, and the AI does not at all compensate for that.

– The zoom-in/out system is pretty neat. Zoom all the way in and you’re practically at the level of a first-person shooter, with individual units all moving separately. As you zoom out from there, your units gradually change to a stacked-counter view, and at the farthest zoom levels, you see you’re actually moving counters on a map table in some sort of command post. The micro/macro views do help.

A “Historic Moment of Choice”

Chinese Minster of Defense General Chen Bingde delivers remarks at the National Defense University, May 18, 2011.

The most difficult part about watching an official speech – be it on policy or otherwise – is to separate the platitudes from the substance, assuming there is any of the latter. The meat of public remarks can often be found in soundbite form, or on a single slide of a powerpoint presentation. It is also equally possible to sit through an entire thirty minute speech and to hear absolutely nothing that hasn’t been said before.

Fortunately, that was not the case when Chen Bingde spoke at the National Defense University last week. While granted, much of the talk consisted of appeals to American sensibilities and national interests, there were some moments of real substance in it.

General Chen opened by declaring this to be an “official goodwill visit,” and that the Chinese sought mutual respect and benefits for both parties in Sino-American relations. He reminded us that the Chinese name for the United States translated to ‘beautiful country’. Continue reading

Lines Drawn, Sides Chosen

One of the more interesting results of last night’s UNSC vote to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya was the voting pattern of the Council. More specifically, the abstentions.

Look at the countries that decided not to vote:

  • Brazil
  • China
  • Germany
  • India
  • Russia

Two things jump out: all four of the BRIC countries abstained from a vote, and of these five countries, the three which are not already members of the P5 are heavily discussed candidates for membership should the council expand. Do they too see themselves as a bloc? Or was it just coincidence?

So it’s interesting to try and ascertain where this reluctance comes from. One can just throw out some crude snapshots: Germany is wary of overseas military operations. China and Russia see any intervention as an ominous precedent and a threat to their own national sovereignty. India and Brazil don’t want the responsibility, perhaps, and see a vote on Resolution 1973 as a distinct voting record that could come back to haunt them (much like the conventional wisdom explaining why a United States senator would never be electable as president).

Also interesting are the military capabilities of these five countries. All, with the possible exception of Brazil, have formidable land armies, but lack a great deal of expeditionary capacity or any meaningful power projection. China has been making the greatest strides in this area with their naval armament program, but is still a long ways off from being able to physically support operations like a Libyan intervention. Much the same goes for Russia, even if the recent Mistral purchases were an attempt to provide new command-and-control capabilities that would make such a deployment easier.

Despite NATO’s series of capability commitments, developing a true airlift capacity remains stuck. Germany is the European leader of strategic lift, and yet still only operates the woefully outdated C-160. Its replacement, the A400M, has nearly three times the weight capacity – but has been delayed yet again and will not enter service until 2014 at the earliest. So even discounting moral reservations, Germany might have some legitimate tactical concerns about intervention in Libya.

Of course, to have to write something like this implies a great deal of cynicism on the part of the international community. The ‘clean voting record hypothesis’, in particular, is a rather damning indictment of why nothing gets done politically either in the international or domestic realm. No matter the reason, though, it appears as if the BRIC countries are their own power bloc, and they’re not going to help if they don’t want to. Which perhaps then begs the question of why the West has to intervene whenever a dictator starts murdering his own people.

(Of course, as I’m writing this, this article pops up in my Twitter feed.)