The new millennium is bringing an epochal shift in the global strategic situation that is fundamentally altering the challenges facing the nation. Although there is broad awareness of many elements of this shift, the overall mismatch between these challenges and national capabilities is almost totally unrecognized.
From time immemorial, the central security challenge for cohesive groups has been physical protection against attack by enemies. The United States achieved its independence by military means, and soon thereafter was fighting foreign invaders on its own soil. Subsequently, thanks to protection by two oceans, direct physical challenge was minimal, but challenges to allied nations were severe. This brought the nation into two world wars and then conflict in Korea. The following Soviet challenge, including direct nuclear threats to the continental United States, gave impetus to a strong military posture. Although the demise of the Soviet Union greatly reduced the direct threat to the United States, the nation has continue to maintain a strong military posture defending against a residual Russian challenge, a rising Chinese challenge, and emerging challenges from scattered other nations, including Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela.
US military strength has been grounded in the US economy, not only the largest and most diverse economy in the world, but also the most technically advanced. US preeminence also provided economic benefits. US business interests had essentially dominated several nations, particularly the "banana republics" of Central America, and had even overwhelmed the civil government of independent Hawaii, engineering its incorporation into the United States itself. For over a century, economic conditions insured the Industrialized World, led by the United States, received agricultural commodities and raw materials at bargain prices. The rise of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) put a serious crimp in the control of that one specific, though critical, commodity, but did little to change the overall favorable trade balance. By the end of the XX Century, the United States, with 5% of the world's population, consumed some 25% of its production. The US standard of living set the standard for prosperity globally.
The strategic challenges of the XX Century had been military and the United States met them directly. Neither a battered Russia nor a China only beginning to emerge were significant rivals. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States was able to rapidly lead a broad coalition in a short, intense, and overwhelmingly successful campaign. Entering the new millennium, it stood at the pinnacle of power, dominating the globe in a way few nations ever have.
But the new millennium has not been kind to US primacy. Even in its first decade, there have been a host of challenges to the United States, including:
- A newly assertive Russia, literally fueled by high energy prices, has a strong-willed, autocratically inclined leader, skillfully using Russian nationalism to support his determination to re-assert Russia's role as a global power;
- A rising China, buoyed by a surging economy and encouraged by US difficulties, is also stoking national pride and directly challenging US positions, even developing military advantages in its own region and a vague though very bothersome threat to US space assets;
- Radical Islamic groups, particularly al Qaeda, have stirred strong anti-American sentiments throughout the Muslim World, now in the throes of its own upheavals whose outcomes remain largely unpredictable;
- Iran continues to frustrate efforts to restrain its nuclear program, while actively supporting radical groups and repressed Shiite minorities regionally. It is now even reaching into the Western Hemisphere, notably building ties with an increasingly autocratic and anti-American Venezuela.
The basic US response has been to address these challenges militarily. That has proved to be both very costly and of questionable effectiveness in Iraq, where a trillion dollars, hundreds of US lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives have produced a fragile state which seems to be more subject to Iranian than US influence. A parallel effort in Afghanistan is bogged down. Recognizing that the effort could not rely on military might alone, the United States began a "civilian surge" to bring more nonmilitary expertise into the battle area, yet this proved to be much more difficult than anticipated. Admiral Micahel Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could see some progress in this "whole-of-government" approach, but concluded that the challenges demand a "whole-of-nation" effort. Certainly in Afghanistan, where civil development and the creation of a market economy are so important, the involvement of the private sector with the direct investment that has proved to be so critical in other countries is crucial. Similar complex challenges face the United States globally. It is unclear how military assets could even be usefully employed against Iran, not to mention Venezuela or Pakistani radicals. Similarly, the developing challenges in Africa mainly involve nonstate security threats.
In fact, the United States faces only a minimal direct physical threat. Russia's remaining nuclear arsenal could undoubtedly decimate the United States, but it is hard to construct any scenario where that would happen, particularly faced with a US response, even a minimal one. China's arsenal is much less capable of delivering a devastating blow to the United States; China has a long history of playing to opponent's weaknesses and at any rate seems determined to be a regional rather than a global power. Iran and North Korea pose marginal direct threats to the United States. Terrorists do pose a direct threat, as illustrated by the 9/11 attacks. The US public is very conscious of this threat, but its only strategic dimension is with biological or nuclear attacks. In this regard, the stability of Pakistan is particularly troublesome as there is some potential for radical Islamic elements to take control of this nuclear-armed state. A strong US nuclear posture helps deter nuclear challenges, but it also gives nuclear weapons high salience. Especially in an uncertain world, this can easily lead to a proliferation of nuclear states, intensifying the nuclear threat to the United States, rather than decreasing it. New nuclear states would be less capable of providing in depth protection and perhaps also be susceptible to being controlled by radical elements, worsening the only real nuclear threat the nation faces: terrorists.
Some US allies do face significant physical threats and US military strength helps to minimize them. US military assets are also a major basis of global maritime protection, though this is obviously an international responsibility, not a US responsibility. Military force is also proving difficult to use in this sphere - Somali pirates now hold some 30 seized vessels despite an international naval protection effort. In fact the United States navy recognizes that it can no longer unilaterally control the global sea lanes, and has expressed a concept of a "Thousand-Ship Navy," not literally a 1,000 ships at sea, but a global maritime partnership that unites maritime forces, port operators, commercial shippers, and international, governmental and nongovernmental agencies to address mutual concerns.
Overall, faced with growing global instabilities and uncertain conditions, there is a strong US tendency to strengthen its military capabilities to be better prepared to meet unforeseen contingencies. Therein lies the problem - the major contingencies of the XXI Century are not susceptible to military solutions.
Even for security challenges, it is unclear just what military force can do to resolve situations. Iraq and Afghanistan show its limitations, while turmoil in the Middle East, radicalism and instability in Pakistan, intransigence by Iran and North Korea, and Somali pirates all pose challenges that military force cannot adequately address. The US Army is adapting to this challenge by developing its concept of Stability Operations: military support for broader governmental efforts. This civil-military integration will probably remain the dominant operational mode in a world of asymmetric threats from failed or failing states. While this will require a much more robust force of civil servants, proposals for a Civilian Response Corps are getting minimal support. Even less attention is being paid to integrate the private sector, which also has an important role to play, particularly in helping to shape conditions so that military intervention is not needed.
But the biggest problem is that the changing global situation poses new challenges for which military force is irrelevant. Globalization with a newly networked world and burgeoning physical interconnections mean that is it no longer possible for the United States to dominate the global economy, or even to continue enjoying a grossly disproportionate share of global resources. This has several major implications:
- Partly because of increased competition from China, India, and other rising economic powers, commodity prices have risen sharply since 2000; oil has gone from $25 a barrel to over $100 today, coffee has risen from 65 cents a pound to over two dollars; copper has gone from under a dollar a pound to over four. These prices restrict the US share of global resources. More importantly, the rising costs, especially of oil, have greatly increased the amount of US debt held abroad, notably by China. Interest on this debt together with the higher commodity prices, undermines the entire US economy and restricts foreign policy options.
- Although wages in developing nations have increased, they are still significantly lower than domestic rates. One result has been a strong tendency of US and multinational corporations to set up manufacturing operations abroad rather than in the United States, sending investment, profits, taxes and revenues abroad as well as reducing the ability of US industry to respond to military requirements. A more recent development has been the shift of intellectual jobs abroad - to some extent anyone anywhere with a computer can compete. The global marketplace now undermines US jobs and is a main reason for high unemployment and underemployment.
- Immigration has shifted from being a strength to being a weakness. The United States has always had an underclass, initially slaves and indentured servants, then new immigrants who would move up the economic ladder and be replaced by still newer immigrants. With globalization, this upward mobility has come to a screeching halt. Immigrants are more and more consigned to a permanent underclass; merging with the chronic unemployed, they form a growing marginalized population, increasingly frustrated and miserable. Despite this, there is still a large flow of illegal immigrants; however bad conditions may be in the United States, they are still significantly better than home countries. This is particularly true of parts of Central America, where "banana republic" arrangements provided cheap goods to the United States and a good life for the local elite, but very unbalanced development. The same unbalanced development is visible in Mexico where a favored elite sits atop large numbers of impoverished peasants. The US immigration problem can not be solved at home.
- The challenges of globalization merge with the challenge of global demographics. Populations in the developing world have a high percentage of young, unemployed men, an imbalance unlikely to change significantly in the immediate future. The global interenet insures that they are aware of being exploited and gives them the means of doing something about it. The current turmoil in the Middle East is driven by this imbalance; there is no resolution in sight. Similar imbalances in Africa and the rest of Asia only portend more troubles. This is problematic for both India and China, where government legitimacy rests on economic performance. The situation with China is especially bothersome because it could easily drive a beleaguered leadership to adopt a strongly nationalist, confrontational stance, greatly complicating efforts to promote global harmony.
Global warming exacerbates this situation. Although catastrophic effects are unlikely, they are possible. But disruptive impacts are almost certain, including a one to three foot rise in sea level, more severe storms, and major shifts in agriculture and rainfall patterns. Food and water shortages are already significant in some areas and will certainly exacerbate population pressures. Coastal destruction is also already apparent in some areas and can only be expected to worsen. Global warming or not, few nations seem prepared to even address inevitable localized catastrophes, exemplified by Hurricane Katrina and the recent Sendai earthquake and tsunami, much less global calamities such as an unexpected pandemic or a solar flare destroying existing satellite networks.
Domestically, these looming problems are already causing social disruption and rising internal friction. The ongoing budget crisis makes it clear that there are not enough assets to address current crucial domestic needs in education, health care and infrastructure, without even considering environmental disruption, occasional natural disasters, or a worsening international economic climate. The highest incarceration rate in the world starkly demonstrates the existing high level of disaffection within the United States, as does the steady stream of news articles of murder, misery and mayhem. Such disaffection can only be complicated by the worsening inequality of wealth distribution in the face of chronic unemployment and millions of illegal aliens, often in desperate situations. The 1965 Watts riots strikingly demonstrated the power of high levels of pent up frustration; two aspects are notable: the rioters burned their own neighborhoods and the events did not spread to other cities. But one can easily imagine unruly mobs firebombing upscale neighborhoods and the example spreading to other localities. Alternatively, the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington showed how just two determined individuals could terrorize a city for an extended period. It is such internal disruption that has the power to devastate the nation, and it is much more likely than a Russian nuclear strike.
The central fact of globalization is that a prosperous United States can only exist in a prosperous world; building this is the core challenge of the XXI Century. Although the challenge is a global one and no nation can address the situation alone, US leadership is essential. No other nation is in a position to orchestrate the necessary global cooperation.
It is no longer external force that threatens to devastate the United States, but economic deterioration. For the first time in history, military forces are not central to addressing the major challenges facing the nation. In fact, assets dedicated to nonproductive military use undermine the ability to create the economic conditions necessary to avoid global and so inevitably domestic turmoil. Military missions need to be rigorously reassessed in terms of overall national security requirements which now broadly transcend narrow military security requirements. Assets put to military use must be limited to directly addressing substantial current risks, allowing the maximum application of assets to positive programs. As Afghanistan vividly illustrates, failure to promote development in a stable situation can rapidly lead to much larger nonproductive requirements. By shifting assets to developmental uses, the United States can set the example globally for reducing the arms trade and the extensive diversion of assets into nonproductive military uses. Indeed, such a shift in focus is essential if the world is to avoid a global meltdown in the coming decades.
Overall, the new millennium poses an entirely new challenge: shrinking national assets facing increasingly nonmilitary security threats that are much more amorphous, harder to even define, much less address -- global warming is a good example. So it is too easy to keep focusing on the kinds of threats we are more familiar with -- military challenges -- even if this means that larger issues go unaddressed. The result is a growing mismatch between US strategic response assets and the new range of challenges facing the nation.