Emerging Signs of the Times Could Signal Grim Future
Op-Ed by Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, U.S. Army retired, Senior Fellow, AUSA Institute of Land Warfare
After the Cold War, the paradigm shifted—or so we have been told— from conventional war to scaled wars often called “war amongst the people” or “hybrid war” or “gray zone operations” or “distributed security missions,” or some other label du jour. One such theorist, retired British Army Gen. Sir Rupert Smith, argues in The Utility of Force that war no longer exists as battles between human beings and machines in a massive event deciding an interstate dispute.
We should be careful in how absolutely we buy into such predictions. As military theorist Carl von Clausewitz reminds us, war is more than a chameleon that just slightly adapts its characteristics to its surroundings. For 25 years, the proponents of scaled wars have predicted that this is the face of future war, but there are already signs that this forecast is overstated.
Five such signs are already emerging from the fog:
• The information age: For over 50 years, the information age has been replacing the industrial age as the dominant organizing model. Understanding the impact of such a historical movement is important. The industrial age took almost 200 years to replace the agricultural age, roughly from 1760–1950. The world of 1950 didn’t look anything like that of 1760. The factory system changed the way people lived, how families related, and how money and fortunes were made. These changes affected religions, governance and economies.
Citizens of 1950 got their information differently from those of 1760, traveled differently, and fought their wars differently. Demographics shifted and ecologies changed, as did education and almost every other aspect of social and political life. Just as the domestic landscape changed, so did the international environment. The late 18th-century international system did not look like that of the mid-20th century’s.
The American, French, Russian, Mexican and Turkish revolutions were fought in this period as were the American, Russian, Spanish and Chinese civil wars. The War of 1812, the Boer War, both world wars and the Korean War were also fought—and these are only the major wars. The point is that the unfolding of the industrial age was not peaceful. Tectonic shifts of this magnitude create upheaval. We are at the beginning of just this kind of major shift, one that will last for some time. We should not expect ours will be any more peaceful than the last. Rather, we should expect that competition, conflict and war will increase in likelihood, and we should prepare accordingly.
• Deterrence: Since the end of World War II, we have grown accustomed to two deterrent “lids” limiting how violence has been used in pursuit of political aims. The first lid combined the bipolarity of the Cold War and nuclear deterrence. This lid prevented violent Cold War conflicts from escalating vertically and horizontally.
The lid worked well for half a century. When the Cold War ended, some thought nuclear deterrence combined with American military dominance would work to prevent similar escalation. To some degree, it did, but not for long. This second lid is now fraying.
Nuclear deterrence does not appear as strong as it once was. North Korea seems undeterred, at least so far, in its progress to expand its nuclear arsenal and delivery means. Iran progressed significantly in developing a nuclear capability, though now it may be on a different—but perhaps temporary—tack. And al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have not given up their hopes to acquire nuclear capabilities of some sort.
Further, American military dominance, although not lost, is eroding. With very few exceptions for the past 15-plus years, defense modernization budgets and service acquisition programs have taken a back seat to the near-term readiness requirements associated with fighting our post-9/11 wars. And the size of America’s armed forces does not match our national strategy or our global commitments. Already, defense analysts are describing areas in which Russian or Chinese capabilities overmatch those of the U.S.
Fear of taking on the United States in a conventional way is one of the main reasons current competition is being kept below the threshold of war. Tactically, American prowess remains strong in most areas. Strategically, however, U.S. capacity to use force to achieve strategic aims is in question. Our performance in waging war over the last 15plus years matters. Should fear of American dominance dissipate sufficiently, the calculus of competition will surely change.
That calculus, of course, is complicated. Part of it is based on U.S. capabilities. In this area, potential competitors have already identified American strengths and weaknesses and then developed their own strengths against our weaknesses. If sequestration continues and the U.S. allows its armed forces to become imbalanced by overemphasizing remote precision bombing and special operations forces or overinvesting in one domain—whether it’s air, sea, ground, space or cyber—we will surely create a greater vulnerability that will be exploited. Or if we convince ourselves that the “war is shrinking” forecast is an accurate and complete prediction of our future, that vulnerability will be exploited as well.
Another part of the calculus is based upon will—American will as well as that of our allies. Alliance cohesion is not just a force multiplier, it’s a significant “will multiplier.” Whether that will is strong enough to withstand the kind of pressure and competition that is already building is an open question. In a near-Hobbesian international system, weakness of will or capacity tempts competitors.
• Global competition: The current global competition is stiffening; we should not pretend otherwise. The prize is nothing short of the character of the international system. The current system, which was put in place after World War II, was designed to help prevent the catastrophe of major interstate war as well as promote political and economic systems in which individual human rights and political communities could thrive. No one can doubt that these arrangements have significantly benefited the U.S. and its allies. Equally without doubt, the system has benefited many other nations but not all. This system is under significant stress.
Revisionist powers—Russia, China and Iran—are trying to rewrite the international order to their benefit. They aim to establish centers of power that will reduce the power and influence of the U.S. and its Pacific, European and Middle Eastern allies. Revolutionary powers—al-Qaida, ISIS and the like— are trying also to upend the international order. They aim first to depose states they call apostates and replace them with a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate defined so narrowly that most Muslims reject that view as not Islamic at all. Then they hope to expand this initial caliphate into Europe, Asia, and North and South America. As fantastic and impossible as this vision may seem to us, it has been an attractive vision to many and a source of significant motivation and violence. Finally, the rogue power of North Korea is also stressing the current international arrangement, but in a less expansive and systemic way than the revisionist and revolutionary powers.
Currently, this competition is below the threshold of conventional nation-state conflict. We should not expect, however, that the threshold will hold forever—especially if either of the two “lids” of deterrence loses its power to limit violence. The actions we—the U.S. and our allies—take to help resolve the competition are key determinants of which future ultimately emerges.
• Economics and governance: When economies start to shrink or when their growth is constricted relative to expectations, societal and political dynamics are triggered. People look for “those responsible.” The result, on the mild end, is social disruption and political turmoil; at the other extreme is revolution and regime change, whether from the street, the gun, or external actors or their proxies. Globalization, a product in large part of the information age, promised to raise all boats. For many, this promise came true. For many others, not only has it not come true, it resides in the “never going to happen” category.
The never going to happen category exists in both developed and developing countries. In developed countries, the solidly middle class that slipped because of the widening gap between rich and poor associated with job loss from advanced technologies is coming to believe its rising boat will never happen. In developing countries, the overeducated and underemployed already believe it will never happen for them, either.
In both cases, the loss of hope has become a powerful force demanding change. Such a force is often the breeding ground for unrest, nationalism, repression and assertive- authoritative governance, and other social forces that are breeding grounds for potential intrastate and interstate conflicts.
We have seen such conflicts arise already across North Africa and the Middle East. These conflicts have spilled over: refugees in Europe and America; Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, NATO and the U.S. are now locked in a Gordian knot-like struggle in Syria that might sooner or later require a larger sword. Similar conflicts might yet emerge elsewhere, creating a “many wildfires burning” strategic environment that demands action—by whom and for what will be the key questions. The conditions for crossing the threshold of war are already set.
• American and allied cohesion: In the early 1990s, some thinkers identified disturbing trends at play in American society. In 1991, James Hunter wrote Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America; in 1992, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. Now-retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan and I captured these trends in a Strategic Studies Institute paper, “Land Warfare in the 21st Century,” when we said people are being pulled apart by the problems of drug abuse and the resulting disregard for the rights of other citizens and disrespect for democratic values and institutions; the growing number of Americans living below the poverty line; the decline of public education; the disintegration of the family; the disregard for the basic rules of civil behavior; the rise of crime and welfare dependence; and the acceptance of vulgarity as the norm.
Regardless of how one sees these issues, this much is clear: These and other problems constitute a threat to the ultimate foundation of our nation’s security—an educated, civic-minded, participative polity that is the basis of a democratic government.
This description seems mild in the face of the divisiveness present in America, the realties that resulted in Brexit and the current social, political and economic movements in other European countries. Perhaps sufficient unity will yet emerge at home and abroad. But equally possible is a trend with a long historical pedigree: blaming internal social problems on external factors, “others” who are at fault. Such blame sometimes becomes the source of war, or at least for decisions and actions that have the unintended consequence of war.
These five signs are pointing toward turbulent waters. Certainly the signs, whether read individually or collectively, are not a prediction. Neither are they a statement of inevitability. Rather, they are a warning to political and military leaders: Be careful of the policy decisions you make and the directions these decisions will take us, our allies, and the rest of the world.
In politics, whether domestic or international, decisions often take on a life of their own and directions, once taken, often become unalterable. Schlesinger had it about right when he said in War and the American Presidency: “Far from offering a shortcut to clairvoyance, history teaches us that the future is full of surprises and outwits all our certitudes. ... The statesman who is surest that he can divine the will of the Almighty most urgently invites his own retribution.”
This article first appeared in the February 2017 issue of ARMY magazine.
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Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, USA Ret., a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare. He has a bachelor’s degree from Gannon University, Pa.; a master’s degree from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College; and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, Md. He is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.