March 23, 2011

Military Power In A Disorderly World

The opening acts of the 21st century have fundamentally challenged long-held notions of military power. The past decade has unveiled not only the disruptive power of terrorist groups with global reach, but also the ability of low-budget insurgent groups to directly confront the best military forces of the West -- with surprising success. Moreover, recent revolutionary events across the Arab world have demonstrated the limits of military power when facing mass popular uprisings. Disorder, chaos and violent extremism seem on course to replace state-on-state violence as the most common forms of conflict in the new century. Given this new security environment, the U.S. military must begin to play a larger role in conflict prevention in order to fully realize its value, commensurate with its cost, in this new disorderly world.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- launched not with tanks, warplanes or intercontinental missiles, but with commercial airliners -- were the most deadly assaults on U.S. soil since the American Civil War. Unconventional wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have also rattled the conventions of military thought, as insurgents equipped with inexpensive weaponry have inflicted prolonged attrition on U.S. forces. The U.S. military has spent billions of dollars defending against these new, low-cost threats, but the West and its military thinkers are still grappling with the full security implications of these dramatic upheavals in traditional military power balances. The era of asymmetric warfare has arrived with a vengeance.

Recent revolutionary events in the Arab world -- starting in Tunisia and rapidly spreading to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain -- have further highlighted today's shifting balance of power. While the outcome of these upheavals is still unclear, they reflect a new sort of asymmetrical power wielded by popular movements and expressed through mass street demonstrations. These spontaneous movements -- organized and enabled by modern technologies such as cellphones, Twitter and Facebook -- have directly challenged the "hard power" of state militaries, albeit with mixed results to date. Yet at the same time, the West's hard-power reponse to the Libyan regime's harsh backlash against its people has further demonstrated that conventional military power remains a powerful tool -- in this case employed to enforce the will of the broader international community as expressed by U.N. resolutions.

Another version of this asymmetric power shift has played out against Western forces in the wars for Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite successful high-tech U.S. military campaigns at the outset of each conflict, the enemy quickly adapted with inexpensive forms of asymmetry, in the shape of attacks by car bombs, suicide vests and IEDs, and with clashes often captured and disseminated via cellphone videos. The cost to the insurgents of these unconventional weapons is minimal, but the U.S. defensive response to protect its army is staggering. The multibillion-dollar fleet of heavily protected MRAP vehicles designed to protect U.S. soldiers against IEDs is just one example. This reflects in part an insurgent strategy of "cost imposition," whereby the enemy attempts to drive the costs of the war in lives and fortune to a point where it no longer makes strategic sense for the U.S. to pursue its aims.

The evolving nature of global threats echoes the tactical asymmetry found on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. Where the 19th and 20th centuries were dominated by a Westphalian order of nation-states, nonstate actors have moved to center stage in today's global order. This is a "flat world" of multinational companies, interwoven crime syndicates, global special interest groups, Internet-fueled extremist ideologies and terrorist networks. In many ways, the comfortable order and rule of law represented by the nation-states seated at the U.N. is fading, overtaken by a complex mix of other competitors for power. Of even greater concern, the destructive power accessible to even tiny groups is skyrocketing, rendering both deterrence and containment of fringe actors exceedingly difficult. 

The role of U.S. military forces in this new era of global disorder requires a careful assessment. The U.S. Department of Defense has traditionally analyzed foreign military capabilities and assigned priorities based upon their potential threat to U.S. interests. In today's world, a threat-calculus based upon conventional military capabilities makes less sense, as does the impetus to simply build a U.S. military to confront these nation-state threats. In a disorderly world, terrorist groups, transnational criminals or state failure may generate a serious threat to U.S. vital interests as readily as a cross-border invasion. In this environment, a U.S. military too deeply invested in conventional military capabilities may be poorly positioned for other strategic challenges facing the United States. But if it seems obvious that the next U.S. military must be able to more than just fight or deter other armies, navies and air forces, exactly what else it should be doing is less clear.

In many ways, the current "supply of security capital" by the United States is woefully out of balance with the "demand signal" driven by threats in this new disorderly world. A U.S. Foreign Service with fewer than 8,000 diplomats to cover the globe contrasts with a U.S. Marine Corps of 200,000 leathernecks. A foreign aid and development budget of less than $60 billion competes with a base defense budget that exceeds $550 billion a year. But the bureaucratic realities of Washington and the U.S. Congress give scant hope that any major realignments between U.S. government departments will occur.  This is a fundamental dose of reality: Even in an era of fiscal austerity, Defense will continue to have a disproportionate share of U.S. government discretionary spending.  This recognition should drive new thinking on maximizing those assets.

One outcome should be clear: The U.S. military must begin to play a larger role in global conflict prevention in this new disorderly world. Military forces based largely in the United States waiting for a war to break out are simply an unaffordable resource drain in a financial environment where the annual interest payments on the nation's debt will exceed its $550 billion defense budget by the end of this decade. The U.S. military is no longer a sound investment if it only defends and deters -- it must now also actively help prevent conflicts and stabilize key regions of the world where instability can threaten vital U.S. interests. All three missions -- defend, deter, prevent -- are important, and the next U.S. military should be organized, trained and equipped to actively engage in each.  

Making this change will require a strategic reset in both U.S. military and diplomatic thinking. Fortunately, the nation-building and counterinsurgency experiences of the past 10 years have prepared the military well for this adjustment. Building on this experience makes sense. This new task of "selective stabilization" can better align the military with U.S. diplomatic missions abroad in at-risk areas and leverage a broader array of U.S. power. Yet this logic will be strongly opposed by those worried about a further "militarization of foreign policy" -- while failing to recognize that the diplomat's traditional remit of "represent, report and negotiate" is shrinking in today's disorderly world. Fewer regions will demand these traditional diplomatic talents alone, and many more will require new skills in integrating U.S. hard and soft power in potential conflict zones. 

Demographic and natural resource trends signal that violent upheaval and the threat of instability will menace ever greater parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, Africa and Central and South Asia. U.S. vital interests in these regions are less threatened by interstate war than by the risks of internal extremism, instability and terrorism. Stabilizing the most important of these regions is an essential new task, and one that will require the combined talents of State and Defense. 

None of this suggests the deployment of Army divisions to the Maghreb or Marine landings on the Nigerian coast -- quite the opposite. Nor does it suggest the U.S. military abandon war fighting to take on a global nation-building role in lieu of its traditional combat responsibilities. But the nation's large investment in the military argues for a greater return on investment in response to an increasingly disorderly world.

That said, the lead for any expanded engagement by U.S. military forces overseas must remain the U.S. ambassador as chief of mission in any country with a U.S. presence. But in zones of potential conflict, the military can provide the ambassador with planners and strategists, logisticians and analysts, technicians and foreign area officers -- and, often, defense dollars. The U.S. military can also deliver core capabilities to help train and professionalize less-capable militaries in these regions around the world, modeling U.S. values and norms that are the global standard of military excellence. The restraint and responsibility exercised by the U.S.-trained Egyptian military in responding to the popular protests and managing the ongoing transition of power in Egypt is the best recent example of the power of this influence. 

The Era of the Disorderly World has already dawned. The importance of conventional militaries in this world has changed, but it has not gone away. Hard military power remains potent, and U.S. military power remains the dominant hard power force in the world -- and will remain so even in an era of U.S. fiscal austerity. But in order to prepare to confront the most dangerous conventional and unconventional threats to the nation, more is demanded. The U.S. military must add to its strategic portfolio a new mission: conflict prevention. Too many scarce resources are vested in the military to simply preserve it for the next war.  These costly investments should be leveraged to make that war much less likely -- particularly in the highest-priority regions for U.S. vital interests around the world.  Confronting this dangerous and disorderly world will require all of the diverse sources of talent that the United States can muster.