Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is going to miss NATO’s 60th anniversary bash in order to focus on the budget. That’s pretty big news — and a sign that our priorities and thinking on national defense are about to undergo a major transformation thanks to the need to cut spending. Moreover, the challenges faced by the country are fundamentally different than they were in the Cold War. The very nature of our defense policy and structure of the military needs to be called into question.
To start, go back in time ten years, when NATO was celebrating its 50th anniversary in 1999. The event was supposed to be celebratory — NATO had prevailed in the Cold War, and now former Warsaw Pact countries were joining the alliance (Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic). However, NATO was bogged down in an unexpectedly protracted war in Kosovo, which led to Russian threats of possible nuclear war, and the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy by a US aircraft (to be sure, not everyone is convinced it was an accident). At the time, the Clinton Administration was fancying the prospect of NATO morphing into a kind of global cop, a force that could use its power to enforce international law and promote stability — true burden sharing between the US and Europe, albeit under US leadership. This vision, most forcefully put forward by Secretary of State Madeline Albright, was reminiscient of the Kennedy era’s “Grand Design.” And while Kosovo was not as traumatic a failure as Vietnam (we’d have to wait until Iraq for that kind of trauma), it was enough to kill that vision of NATO’s future. It was clear that not only did NATO states lack the will for extended conflict (Europe quickly regreted the choice to intervene), the US disliked being tied down by the NATO need for unanimity.
We should have learned a very difficult lesson from the Kosovo war: it is not easy for even a major alliance like NATO to project power to shape political outcomes. That was even in Europe, NATO’s backyard. Not only weren’t the Serbs forced to the expected quick submission, but the “war” dragged on for three months, with an unsatisfying conclusion due as much to Russian and German diplomatic efforts as anything the military did. The lesson of Kosovo, reinforced by conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq is clear: military power is relatively ineffective in shaping political results in the post-Cold War era.
That reality calls into question the focus the Pentagon has had on fighting wars. First, it is very unlikely that the US faces any direct threat from a military force. Instead terrorism, or attacks aimed at our economic vitality (e.g., an assault on Saudi oil facilities) are far more likely. Second, war as a tool of policy is ineffective. Even when we overthrow a government, the result is usually not increased security, and in fact the cost of such actions are huge compared to the benefits. Beyond that, there is the moral issue of using death and destruction as a policy tool. Finally, given the economic crisis, the cost of war fighting is immense; even if it did bring benefits, it is too expensive to be a “tool of choice.” Given its poor return, there is no rationale reason to use war as a tool to shape world politics.
Much of our military posture is therefore irrelevant. Nuclear deterrence can be maintained cheaply, as can defense of the homeland. There are no real threats to our European allies, the days of traditional warfare seem to be over. We are prepared for the last century, not this one. That could all change, to be sure, but such a change would take time and we could adapt — after all, we weren’t ready for WWI or WWII, but adapted quickly.
The threats are clear: 1) rogue regimes with nuclear weapons might help terrorists get a hold of such weapons, perhaps attacking western or American targets; 2) rogue elements could attack oil facilities or otherwise severely harm the world economy, something that would be devastating during what is in danger of becoming another global depression; and 3) the balance of power could shift away from states embracing democracy and markets towards a mix of authoritarianism and extremism, potentially destabilizing the world system.
Interestingly, none of these threats is a threat against the US alone. They all are threats against the stability of the world economy and especially the West. None of these threats can be handled through military means alone, and may in fact be outside the scope of military action, except in very directed and specific operations. Finally, these threats are linked — an unstable world system and deteriorating economy encourages extremism and radicalism; terrorism is more effective in conditions of uncertainty and instability.
How do we prepare for those threats? It will take a complete change in thinking about the nature of global politics in the 21st century. This could include a major policy shift in Afghanistan, where the current military effort seems to be on the road to failure. It also almost certainly means accepting that the US can’t dictate the future of Iraq — it may well divide into three separate states, with Iran extremely influential, and we simply have to accept that the massive cost of the war left us relatively worse off. We need to learn from our failures.
Future strategy has to be both multilateral and multi-dimensional. It involves economic, diplomatic, cultural and at times military efforts. The goal is not just to stop an adversary from hurting us, but to influence political conditions and maintain a kind of global stability. That can’t be done by force alone; force may actually make the effort more difficult.
The good news is that this means we can probably make substantial cuts in military spending. Simply, most of what we spend money on we don’t need. The bad news is the answers aren’t easy, and will require a rethinking of our desire to cling to independence and sovereignty. We have to work with other states, compromise rather than demand our way, and take a long term look at things. Most importantly, we need to realize that the current structure of the system — a bifurcated division of the planet between very rich and very poor — is a recipe for disaster and future conflict. Despite our economic problems, we have to work with others to forge a global solution to inequities and humanitarian crises. In short, the problems aren’t military, they are socio-economic. National defense is best addressed not through military means, but by a focus on social and political factors. National defense is really global stability, the nation-state is no longer separate from the rest of the world.
The future requires a fundamental break with past conventional wisdom and the sacred cows of putting military first and keeping US sovereignty sacroscant. We can deeply cut traditional military spending, shifting towards policies designed to employ smart power and effective diplomacy and economic assistance. In short, we need radical change in our approach to global affairs.
In that, we owe President Bush a thanks — the fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that the old system doesn’t work, and the old thinking must be abandoned. The military did all they were expected to do; they won both wars, and in Afghanistan undertook heroic efforts to build schools and try to help civilians — many soldiers there started drives at home to send supplies and try to make a difference. Ultimately the problem is that these issues require efforts that go far beyond what militaries can do. That is the irony, both Iraq and Afghanistan were military successes and political failures. And, while many still refuse to depart with past illusions, it’s important that the Obama administration and Secretary Gates confront reality. The Cold War is a generation in the past, but new thinking is long overdue.