The Emerging Strategic Transformation

04/25/2011 10:46 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2011

The new millennium is bringing an epochal shift that is fundamentally altering the challenges facing the nation. Although there is broad awareness of many elements of this shift, the overall transformation is almost totally unrecognized.

From time immemorial, the central security challenge 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, it fought in two world wars and then a conflict in Korea. The Soviet challenge, including direct nuclear threats to the continental United States, gave impetus to a strong military posture, which has continued in the face of the residual Russian challenge, a rising Chinese challenge, and emerging challenges from Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela.

U.S. military strength has been grounded in U.S. economic dominance, which also provided broad economic benefits. 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 U.S. 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. 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 U.S. primacy, bringing a host of challenges:

  • A newly assertive Russia whose strong-willed, autocratically inclined leader, skillfully uses Russian nationalism to re-assert Russia's role as a global power;
  • A rising China, buoyed by a surging economy is also stoking national pride and directly challenging U.S. positions militarily in its own region, even posing a vague though very bothersome threat to U.S. space assets;
  • Radical Islamic groups, particularly al Qaeda, have stirred strong anti-American sentiments throughout the Muslim World;
  • Iran continues to frustrate efforts to restrain its nuclear program, while actively supporting radical groups and building ties with an increasingly autocratic and anti-American Venezuela.

The U.S. military response proved to be both very costly and of questionable effectiveness in Iraq, where a trillion dollars, several thousand U.S. lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives have produced a fragile state strongly influenced by Iran. A parallel effort in Afghanistan is bogged down. And it is unclear just how military assets could be usefully employed against Iran, Venezuela or Pakistani radicals.

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. China's arsenal is much less capable of delivering a devastating blow; at any rate, China seems determined to be a regional rather than a global power. Iran and North Korea pose marginal direct threats. Terrorists pose a direct threat, but its only strategic dimension is with biological or nuclear attacks. In this regard, the stability of Pakistan is particularly troublesome due to the potential for radical Islamic elements to take control. While a strong U.S. nuclear posture deters nuclear challenges, it also gives nuclear weapons high salience. This promotes nuclear proliferation, intensifying the threat, rather than decreasing it. U.S. military assets are also the major element in global maritime security. But 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.

Overall, faced with growing global instabilities and uncertain conditions, there is a strong U.S. 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. 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. 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 means that that the United States can no longer dominate the global economy and enjoy a grossly disproportionate share of global resources. This has several major implications:

  • Partly because of increased competition from rising economic powers, commodity prices have risen sharply since 2000; oil's fourfold increase to over $100 a barrel is representative. These prices restrict the U.S. share of global resources and have greatly increased the amount of U.S. debt held abroad. Interest on this debt together with the higher prices undermines the entire U.S. economy.
  • Since wages in developing nations remain significantly lower than domestic rates, many corporations have moved manufacturing operations abroad, reducing domestic investment, profits, taxes and revenues. A more recent development has been the shift of intellectual jobs abroad. The new global marketplace is a main reason for high unemployment and underemployment.
  • Immigration has become a weakness. Globalization has brought upward mobility to a halt. Immigrants are basically consigned to a permanent underclass; merging with the chronic unemployed, they form a growing disaffected population.
  • The challenges of globalization merge with the challenge of global demographics. Populations in the developing world have a high percentage of young, unemployed men; the global internet insures that they are aware of their situation and gives them a means of doing something about it, as shown by the current turmoil in the Middle East. Similar imbalances in Africa and Asia only portend more troubles. This is especially problematic for China, where worsening economic performance could easily drive a beleaguered leadership to a strongly nationalist, confrontational stance.

Global warming exacerbates this situation. Although catastrophic effects are unlikely, disruptive impacts are almost certain, including a modest rise in sea level, more severe storms, and major shifts in agriculture and rainfall. Food and water shortages will certainly worsen population pressures. Coastal destruction is already apparent in some areas and can only be expected to worsen. Global warming or not, few nations are prepared to 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 rising internal friction. The ongoing budget crisis makes it clear that there are not enough assets to address crucial domestic needs, without even considering environmental disruption, occasional natural disasters, or a worsening international economic climate. The highest incarceration rate in the world starkly attests to disaffection within the United States, as do continuous reports of murder, misery and mayhem. Such disaffection can only be complicated by the worsening inequality of wealth distribution coupled with chronic unemployment and millions of illegal aliens. The 1965 Watts riots strikingly demonstrated the power of pent up frustration; two aspects are notable: the rioters burned their own neighborhoods and the events did not spread. But one can easily imagine, for instance, 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 could 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. It is no longer external force that threatens to devastate the United States, but economic degradation. 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 economic conditions necessary to avoid turmoil, both globally and inevitably domestically. Military missions need to be rigorously reassessed in terms of overall national security requirements, limited to directly addressing substantial current risks. 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.