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Five Trends Likely to Shape the U.S.’s National Security This Decade

January 11, 2012

My last post for Gunpowder & Lead began with the entirely accurate observation that few forms of writing are consistently less satisfying than “five myths” pieces. Several colleagues — including Gulliver at Ink Spots and even G&L‘s own Sky Gerrond — took this to mean that I simply dislike listicles. Not so. I have nothing against listicles, so long as one understands the limitations of that genre, but find that “five myths” pieces tend to be a uniquely weak form of writing and argumentation. All of which is a rather long wind-up to explain why today you’re getting my own listicle, on the five trends that are likely to shape the U.S.’s national security environment over the course of the coming decade, through 2020.

#5: The U.S.’s Strategic Pivot Toward the Pacific

President Obama’s visit to the Pentagon’s briefing room to announce the U.S.’s new strategy for a scaled-down military was in fact the first such visit by a sitting president. His presence there was fraught with symbolism that was matched by the significance of his announcement. The Telegraph goes so far as to argue that the strategic move toward the Pacific that Obama announced is of historical significance: “Future historians will probably conclude that this was the week when America’s entire foreign and defence strategy pivoted decisively away from Europe and towards the Pacific. More ominously, it might also mark the onset of a new, if concealed, arms race between the U.S. and its aspiring rival, China.”

This move toward the Pacific in America’s military and strategic posture is clear. Data points demonstrating this shift can be seen by the coming reduced U.S. military presence in Europe, as well as a new forward base in Australia to which thousands of American troops are headed. Clearly, as most every commentator on these issues has noted, the containment of China is one of the reasons for the U.S.’s evolving military posture — or, to use one of those rare Friedman-isms that is actually useful, perhaps this posture should be better understood as “containment-lite.”

I put the U.S.’s turn toward the Pacific as number five on my list because it represents a conventional set of national-security problems: competition between nation-states, perhaps even great power rivalry. But I think that the national-security environment over the next eight years is in fact going to be defined by newer issues, the kind of concerns that don’t neatly fit within traditional security paradigms. In part, I think the Pacific is unlikely to be the security issue that characterizes this decade because I don’t expect the U.S.-China rivalry to sharpen significantly in the next eight years. Obviously, there are wildly varying estimates of the future of Sino-U.S. relations among analysts. But while my views are subject to evolution as the facts change, there are a few reasons that I don’t think this issue will dominate the coming decade.

The significant economic interlinkages between the U.S. and China give both countries an incentive to avoid, say, actual shooting wars. But more significantly, it seems that China has more to fear from the new security environment than does the U.S. Internal fragmentation is a real possibility for China, something that is likely to constrain the country in dealing with America. This is because it seems that China is keenly aware, strategically, of the perils of diverting valuable resources toward military confrontation with the United States — including arms races that fall short of escalation to violence. An example can be glimpsed in China’s nuclear arsenal. For about twenty years after it became a nuclear power, China essentially lacked a second-strike capability. Though it has tried harder to establish a deterrent force since around 1985, it has done so at a rate that some observers consider inexplicably slow. One might conclude from this example that China doesn’t see nuclear weapons as a powerful tool of statecraft, but I think the deeper lesson concerns China’s decision-making about its management of finite resources.

If there were a major conflict between China and the U.S. during this decade, the most likely flashpoint is one of the other major trends I will discuss shortly, natural resource scarcity.

#4: Technological Changes Empowering Small Groups and Non-State Actors

Powerful examples of how technological changes have empowered small groups and non-state actors emerged over the past year, in the form of the “Arab Spring,” the August riots in Britain, and to a lesser extent the Occupy movement. Observers have widely varying views of the impact of the Arab Spring and Occupy movement, with passionate voices on both sides of those developments (seeing them as net positives or negatives), but it is worth noting that thus far the impact of technological change has played out in largely, though not entirely, non-violent ways.

The Arab Spring has, of course, not been entirely non-violent, as events in Libya make clear. But generally observers have interpreted this sequence of events as organization empowered through technology for positive ends. It is a rare individual indeed who will shed a tear for the deposed Arab dictators (although the situation of minority religious communities in these countries is a very real concern). But advances in communication technology that allow more effective organizing can also be used to advance ill intentions. A good example of technologically-empowered organizing for a far less noble cause can be seen in the riots that rocked Britain for four days back in August. In a must-read article published last month, Wired lucidly explains the role of BlackBerry Messenger in stoking that unrest. For example, Wired details a scene from Enfield that makes clear the advantages enjoyed by hyper-networked rioters (told through the eyes of Nick de Bois, one of Enfield’s MPs):

De Bois was standing outside the sealed-off zone, behind one line of police, in an open area that led to the train station. As he watched in amazement, more and more people—some disembarking trains at the station, some stepping out of cars—continued to pour into the plaza. Riot police were convoying in, too, but their numbers couldn’t possibly keep up. And even if they did, it was impossible to definitively separate the would-be rioters from the bystanders.

Right behind a line of armor-clad police who had successfully contained a riot, this new crowd of hundreds was gearing up to touch off a second riot. As 7 pm approached, face coverings went up, and a small group walked past de Bois with a crowbar. Gangs began to break windows throughout the plaza—one local jewelry store lost nearly $65,000 in stock. Police would descend on a group, but then the crowd would disperse, only to reconstitute itself someplace else a few minutes later. Part of the issue was a peculiarity of British policing: Largely because most cops lack guns, they can’t easily carry out mass arrests, even in emergencies. Instead, each arrestee is physically accompanied by individual officers for booking. With their numbers already stretched thin, the police could not take looters off the streets without further depleting their own ranks.

But there was also something strange about the character of this riot, and these rioters—something that seemed to make the violence unstoppable. At base, it was their confidence: their surety that, as they streamed out of their cars and trains, or as they milled around in small groups, or even after they were dispersed by police, they would always find one another in sufficient numbers.

In the U.S. we have also seen “flash mobs” used for robberies in at least five cities. The use of technological empowerment for ill ends is likely to be an increasing issue — particularly if our political system remains ineffective, and discontent continues to rise. Moreover, this kind of unrest can be exploited by a variety of bad actors.

I should note also that the technological empowerment of non-state actors feeds into the reason I argue that the potential for Chinese internal instability may deter it from significant conflict with the United States. In 2010, for example, China experienced “180,000 protests, riots and other mass incidents—more than four times the tally from a decade earlier.” And, as the Wall Street Journal notes, that count alone “doesn’t tell the whole story on the turmoil in what is now the world’s second-largest economy.”

#3: Political Dysfunction

Political dysfunction, as noted above, can be an accelerant for technologically-empowered non-state actors using the tools at their disposal to cause chaos. If people lack confidence in the government’s ability to govern or to reform itself, they may resort to self-help measures.

Robert Gates gave an important speech in Philadelphia back in September, shortly after he stepped down as the U.S.’s defense secretary, in which he said we are now in “uncharted waters when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system.” Gates outlined three major drivers of this predicament:

  1. A redistricting process that has created an increasing number of safe seats for both parties in the House of Representatives. As a result, the primaries in these districts are more important than the general elections, and “candidates must cater to the most hard-core ideological elements of their base.”
  2. The erosion of consistent strategy for addressing the critical issues that our nation faces. Gates notes that the U.S.’s strategy remained relatively constant through the Cold War, even through leaders as different as President Carter and President Reagan. In contrast, Gates stated, “when one party wins big in a ‘wave election’—of which there have been several in recent election cycles—it typically seeks to impose its agenda on the other side by brute force.” This makes consistent strategy more difficult, and thus erodes the U.S.’s ability to address the major challenges it faces.
  3. An increasingly partisan media in which extreme positions are given more prominence. Gates stated: “When I entered CIA 45 years ago last month, three television networks and a handful of newspapers dominated coverage and, to a considerable degree, filtered extreme or vitriolic points of view. Today, with hundreds of cable channels, blogs and other electronic media, every point of view, including the most extreme, has a ready vehicle for wide dissemination. You can’t reverse history or technology, and this system is clearly more democratic and open, but there is also no question that it has fueled the coarsening and, I believe, the dumbing down of the national political dialogue.”

One interesting aspect of Gates’s last point is that it again represents a system that is having trouble adapting itself to the changes wrought by technological advances — in this case, how advancing technology changes the media environment. All of this amounts to an erosion of the moderate center, which Gates calls “the foundation of our political system and our stability.” If we have a government that cannot govern effectively, it may find itself unable to effectively address the various other challenges that comprise this list.

#2: Natural Resource Scarcity

The impact of natural resource scarcity can be discerned in multiple areas, but the potential for steeply rising oil prices is of particular importance. Oil prices are currently at their highest level ever for this time of year, so obviously the U.S. may see extremely high oil and gas prices over the course of 2012.

There are a couple of implications to rising oil prices. First, rising prices risk economic whiplash. Oil hit over $145 a barrel in July 2008, a few months before the U.S. economy collapsed. I am obviously not blaming oil prices for what transpired in September 2008: the sub-prime mortgage crisis was the proximate cause. But just as clearly, high oil prices — which had the U.S. sending over $500 billion a year overseas — limited the American economy’s flexibility in dealing with the other challenges and crises. Given the U.S.’s dependence on the automobile, and also on imported oil, how long can the current economic recovery continue while prices rise?

Also, natural resource scarcity, and high energy prices in particular, drive up the price of food. Rising food prices are certainly felt in the United States, but they are felt even more acutely overseas. One of the driving factors behind the Arab Spring was in fact rising food prices, and the difficulty citizens were experiencing in having their basic needs met. When sky-high expectations (as have undoubtedly accompanied the Arab Spring) go unfulfilled, extreme ideologies can take hold. So this overarching trend of resource scarcity may help to breathe new life into the major challenge the U.S. focused on in the past decade — al Qaeda — at a time when many analysts are all too eager to declare it dead.

#1: America’s National Debt

The national debt constrains America’s ability to deal with all of the various significant challenges that it now confronts. It is a national-security issue in itself; indeed, I agree with former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Michael Mullen that the national debt is the top national security threat that we face. Indeed, our debt continues to rise despite the current round of government cutbacks — thus indicating that we will face steeper cuts in the future.

The debt limits our ability to project power and deal with challenges in multiple parts of the world. It presents challenges at a global, national, and local level. When the national debt is viewed in light of technological changes that can facilitate unrest, a feedback loop could emerge. Government cutbacks may drive up unemployment and force scaled back social services, which can drive unrest (making people feel they have less to lose by rioting, for example) — and in turn, these cutbacks mean that the state has less capacity to undertake policing measures against increasingly organized forces of unrest, and less capacity to repair damages thereafter.

So these problems very much interrelate. Further providing a perspective on our national debt, Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson wrote in 2009 that America’s “ability to manage its finances is closely tied to its ability to remain the predominant global military power.” Not mincing words, Ferguson added, “This is how empires decline. It begins with a debt explosion. It ends with an inexorable reduction in the resources available for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.” This is why, Ferguson says, observers are correct to worry about the U.S. debt crisis. “If the United States doesn’t come up soon with a credible plan to restore the federal budget to balance over the next five to 10 years, the danger is very real that a debt crisis could lead to a major weakening of American power.”

  1. January 21, 2012 2:16 pm

    Good post, thanks. I think to counter 2# better public transportation infrastructure is required. It doesn’t help when something a simple as building a bike lane becomes politicized as a ‘boondoggle’, and this idea of public transit investment as forcing Americans into some kind of collectivism. If people drive less less oil will be required. Solutions to this problem need to be removed from partisanship and restored to the basis of common sense.

  2. January 21, 2012 5:42 pm

    An interesting list.

    Re “debt” I would note the issue is less “debt vs. no debt” but rather whether the debt in question buys something of long-term value. All men may be created equal but not so each dollar of debt. I can think of trillions of dollars of additional debt that the U.S. needs to be taking on right now and trillions of dollars of existing debt that should never have been incurred.

    I would also note that political systems (particularly democratic ones) are not well-evolved to deal with long-term decisionmaking. Part of this is just the fact that most human decisions carrying incredibly short durations for their consequences to become apparent. Likewise, the temporal clock of periodic electoral challenges distracts.

    (Perhaps if elections were less about pitting incumbents against challengers and more like the NFL draft, designed to bring in new talent for a long-term career with a separate mechanism for culling membership — maybe something more like the Supreme Court but with new members elected every year, no fixed number for accumulative membership, a ban on re-election, and a mandatory retirement age.)


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