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January 11, 2012


Paradigms of Strategy, Old and New

by Mike M

Will the next Clausewitz be a sociologist?  (Was he—or were they—already, in effect?)

Asked another way:  If you had a hundred of the most brilliant young minds in the country to devote to years of study in service of “grand strategy” to “defend a nation’s interests,” where would you focus their time?

In 1823, or 1870, or even 1913, I’m guessing the answer would have seemed fairly clear to leading officials.  “Obviously, you illiterate fool:  Our major global adversaries, their machinations, their leaders’ whims, and their military capabilities.  Those are the engines of history.  Those are the factors with which our strategy must grapple.”

For a current-day answer, how about this:  Devote these hundred Young Geniuses to a close study of the trends shaping the societies of leading world powers—issues like nationalism, radicalism, financial markets, socioeconomic equality, shifting governing coalitions, the machinations of activist and interest groups; these and other domestic social, economic, political, and cultural factors within states that will give rise to their external character and behavior.

It’s a change from a top-down view of strategy to a bottom-up view; from global geopolitics to domestic sociopolitics.

Some might object that this is just conventional wisdom “new security” talk—national security is now human security, the environment, global warming, resources, democracy, and so on … antiquing on the weekends, and the hindrance of new romantic comedies starring Jennifer Aniston.

But the idea here is more specific.  While many issues on the world stage will generate challenges, risks and dangers against which U.S. policy must react (sometimes with precautionary steps)—climate, disease, resource depletion—the factors that will breed threats from other states and sub-state entities that require legitimate, interactive strategies:  Those are a different animal.  They will arise largely out of domestic social, economic, political and cultural trends.

Partly, then, the argument has to do with the distinction between contextual factors/trends and events involving human choice.  Now, you can build a rudimentary strategy (objective, means and ends in balance, strategic concept) toward anything.  You can have a “strategy” for getting your little brother in trouble while you laugh your rear end off, or air-drying your hair after a shower.  But a more demanding definition of classical strategy on the world stage views it as an interactive process played against a thinking, reacting opponent.  In this sense “grand strategy” isn’t made against germs or weather or oil.

But the main distinction at the heart of this argument is about who holds the tiller of History—who is triggering the events that cause bleary-eyed officials to gather late at night, clutching Styrofoam cups half-full of rotten coffee, in gloomy rooms plastered with world clocks and flat-screen televisions.

In the Classic (Bismarckian) Era of grand strategy and geopolitics, those history-makers were Statesmen—the leaders of empires, monarchies, nation-states, alliances, and so forth.  Apart from a blatantly insane few, they were motivated by Interests and Pride and Honor and Power, and played their mutually-suspicious games on the chessboard of geopolitics.  National security involved the preparations each state took to equip itself for the resulting scrum.

There’s a roiling but largely accepted consensus—you can find it even in the 2002 Bush National Security Strategy, with the introductory letter’s language about an emerging era of “good relations among the great powers”—that this Bismarckian era has come to an end.  Large-scale aggression is deterred by nuclear weapons, by the inutility of conquest, by the rising capacity for resistance.  Global norms (e.g., the territorial integrity norm) have emerged that will punish aggressors.  Intense mutual dependencies—for capital, resources, information, energy, food—make instability a mortal threat.

Grand strategy’s one-time obsession—unregulated rivalry and intentional political-military conquest (with alliances to underwrite it)—has become today’s “subrationally unthinkable” national strategy, in John Mueller’s potent phrase.

But that is not to say war has become “impossible.”  States constantly wander into conflicts that six months beforehand they had literally said, “Hell, no—that would be stupid!”  And this is where we get to the new focus of strategy—the dynamics that could generate instability out of present circumstances.

Aggressive nationalism, spurred by globalization’s assault on national cultures and traditions and made desperate by economic decline.  Mounting inequality’s effect on the preferences and stability of states.  The potential of long-term failure of governance in deadlocked legislatures and ineffectual bureaucracies to create disaffected populations who will not support compromises or expenditures required for global cooperation.  Domestic radicalisms of a half-dozen varieties which harden the narcissistic impulses of some governments.  Tidal waves of capital crashing over national economies and generating depression events which can push an unhinged politics over the edge into fascism, or worse.  An explosion of networked sub-state activists, interests, criminals, or violence-prone evildoers determined to hack away at the steadiness of the global system.

In other words:  Domestic processes that could unleash dynamics that override the instrumental calculations regarding conflict.  Such processes could influence the politics of the host nation (Chinese hypernationalism leads to Chinese adventurism) or others (Russian hypernationalism plus socially wrenching inequities lead frantic hackers to strike out at the U.S.).   Today’s equivalent to Clausewitz’s suggested revolution (writing then in the shadow of Napoleon’s use of French socio-political shifts) is that national security strategy is changing from primarily a geopolitical domain to one with primarily domestic resonance.

Note the qualifier:  Global threats still exist.  For some states, especially America, global roles exist that energize our national security identity.  And the great paradox of this new strategic context is that so many of these “domestic” issues are caught up in networks of global interaction—of capital, sub-national actors, radicalism, and more—so that they cannot be “solved” by any one country acting alone.

What would a “national security strategy” for such an era look like?

No answer yet, but maybe a few hints.  It would treat the dangers of sparking nationalism as an equal danger to the supposed “muscle flexing” of states as diverse as China, Russia, Brazil and Turkey.  It would get a lot more serious about global financial controls, and stop allowing banks to push back against global capital controls that are now national well-being issues.  And it would take the concept of domestic resilience seriously as the basis for national security strategy and planning—rather than an afterthought, as it is today.

All of which suggests one possible reaction to the new Defense guidance.  Good as far as it goes.  A welcome course correction away from the GWOT diversion.  Much sound thinking, amid the boilerplate.  But despite the obligatory appearance of words like “transitional” and references to humanitarian operations, given its overwhelming emphasis on global military power and state-based threats, it’s a document with both feet planted firmly in Bismarck’s world.

Is this a risk?  Politically, for a Democrat, obviously not.  (For all the criticism the defense guidance has received for its supposed “weakness,” can you imagine what would have befallen them with a paradigm-shifting document?)  But whether a continued marching down the geopolitical path poses any strategic risk—for what we’ll have to wait and see.  Current trends would suggest it does.

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