After 9/11, the United States reduced its role in the world to one big idea: prosecuting the "Global War on Terrorism." Inevitably, terrorism, which is a tactic, not a philosophy, failed to provide a universal organizing principle for U.S. security. Now President-elect Barack Obama faces a wicked dilemma: how to recalibrate America's strategy to meet myriad complex challenges with diminished power.
A sobering agenda awaits crisis managers: leaving Iraq more secure; stanching Afghanistan's declining order; closing down Pakistan's safe havens; preventing an Indo-Pakistan war; averting the stark choice between an "Iranian bomb or bombing Iran"; rebuilding a fractured Arab-Israeli peace; balancing North Korea's twin dangers of proliferation and instability; forging a limited nuclear partnership with Russia while tightrope-walking over its "near abroad"; preserving the non-use of weapons of mass destruction; and steadying wobbling financial markets. Each of these issues—and others, including strategic surprises—will require tailored approaches, in-depth knowledge, and strategic patience.
Conflating disparate challenges under a single banner will not make them more manageable. We will have to do many things well, and we might begin by recognizing that today's immediate 'crises' are inseparable from larger tectonic shifts.
The Institute for National Strategic Studies' forthcoming Strategic Global Assessment has identified eight global trends driving tomorrow's complex security environment and five pathways to dealing with them.
The challenges amount to a paradigm shift, and policymakers may increasingly find themselves operating in terra incognita.
First, even prior to the subprime mortgage crisis and Wall Street meltdown, a gradual global redistribution of economic power from the West to "the Rest" was underway. The saliency of this swing is rooted in history: Economic power is the bedrock of enduring military and political power. Unless some rising nations that have spent decades on the sidelines of the world's economic and trading system are engaged and bound by a common set of rules, the available means for dealing with security will shrink.
Second, we are on the cusp of but not yet in a multipolar world. Cold War bipolarity is moribund, even if major-power hostility is not. Unipolarity was derived from subtraction, but the world leaped into multiplication. No single power can mobilize others around its parochial agenda. And handling 21st century challenges with 20th century international machinery is Sisyphean. But while political power has fragmented, emerging or resurgent powers—including China, Russia, India, and Brazil—lack the desire or capacity to assume the mantle of leadership.
Third, the globalization of communications is challenging more than the virtual foundations of the post-modern information society. Technology is shifting power to the edge, allowing dispersed but networked groups, including terrorists and transnational criminals, to compete with the state's hierarchical structures. Personal, national, and international security are jeopardized by the heightened risk of pernicious cyber attack. Networks are vulnerable; the wider the network, the wider the vulnerability.
Fourth, energy and environmental security have reached a tipping point. The industrial-era system based on cheap hydrocarbons and scant ecological regard is finished. Volatility in the price of oil and gas weakens the global economy, creates potential flashpoints, and transfers wealth to autocratic oil-exporting regimes. Even with energy conservation and innovation, the world faces another looming resource crisis over water. Consider just one fact: A person's access to fresh water in the Middle East is half of what it was 20 years ago, and it will be half again less in another two decades.
Fifth, the 9/11 tragedy and growing insecurity in Afghanistan today remind us of the growing challenge posed by fragile states and "ungoverned" spaces. There is no surefire way to build effective states. And there are too many weak states to address them at once or to consider investing everything in a solitary problem. There are some billion people in some 60 countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, left behind in dire poverty. While weak states are not automatically threats, fragile states may aid and abet a host of other problems, from piracy to trafficking to incubating terrorism and pandemics.