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.
Transnational terrorism poses a sixth global trend. Stateless actors can inflict unprecedented damage, and we must be on our guard against catastrophic terrorism. Meanwhile, we will have to brace ourselves for conventional terror strikes, not just from al Qaeda central and the general Salafi jihadist movement but also by aggrieved local groups, as a still-simmering Mumbai reminds. But passion is not strategy, and overreaction strengthens terrorists. Extensive use of military force will make our strongest instrument the leading liability.
Seventh, the character of war is changing. Low-level uses of force and greater civil-military integration, whether to interdict traffickers or conduct humanitarian operations, are becoming more necessary. Meanwhile, "modern" wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon have produced a renaissance in counterinsurgency and irregular warfare. In the future, capable opponents may seek to pursue "hybrid warfare"—combining conventional, irregular, and catastrophic forms of warfare. Hedging against potential peer competitors means balancing immediate demands with future requirements, not least with respect to conventional forces and space power.
An eighth trend shaping tomorrow's security environment is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Our worst fears regarding mass-disruption weapons have not been realized, but important developments have made it increasingly possible that nuclear or biological weapons may be used in the coming years. Iran's prospective status as a nuclear "threshold" state may be the leading indicator that suggests that we are on the verge of a second nuclear age. Meanwhile, there is a growing danger that flourishing life sciences may spawn uncontrolled biological agents.
There is nothing foreordained about another American Century. Constraints on the nation's resources preclude costly trial and error. Global order is not something managed on a budget. The Obama administration will be hard pressed to manage global disorder without a game-changing strategy. Here are five pathways to initiate recalibration.
- Heal thyself. To a remarkable degree, security hinges on America having its house in order. A stable economy is Step 1. Restoring legitimacy will lower U.S. transaction costs around the world. Americans need to export hope, not fear, preparing as much for a long search for peace and prosperity rather than just a long war. Over time, better national education is the prerequisite for joining a globalized world.
- Redefine problems. Ends should be realistic. In seeking to transform a region, one is more likely to be transformed; in a quixotic search for definitive victory or permanent peace, one is more apt to hasten exhaustion and failure. Preventing a 9/11 sequel is hard, but it need not produce bankruptcy. A broader definition of security will be needed, recognizing emerging interrelationships, for instance, among energy, the environment, food, and climate change.
- Surge civilians. Complex challenges require a larger whole-of-government team of national security professionals, with particular new investments in diplomats and development specialists, as well as the arts of planning, implementation, and assessment. It's time to construct a serious civilian expeditionary corps for complex operations, including conflict prevention. A permanent surge of civilian capacity within the career bureaucracy might enhance government's ability to be more strategic, better trained, and more integrated.
- Countermobilize. The United States can use its considerable standing to mobilize emerging power centers into action through bilateral alliances and coalitions of the willing but also through multilateral institutions. Only a multitude of actors have a chance of tackling complex challenges. Some problems can become opportunities around which society and international actors may be catalyzed into action. For example, when it comes to countering a general threat such as terrorism, the most important partners are Muslims, who are best placed to marginalize a radical Salafi jihadist ideology.
- Exercise strategic restraint. The United States cannot afford quagmires that drain resources without providing lasting security. Playing world policeman from the Potomac is a seductive temptation. Its allure is encouraged by inertia and by free riders. But it is neither America's sole responsibility nor its remit. A strong military is the U.S. ace in the hole, but better still are indirect approaches, strategies of leverage, and "smart power."
America cannot afford to be the world's exclusive security guarantor, but the world is ill prepared for American retrenchment. A shrewd and realistic strategy that balances broadening strategic ends with narrowing national means will require visionary leadership and the best that America has to offer.
The Greek poet Archilochus said that the fox knows many things and the hedgehog has one big idea. Any Obama Doctrine will have to be as clever as the fox. Above all, the United States must keep its eye on multiple challenges, taking care not to exert its finite resources on any single problem.
Patrick M. Cronin is the director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington and the editor of the forthcoming Global Strategic Assessment 2009. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not those of the U.S. government.