By Dr. Steven Metz
I've just returned from a Department of Defense symposium which discussed the future strategic environment twenty years out. This was a useful window on official thinking and expectations, but it reinforced my feeling that American security strategy is careening forward on flawed assumptions. Specifically, we have not grasped the magnitude of the revolution underway in the strategic environment and the nature of security, and hence have not adjusted.
A few years ago symposia and documents dealing with the future strategic environment were dominated by discussions of "the long war," "GWOT," terrorism, proliferation, and Islamic extremism. For the past two years, the focus has been on "hybrid threats." In the event I just attended, those things were almost wholly absent from the discussion. Everything centered on technological change, economic turmoil, culture, demographics, and climate change.
Two things about this jumped out at me. First, there was very little discussion of exactly what the U.S. military is going to do about these trends and the threats that they generate. The unspoken assumption seems to be that the primary military mission over the next few decades will be stabilizing collapsed states. I don't buy this. I think it is a misreading of Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if things turn out well in those two places, I'm convinced that future political leaders and strategists will conclude that the costs (economic, political, and human) outweighed the benefits (in terms of greater security).
Second, I was convinced that the U.S. military and strategic community have not fully grasped the extent and depth of change underway in the strategic environment. At the symposium everyone nodded when a speaker said that the threats of the future will be dispersed, non-state entities, but few seemed to understand that this obviates the very essence of American strategy and the current focus of the military. Put simply, our strategy seeks to reverse history--to strengthen nation states so that they can "control ungoverned spaces" when trends are toward the devolution of economic, political, and economic power AWAY FROM national governments.
Because we are a big Dutch boy, we have been able to keep our finger in the dike of history for a few years but eventually must pull it out.
I was aghast when people talked about future missions like controlling the vast slums of Lagos or Karachi, both because I don't think those who made this point understood the magnitude of such a task, and because I don't think doing so would promote American security. None of the architects or implementers of 9/11 were motivated by the lack of jobs or emerged from a teeming slum. On 9/11 we were attacked by a dispersed, non-state entity but in a perfect illustration of the idea that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, we did what we knew how to do: we overthrew two national governments. But--and this is the important part—because there were no subsequent successful attacks on the United States, we assumed this was the right approach. I non-concur.
In the coming decades we're going to have to re-address the basic assumptions of the post-9/11 strategy. We've skated by with flawed assumptions for the past five years, but the day of reckoning is near. I think this revolutionary shift in the strategic environment will be particularly momentous for the Army. The Army's core function has always been to seize and control territory. That made sense during all of human history to this point since threats were geographic in essence. They arose from an identified place, and if we could control that place, we destroyed or minimized the threat. But if you buy the notion that future threats will not be linked to a particular piece of geography--enemies can mobilize resources and undertake operations from almost anywhere--then seizing and controlling terrain will no longer be the essence of security. This led me to predict at the symposium that 20 years hence, the U.S. Army's role in promoting American security will decline precipitously.