Center for Strategic Communication

While re-reading John M. Collins’ text on grand strategy (written in 1973), I’m struck to the degree to which US strategic thinking has not adapted to the systemic shift brought on by the end of the Cold War. Yes, this might seem to be a pretty banal insight–it’s beyond cliche to claim that US strategy is oldthink. I’ve heard that magazine editors also (rightly) summarily reject article pitches beginning with “since the end of the Cold War.” But hear me out for a few minutes.

One of the major points of Thomas Schelling’s Arms and Influence is that strategic conventional and nuclear forces enabled punishment as a strategic tool. Granted, looting and pillaging of a foe’s countryside was commonplace in ancient times but was not instrumental in the way, say, punitive bombing or a countervalue attack would be. Moreover, Soviet punitive strikes could also entirely bypass US fielded military forces. In the past, as Schelling noted, defeat of an enemy army was necessary before one could ravage its civilian infrastructure and population. But distance and conventional forces offered scant protection. Ravaging of German and Japanese infrastructure occured long before Axis armies completely eroded. Under such circumstances, the distinction between national and personal security significantly blurs.

Under such circumstances, national security policy entered radically new territory. Yes, as Colin S. Gray pointed out, Clausewitz still governed nuclear war and even wars of mass destructions could have theories of victory. But the existence of weapons of mass destruction, while not altering war’s eternal nature, radically shifted American perceptions of security. It’s common to claim that globalization and irregular warfare has completely eroded the stopping power of water, but only when we talk about strategic warfare does this supposed truism really make sense. Lazy claims about the death of distance in fact originate from thinking about the airpower and nuclear revolutions.

Pushing other powers out of striking distance has been a longtime American strategic preoccupation. Hegemony over the Americas ensured that European powers could never use
the oceans to burn down the White House again, and the United States was
one of the few powers that did not suffer numerous attacks on its
territory during World War II. The Cold War was fought entirely in
Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. And aside from the September 11
attacks, the global war on terrorism has been primarily fought in
Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The idea is that American citizens should be spared financial and personal security costs of warfare, an objective that has had its own unintended civil-military consequences. “America is not at
war,” one Marine famously lamented. “The Marines are at war. America is at the mall.”

The gap left by an existential Soviet strategic nuclear threat to US existence has fortunately not been filled. Not only is irregular warfare not an existential threat, but it also is affected by geographic considerations in ways nuclear operations are not. Terrorism may not respect national borders, but power projection has costs. In their backyard, the Iranians are fearsome irregular adversaries. But when the action gets farther out, they rely on used car salesmen and blow off their own legs in failed bombing attempts. This isn’t to doubt the power of Iranian intelligence and paramilitary organizations, but it’s important to note the degree to which projecting power is generally easier when you are operating closer to your own political and logistic sources of power. US offensive military and intelligence efforts abroad and domestic intelligence have also substantially raised the cost for al-Qaeda to execute successful strikes against US territory. Violent non-state actors do pose threats to the US, but instruments of national power can at least theoretically strengthen the state against them in ways that were not possible within the context of Cold War nuclear strategy.

Of all the policy problems the US currently faces, only the global financial crisis and the prospect of biological contagion negates the power of distance and effects Americans individually in the way Soviet nuclear weapons could. As John Robb noted in December 2011:

When the histories are written about his era, this word may prove to be
central: contagion.  Why?  We’re all connected — on every level between
the physical and logical — for the first time in history.  We see
contagion everywhere, from the financial markets that spread fear and
panic over default globally to viral rumors/pictures that spread across
the Internet in a flash.

The contagion Robb discusses is financial and virological. Both, in some way, feed off human-built devices–massively integrated financial markets and global commerce, transport, and travel networks. Both also break down the distance between national and personal concerns the way nuclear weapons did. Financial ruin can open a pandora’s box of health and safety issues, and deadly viruses have far less indirect effects on personal welfare.  But neither are the deliberate design of a malicious state or non-state actor. Rather, they are emergent phenomena formed by aggregations of state decisions and individual behaviors by humans, nonhumans, and things. Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” was one of the first serious looks at how complex adaptive systems function in human society. The markets are an aggregate of human decisions, organizational policy and behavior, and computational trading algorithims. Pandemics are a consequence of human interaction, but also can be spread by animals as well. 

Financial and virological contagion, while terrifying, do not rise to the level of global nuclear warfare and atomic annihilation as threats to our personal safety and interests. Remember that the next time someone tries to tell you that the current international security environment is more dangerous than the Cold War.

Of course, the tricky part is that such a state of (relative) safety is
rooted in a set of geopolitical, financial, and military arrangements
that do not sustain themselves in perpetuity. We should not make the
mistake of believing that the US is on a teleological path to greater
and greater levels of security. The policy choices we make matter too,
as do those of allies, competitors, and other states.  Additionally, 90%
of threats are not existential but still necessitate strong tools of
national power. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and threatening of
Saudi Arabia did not challenge American national survival. But the prospect of Hussein gaining strategic control of the Persian Gulf was enough to trigger the Carter Doctrine tripwire. And while terrorism does not pose an existential risk, it is still the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens from terrorists and imprison or destroy irregular enemies.

My discussion of finance and health is not an argument that US national security policy should be revamped around preventing market crashes or virological outbreaks—that’s the proper place for economic and health instruments of national power rather than the Pentagon or the FBI. But we should be more aware, especially, when contemplating the idea that the world is more interconnected, that only in distinctly nonmilitary areas such as finance and health does interconnection pose a significant danger for the United States and individual American citizens. When it comes to everything else, we must acknowledge our good fortune to have two oceans, a strong military and intelligence apparatus, and diminished but nonetheless powerful allies. The Soviet nuclear threat was the only time that neither distance nor military and intelligence strength could grant us protection from existential risk, and the fact that this threat no longer exists should arguably be more explicitly recognized.