President Obama no doubt brought much joy to opponents of excessive military spending on February 24 when he told a joint session of Congress, “We’ll…reform our defense budget so that we’re not paying for cold war-era weapons systems we don’t use.” For years, American leaders have been saying that they would reshape American military policy to reflect the altered landscape of the current epoch, but for the most part, our military establishment still resembles that of the cold war era.
Only now, as a result of economic hard times and the determination of a new, forward-looking president, does it appear that real change is possible. But in their eagerness to abandon the obsolete shibboleths of cold war thinking, it is essential that Obama’s strategists not embrace new approaches that would embroil the United States in a host of fresh conflicts around the world–conflicts sparked in part by the global economic meltdown and expressed in various types of insurgencies, uprisings and revolts.
The risk that this economic downturn, like other severe ones in the past, will lead to an upsurge in global violence was highlighted on February 12 by Admiral Dennis C. Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications,” he declared. “[A]ll of us recall the dramatic political consequences wrought by the economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, the instability, and high levels of violent extremism.”
In these few words, Blair announced a revolution in American strategic thinking: For the first time since the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, the distressed state of the world economy rather than a particular adversary or ideology was cited as the greatest threat to US national security.
Unfortunately, Blair did not go on (at least in public testimony) to identify the sort of situations in which he anticipated a similar upsurge of extremist violence this time around. He did, however, suggest that “the longer it takes for the recovery to begin, the greater the likelihood of serious damage to US strategic interests….Statistical modeling shows that economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they persist over a one to two year period.” Clearly, this crisis will last for two years, at the very least, and so we can expect a growing frequency of what he called “regime-threatening instability.”
As Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Blair, who is retired as an admiral, is not a policy-making official so much as an analyst and adviser to the president. Nonetheless, it is not hard to see in his testimony the seeds of a new strategic doctrine focused on the maintenance of global law and order in the interests of US political and economic well-being. In a region-by-region assessment of the global strategic landscape, he identified several countries facing economically related internal disorder that are of strategic importance to the United States; they include Colombia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan. Any significant breakdown in governmental authority in these countries, he suggested, would do serious harm to America’s vital interests. He further warned of the growing threat to international shipping posed by piracy in Africa, and he noted that “potential refugee flows from the Caribbean could also impact Homeland security.”
This view of a world, in which America’s vital interests are threatened less by a particular adversary or ideology than by chaos and lawlessness in general–particularly when it threatens the economic well-being of the United States–is an approach that appears to be gaining traction with the military services. And it is easy to see why: At a time when the public is leery of another ideological crusade like that launched by the Bush administration after 9/11 to impose a neoconservative model of democracy on the Middle East, the notion of relating military expenditures to identifiable economic interests must appear highly attractive to the services.
One can see this, for example, in the new maritime strategy adopted by the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard in October 2007. This strategy, the leaders of the three services affirmed, “describes how seapower will be applied around the world to protect our way of life, as we join with other like-minded nations to protect and sustain the global, inter-connected system through which we prosper [emphasis added].”
Whereas the naval services once touted their role in containing the Soviet Union or fighting terrorism, they now highlight their mission as guardians of international commerce. “The world economy is tightly interconnected,” the 2007 strategy document explains. “Over the past four decades, total sea-borne trade has more than quadrupled: 90 percent of world trade and two-thirds of its petroleum are transported by sea. The sea-lanes and supporting shore infrastructure are the lifelines of the modern global economy….”
Yet these vital “lifelines” are vulnerable to disruption due to conflict, piracy, and criminal violence, thereby threatening our continued prosperity. “Weak or corrupt governments, growing dissatisfaction among the disenfranchised, religious extremism, and changing demographics–often spurred on by the uneven and sometimes unwelcome advances of globalization–exacerbate tensions and are contributors to conflict.” The naval services, by protecting the sea lanes and port facilities, can thus claim to be providing a direct benefit to America’s economic health.
The other military services are also likely to move in this direction. The Army and Special Operations Command (SOCOM), for example, will no doubt stress their roles in combating international lawlessness, subversion and criminality. (Indeed, from a doctrinal point of view, the distinction between these forms of violence is said to have largely disappeared.) In Nigeria, for example, US military personnel are helping to arm and train government forces seeking to crush the insurgency in the Niger Delta region–an insurgency driven in part by resentment over the paltry funds allocated to the region by the central government from the many billions of dollars received every year from the oil companies operating in the area, and in part as an extortion racket by young, unemployed men with no other identifiable source of income. These US efforts are vital to our economy, the Bush administration noted in 2006, as “Nigeria is the fifth-largest source of U.S. oil imports, and disruption of supply from Nigeria would represent a major blow to U.S. oil security strategy.”
It is not yet evident to what degree these arguments will prevail when the Obama administration decides on the allocation of funds among the various branches of the armed forces when it issues a detailed Pentagon budget in April. As is always the case, each service will fight for the preservation of its pet projects–the Air Force, for the F-22 Raptor fighter plane; the Army, for its family of advanced armored weapons; and the Navy, for a new generation of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers–and it is too early to tell which of these sacred cows will survive. As time goes on, however, each service is likely to adopt an approach that highlights its contribution to the well-being of the US economy and for the Pentagon, as a whole, to construct a new “grand strategy” around the maintenance of global economic stability.
One could argue, of course, that the maintenance of global law and order is vital to the well-being of all nations, especially this one, and that in the absence of a functioning United Nations police force, this country must assume that burden. No doubt, many policymakers and pundits–including prominent Democrats–will make this argument. But before President Obama and his colleagues embrace this strategy, they had better think carefully about the likely implications of such a project. If anything is likely to entrap the United States in multiple brushfire wars abroad that add many trillions to future deficits, it is the prospect of the United States becoming the gendarme of the world.