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.”