So far, new US security strategy seems odd mix of continuity and change

As we keep on trying to weigh up Obama’s now over-100-day-old presidency and its meaning for the world, maybe it’s useful to shift focus off the man and onto some other parts of his administration. The New Security Beat blog-site has usefully picked up an interesting speech by Under Secretary for Defense Michele Flournoy, which shows how old and new elements are might be blended in the US security strategy. The mix thus far combines encouraging and thoroughly disappointing elements.

Flournoy was speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of those high-powered Washington think-tanks that are a big a part of what maintains the policy discussion in the US – inside the Washington beltway, at least – at levels of sophistication and openness that European policy types can only dream about. From the transcript it looks like she was speaking relatively informally – either from notes, or with a text in front of her from which she departed as and when the fancy took her. Her speech was a discussion of the main themes in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) that is a regular feature of US strategic policy-making and planning. It sets the strategic framework for the Pentagon’s annual plans. The next QDR will be delivered to Congress in early 2010 and defense Secretary Robert Gates had, so Flournoy noted in her speech, just recently signed off on the terms of reference for the review.

So what are the main themes? No single theme seems yet to have emerged. A few weeks back, I wrote a post about the co-existence of two traditional but opposed foreign policy stances in Obama’s approach so far; while policies were clarifying, I argued, the overall pattern remained a hazy mixture of Realism and Wilsonian liberalism. Perhaps Obama might be the President to supersede this old dichotomy in US policy, but I was dubious. I remain so and Michele Flournoy’s speech offers further evidence.

The speech, in fact, is an extraordinary melange of the human security approach and a kind of thinking I thought went out with the Cold War. But these elements co-exist uncomfortably. Taken overall, a new synthesis has yet to emerge.

5 security challenges

Flournoy began her speech listing five key security challenges:

  1. Top of the list is violent extremism, which she depicted as “the dark side” of globalization;
  2. Next in line, the proliferation of nuclear weapons referencing Iran and North Korea and the risk of “non-state actors” getting hold nuclear weapons material and technology;
  3. “Fundamental shifts in the global balance of power” and “an increasingly multilateral, multipolar environment” were posited as the third major challenge to US security;
  4. The weakness of some states and the failure of others – “state weakness and the inability of states to meet the needs of their population” – could lead to there being more “ungoverned spaces” – i.e., places where the real authority is not the authority of the state but belongs to a militia, a warlord or a criminal gang; these places could become “safe havens for terrorists, for criminal organizations, for illicit activities of all kinds”;
  5. Lastly, there is what Flournoy interestingly called “the rising tensions in the global commons,” saying that what she means by the commons here is the sea, space and cyberspace.

The first two of these challenges are pretty standard; under Bush they would have been expressed differently – what Flournoy said sounded more like an EU statement from the last several years. The mortal threat arising from “violent extremism” and uncontrolled nuclear weapons proliferation is a consensus view in western strategic discourse and the Chinese view is not very much different. 

While these first two challenges are pretty much the stock in trade of the hard security school of thought, the fourth challenge – failing states – speaks the language of a broader, comprehensive  or human security approach that seeks to respond to security challenges where possible by addressing their sources. Since military power and standard diplomacy are no good for addressing the causes of state fragility, this is an approach that moves the discussion over to the use of soft power – very, very different from the preoccupations and language of the Bush years.

Challenge number five is intriguing because it is hard to know exactly what is in it. In the case of the sea, do these rising tensions refer to piracy or to over-fishing, for example? The cyberspace reference is pretty straightforward after all the coverage of the vulnerability of computer systems to spying and sabotage. I am not at all sure what the rising tensions in space are but perhaps again it is a reference to vulnerability of IT and communications systems.

But it is the third challenge that most caught my attention. The visible shifts in the world balance of power are the economic rise of China and India and, to a lesser extent, Brazil, along with the increasing willingness on the part of those three countries plus Russia to assert their political will on international issues. That this is a political challenge for the US is understandable and a discussion of it in those terms in unobjectionable. But to see it as a security challenge that will be writ large in the coming review of defence strategy and be responded to in Pentagon annual plans over the next four years – that is something else again; if a Bush administration official had said this, liberals would have raised howls of protest.

5 trends

Following these five challenges, Flournoy listed five powerful trends that make responding to the challenges more difficult and more complex:

  1. The global economic downturn;
  2. Global climate change;
  3. Demographic changes – fast population growth in some areas (e.g., the Middle East) contrasted with ageing and declining populations in others such as Europe, Japan and Russia;
  4. Increasing scarcity of natural resources and correspondingly increased competition for them;
  5. “The continued spread of destabilizing new technologies” including weapons of mass destruction, improvised explosive devices and capacity for cyber warfare.

The first four of these trends use the lens and the language of the comprehensive security and soft power approach. The evidence and arguments advanced in earlier posts of mine and by numerous other commentators in much greater detail confirm the importance of these issues when thinking about conflict risk. As I have argued, the benign trend of a declining number of armed conflicts that we experienced from the early 1990s has been interrupted and there is a risk that it will be reversed by the effects of the economic downturn in the next two to four years and the knock-on consequences of climate change over a longer period. Resource competition is undoubtedly connected to that picture.

Flournoy’s brief comments on each of these trends could not, of course, do full justice to them. Shelf-loads of reports and books are available on each. There is no criticism for her brevity but it is worth saying that the issue of demography is much more complex than she hints at. On the one hand, the youth bulge raises the issue of conflict risk in poor countries if a large and growing proportion of the population lacks rewarding employment; on the other hand, the age bulge raises questions about the availability of economic resources in rich countries to meet needs such as development if the working population has to support a growing number of economically unproductive people. And a key additional demographic issue is urbanisation. This is a key part of concern about states’ ability to meet their citizens’ needs: current trends project an additional 1.5 billion people living in cities by 2030, most of them in the slums of mega-cities, most of which are in low-lying coastal areas that will over  time be put at risk by rises in the sea-level.

Surely not a return to Cold War thinking?

On the back of these challenges and trends, Flournoy highlighted two “particularly acute” challenges the military must face. The first is quite standard: “irregular forms of warfare”, which encompass pretty much every kind of war it is at all likely the US will fight in the next several years, unless it mounts a major invasion, which seems unlikely in the extreme.

The second is more original and more worrying. It is that the US must be ready to operate “in a world in which ongoing challenges from strong states are paralleled by increasing dangers posed by weak and failing states.”

I looked at this for a while before I realised why it made me uneasy. It’s the echo of the Cold War, of a strong state working through others. That couldn’t be a real presence in her speech, could it? Note that she was talking about a military challenge. You may ask who the strong states are, and one might be China and another Russia, but surely there couldn’t be any conscious reference to the Cold War here?

Oh yes there could be. Three paragraphs later, out comes the parallel with the years right after World War II and the ideological challenge that was rising. In case you miss the point, two paragraphs further on and the reference to containment is right there, along with what Fournoy depicts as the core of the US strategy at that time, the idea that “American interests are deeply intertwined with the health and stability of the international system.” This could be a pretty straightforward statement of commitment to international norms (and that does come through later on in the speech – see below) but in the hands of the authors of NSC-68, which was one of the key US statements of ideology and doctrine in the early years of the Cold War, intended for internal use only and designed to batter down any opposition to containment, the logic works in the direction of committing the world to US norms.

In short, the echo of Cold War thinking and doctrine in this speech is for real.

6 core principles

And then Fournoy turned to the core principles of the emerging strategy and these change gear again and move largely back to a more human security and soft power emphasis:

  1. Pragmatism rather than ideology as the basis;
  2. Remain engaged in critical regions – no isolationism;
  3. Smarter engagement, more selective about using military power, more pro-active about soft power;
  4. Champion international rules and – don’t just play within them but champion them and “exemplify our respect for the rule of law in everything we do”;
  5. Recognise that having allies and partners is essential – an end to US unilateralism;
  6. Military power is often necessary but it is not sufficient to face current challenges.

 Let argument commence

Michele Fournoy’s speech is a real curate’s egg: good in parts and very bad in others. I am unable to see how the contradictory elements she sets out can be made into a new synthesis. The speech seems to me to reflect that choices have not yet been made in American policy and the new Obama team. Some of the elements take US policy in a pragmatic and progressive direction, some lean it back into a hard-line ideological stance. The different parts are not compatible. There will be an intense argument before one tendency or the other wins out. It has commenced.

One thought on “So far, new US security strategy seems odd mix of continuity and change

  1. could the referenace to powerful states working through smaller states be a refereance to chinese investment in african nations and its dominance of south asian international relations. i think its a legitimate point that this will cause problems for american exertion of soft power but is unlikely to result in a challenge for the military; america isnt going to be fighting a proxxy war with china anytime soon. then again i havent read the transcript and am only working from the article

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