Below is a transcript of a lecture by Barry R. Posen, Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT and Director of the MIT Security Studies Program. This lecture, entitled “Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy” was delivered at IWP on September 24, 2015, and was sponsored by the Charles Koch Foundation. A video of this lecture can be found here.
Dr. Lenczowski: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’m John Lenczowski, president of the Institute. I’d like to welcome you all here. We have a special privilege of having Dr. Barry Posen, who is the Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT, to come and speak to us today.
This is part of our Koch series on Grand Strategy, where we have been having a number of different authorities address the question of America’s role in the world and the question also of to what extent and how do we measure our vital national interests? What are the thresholds at which we have to make credible decisions to intervene abroad? What about the considerations of blowback? What is the way of optimizing our policy in a way that can maximize security for the United States and well lubricated international relations in the world?
Professor Posen has given an enormous amount of thought to these very issues, and he has written a book, entitled Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy which has been a very valuable contribution to the debate on these matters. He has written other books of which you should be aware, such as Inadvertent Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks, another book on the sources of military doctrine.
He has served as — and is serving on — the committee of MIT’s Seminar 21, which is an outstanding program in executive education for Senior U.S. government executives. He has won awards from the American Political Science Association and its Woodrow Wilson Foundation Book Award, as well as Ohio State’s Edward Furniss Award. He has been associated with all sorts of major national institutions, from the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as serving as an International Affairs Fellow for the Rockefeller Foundation. He has been a guest scholar at CSIS, a Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow at the Smithsonian. He has been with the German Marshall Fund, and most recently has been a visiting fellow at the John Sloan Dickey Center at Dartmouth College.
Barry, it’s a great pleasure to have you come and visit us at IWP, and without further ado, the floor is yours.
Dr. Posen: I published this [book] in the spring of 2014. It took me forever to finish it, because I direct a program, and those of you who have executive responsibility of any kind know it’s actually hard to marry those to any sort of scholarly interest. So I was pretty pleased with myself once the book came out, and therefore I’m kind of willing to go anywhere, to sell it basically because a book is no good if it just sits on the shelf.
The book has a very simple organization. Some of you presumably have read it. It has a brief section where I talk about what grand strategy is, or what I think grand strategy is. I talk about the evolution of post-Cold War U.S. grand strategy. I try and discuss a little bit about how the debates were and how the debates settled down. Then I get into the fun part: I offer a critique. It’s always easier to be the critic than it is to be the executive or the implementer. Then I offer the political outlines for an alternative. What would a different foreign policy look like? And then I offer the outlines of a different military strategy and force structure that would support that foreign policy.
So it’s a lot in a small package; I was trying to build a coherent integrated product. I didn’t treat every issue. There were many things that I had to leave out of the book, some because I don’t know anything about them and others because it just didn’t quite fit. I think that even if you disagree with the conclusions that I come to, I think it’s somewhat useful to see how one mind tries to produce an integrated story. And we often talk here in Washington about the disjunctions between foreign policy and military strategy, the disjunction between what is said and what is done, the disjunction between the priority the Pentagon says it’s going to pursue versus the things it spends money on. So academics get to write with a blank sheet of paper, so at least it’s a kind of a model of how, on your best day, you might be able to approach this problem, even if you don’t agree with my questions and my answers. So it has that utility as well.
I should tell you a little about my premises: I tend to define things rather narrowly in the book. For me, grand strategy is about what the state needs to do to achieve security for itself.
Now security is a very big, broad word. I tried to describe and define security rather narrowly, so for me security is about territorial integrity, it’s about sovereignty, which is, in my view, the ability for the United States to make its own decisions about how it is organized nationally in its own way according to its own rules. It’s about safety. And by the way, safety has not always been that important to strategists in the past, because strategists have always — or almost always — been willing to wage wars, sometimes risky wars, that risk the safety and lives of soldiers and civilians for the sake of protecting sovereignty or territorial integrity, so safety is a kind of a slippery thing. We often gamble our safety for the purposes of protecting our sovereignty and protecting our territorial integrity. And finally, it’s about the power position you need to be able to pursue all of these things.
And, of course, there is a big debate in International Relations theory, about how much power does the state need, how much power should the state want, how much power do states, in fact, want? I’m looking for what, maybe, Walter Lippmann once called a “comfortable sufficiency of power,” to achieve the objectives you need, which are used to protect territorial integrity and sovereignty and safety.
I think of grand strategy as kind of a theory in which means and ends are linked together with a set of priorities, because, as Bernard Brodie once said in the title of one of his chapters in War and Politics, “Strategy wears a dollar sign.” My wife used to be the head of the National Security Division at the Congressional Budget Office and she used to say: “Look, when all is said and done, it is a question of show me the money, follow the money.” Money is not an exhaustive resource, neither are the people in the military. So it’s a theory about how to call security, it links means to ends, it has explanations for linking means to ends, and it sets a priority among both means and ends. That is the nature of the package.
So without further ado, I’ll talk a little bit about the argument of the book.
So, here’s the problem: From my point of view, there is a considerable degree of consensus in the U.S. foreign and security policy elite on grand strategy. I don’t think there’s much different across the Democratic [or] Republican parties’ foreign policy elites.
I call this strategy liberal hegemony. I didn’t invent this term — John Ikenberry, well-known international relations scholar, used this term for a while. It’s liberal because our purpose in the world is to spread our ideas about how things work: democracy, institutions, free markets, international trade, free movement of information, that’s kind of the software of our project. It’s hegemonic because it relies on the huge favorable power position the United States had when the Cold War ended — what Charles Krauthammer famously called the unipolar moment, and I think that was an accurate description. So, the good guys won the Cold War, they had all the power, they went out to try and impose their view of how the world should work on the rest of the world.
Footnote: The strategy sort of fetishizes this U.S. power position. In other words, there is a power after power for its own sake quality to the strategy. There is not really a notion of sufficiency, and in fact, if you look at the way the thing is glued together, you sort of need the Americans to be really powerful relative to others to have any chance of this project working. So, the maintenance of this power opposition also becomes part of the strategy. Everything matters as a threat, from terrorists to failed states, to rising powers such as China, to declining revanchist powers such as Russia. Europe matters, the Middle East matters, South Asia matters, Northeast Asia matters. The world is way more than our oyster; it is our problem. All of it. That is the consensus in the United States. We got away with this for a long time because of our relative power advantage, and because there was some judiciousness about the projects that we were taking on. But the time has passed, and two things have happened: We have become less judicious, and the power advantage has actually begun to erode a little bit.
I already talked about where this came from: This consensus was born from the marriage of the unipolar moment with the triumph of the West in the Cold War. Now, remember that the reason America could take up this project is because it’s so strong. In fact, the United States when the Cold War ended was probably as secure as any great power has ever been. Yet, if you look at briefings that Robert Work used to give (he may not give those briefings anymore), or if you look at political science textbooks about U.S. foreign policy behavior in the Post-Cold War world, the United States has been pretty often at war since the Cold War ended. The most powerful, secure state in the world — maybe the most powerful, secure great power in history, at war quite often. In fact, measured in terms of months per era, if we call it that. You know, Post-Cold War era versus the Cold War era. By Bob Works’ count, the calculation works out so that we are at war twice as often as we were during the Cold War. Twice as often. Is this trip necessary?
We have been rather casual about how and when and how often we reach for the military tool. If you look at the American debate right now, you can see responsible people that want to stay in the wars we get in, return to wars we left, or add new military projects that might or might not implicate the United States in war. It’s easy to go count wars, as I did in a political article last summer. It is easy to get up to five to six wars the United States is already in or that important people in this town would like you to be in. There is very little consideration of: “Can we do all of these at once? Do we need to do all of these at once? Does one undercut the other? Are any of them potentially counterproductive?” No, reach for the military option. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, and the South China Sea. In all of these projects someone wants to be muscular, which involves either waging war or risking war.
We have also gotten out of the habit of calling these things war, which I think is unfortunate. Now, this project is unnecessary. There are other ways to achieve security, because the US is inherently a very secure country.
These observations are often overlooked in our discourse. One [is that] the United States is rich, both in terms of its industrial and technological capacities and in terms of its natural endowment. The whole reason we can undertake this project is because of how wealthy we are. So, we start with a lot of assets. Second, to the right and left we have big oceans that have been a blessing to the security of this country since the founding of the republic. We have relatively weak and pliant neighbors to the north and south. We wanted it that way, and that’s the way it is.
The United States is a nuclear weapons state. It probably has the most capable nuclear force in the world today. Nuclear weapons, as many have observed, are a funny kind of gift. On the one hand, we can do away with society, as we know. On the other hand, countries with a big nuclear force that’s well maintained and well looked after essentially cannot be conquered and cannot be coerced. You can’t really coerce a country that has a secured second-strike capability. You cannot conquer it; you can’t deprive it of its sovereignty without running a risk that is the greatest that any state has ever run in history — risk which will almost inevitably will lead to the destruction of the coercer. This is a powerful tool for the protection of America’s sovereignty and security. We almost never talk about that anymore; nuclear weapons are more of an afterthought these days.
The United States, as we have learned certainly since the first Gulf War has a fantastic military. We have a terrific military industrial base. We have a great system for generating new military technology. Now, it is in fact true that the weapons are costly [and] they often come in late. But if you look at the weapon systems that we have sorted out, in the end, ours are state of the art. If we need a certain number of them, we can buy them.
Finally, it is worthwhile to remember that trade is not a big part of the US economy. It is about 20% or so. A third of that trade is in this hemisphere. So it is easy to defend if you’re worried about the connection between security, hegemony, and trade and wealth. The rest of our partners are scattered across the world. It would take a huge series of disasters to change the world in a way that deprives the US of whatever the advantages and benefits of trade are. And of course one of our biggest trading partners outside of this hemisphere is China, which, on the other side of the river, they spend their days figuring out how to fight. This fantastic trade that we have with this country is also making this country stronger and more capable. I’m not against trade with China, but we should remember when people said we have to have military power to defend this trading system we built. We should also understand that the trading system we built is making others stronger and making bigger problems for our military power. We are like the mouse on the wheel and we should think about how that is working out for us.
America is very, very secure. You wouldn’t need to do much to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of this country. Its power position is fantastic. My view is that those who argue for activism absolutely have a high hill to climb. The reason [that] it doesn’t seem like they have a high hill to climb in terms of argument is because no one ever mentions these things anymore. They’re simply taken for granted; they are kind of “in the intellectual bank.” I think that this strategy is running into problems that have deep underpinnings. It is not just that the strategy is unnecessary, it’s also counterproductive; it is costly and it is wasteful.
And I believe these things not just because of observation, I believe in it in part because I am a prisoner of certain theories that I learned many, many years ago. That people, probably smarter than I am, wrote even years before that. What are the theories that I used to analyze what was going on in the world, and that tell me that we have problems? One is that I am a realist. You can pick your flavor of realism.
What do realists note? Without going into the whole theory, there is a pretty repeated form of behavior that we see in the international system going back for centuries and that is balancing. Just as we value our sovereignty, as we value our power position, we value our safety, others value theirs. And in an anarchical world, a world without a 911, as my friend John Mearsheimer would say, states need to look after themselves. So when states see other states either building or coalescing or getting grabby, they tend to do something to improve their own positions. They balance. They balance either by finding coalition partners themselves, or they balance by trying to prove their own autonomy, usually by trying to improve their own military capability. We can see in the world that other states are balancing. Now, they are not balancing very intensely. We have kind of been lucky.
One of the reasons that they have not balanced very intensely was because in those first ten or fifteen years when the Cold War ended, they didn’t really have the base capabilities to balance with. But that is changing. Now, who are the balancers? Who’s balancing now? We know who they are; it’s the rising power and the declining power — it is China and Russia. And both of them are doing both things: they are building up their own military capability, and they are reaching out to one another. Now, has this risen to the standard of a great threat to the United States yet? No. Will some of this have happened anyway, regardless of what the United States does? Yes. In an anarchical system, states are advised to arm against uncertainty, and they do. But there is, I think, some energy that we add to the system of this strategy, and we see it come back at us. So, there is some balancing that is happening, and there will likely be more.
The second thing that happens is that not all states who are looking to their own interests are necessarily balancing. Some basically look to pass the cost of their defense, or their offense, to another actor. The United States has many allies, and we see two characteristic behaviors in these allies during the Cold War but less so, and since the Cold War more so: One is cheap and free riding. We are constantly worried about threats to our allies: “Is Russia threatening the Europeans?” “Is China threatening the Japanese?” So we’re worried. They come to us and tell us they are worried. Well, look at their defense spending and tell me how worried they really are. Europe on average spends about 1.6% of GDP on defense, the U.S. is spending about 3.5% of GDP on defense, Japanese about 1% of GDP on defense. Their defense budgets in real terms have diminished since the Cold War ended — diminished as a GDP share. They don’t act as if they’re very worried. We make extravagant promises to others to defend them. They bank those promises and they use their resources for something else: airports, roads, whatever, education, healthcare.
Now, if I could put a parenthesis in here, many American allies did show up for the Afghan War; if you look at the casualties, a lot of European soldiers and allied soldiers died in that war. Really quite a surprising number. So you cannot say that the Europeans never show up. My own view is that those soldiers who died had been somewhat ill-served by their government. Because the governments don’t really put the resources into defense that are consistent with the sacrifice that they sometimes ask of their soldiers. The governments also tend to put their soldiers into these places with a variety of strange operational constraints that make them a little less useful than they could be if the relationship was a little different.
The other problem is reckless driving. Some states are so secure in the U.S. security embrace, so confident in the American commitment to defend them that these states go off and do pretty much whatever they want. Now, can we stop them or deter them from really starting wars? Yes we can. Can we get them to do things that are smart or less risk-accepting? That’s much harder to do.
Let’s look at some on the list of some of the reckless drivers we have been engaged with. Not all of them are even American allies; some wanted to be American allies or misunderstood and thought they were American allies. Georgia, who liked to poke the Russian bear — I’m not trying to be brief on what the Russians did to the Georgians — but the Georgians were not suitably cautious given where they lived. I think our assurances, or the assurance of American senators who went to the visit there, didn’t serve the Georgians well, but they drove recklessly.
Our clients in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Karzai government and the Malaki government — incredible reckless drivers. We created lots of space for these governments to try and reform themselves enough to stand on their own feet, to win a certain amount of legitimacy in their own country. We paid a high price to provide that space. They didn’t use the space. They used the space to consolidate their power position versus their domestic enemies. So again, reckless driving.
The Israelis drive recklessly. The Americans have tried to encourage them to do something about the occupied territories for years, but they basically ignore us. Every few years, we go back and complain.
I don’t claim to understand the Japanese-Chinese dispute about the Diaoyu/Senkaku. I don’t really understand that competition in its deepest historical sense, but the Japanese did change the status quo in a way that was bound to poke the Chinese. This wasn’t smart. Again, I think, reckless driving. So I think there is a lot of reckless driving among our allies. None of them have gotten us in deep war, but it all costs us something. We can see with Malaki’s reckless driving, the Americans are back in there waging an air war, putting advisors on the ground, trying to clean up the mess that this regime made. So, it has consequences.
So, realism predicts cheap riding, reckless driving, and balancing. And we are seeing a lot of all of it. And, of course, the cheap riding adds to our costs because as they do less, we do more, and as we do more, they do less.
Some of you may have been consuming these documents the National Intelligence Council has put out, the open source documents, “the World in…” that they put out in the past couple years. One is “The World in 2025,” the other is “The World in 2030,” available online. If you look at their projections for mid-century, they tend to show a convergence of raw capabilities among the top three or four powers in the world. Or, put another way, a gap between the Americans and a couple of other powers is shrinking — the gap between the Americans and the Chinese in terms of inputs, GDP, and market prices for example, that’s equal. That’s equalizing. If you look at Chinese industrial production — Chinese manufacturing and global market prices — I think it’s already surpassed American manufacturing and global market prices. The point is that the Chinese are developing an economy from which they can distill a lot more military power. We’re talking about what they can do now, which really isn’t all that disturbing, but if these trends continue, they’re going to be a pretty potent “balancer.”
But just in case you think it is only going to be a bipolar world, actually the same people who are doing these projections are predicting having the Indians trailing along behind. Behind the Americans. Basically, look at our 2015 charts and China is number one, Americans are number two, and India is number three. Now these are just projections, they try to do the best job they can, all I read into it is: This great gap that we enjoyed, that made it possible to pursue this strategy — that gap is going away. And it’s not just that other powers are beginning to industrialize, marketize, and develop some technological capacity, there’s something else going on in the rest of the world.
It is a kind of diffusion of facility with technology, weapons and with production. Some of the smaller states have niche capabilities here and there, and our adversaries seem to be rather cunning. I’m going to give you a number, a quantity. According to the Congressional Research Service which tried to calculate the cost of American wars, and they normalize to get near the dollar — say 2010 dollar. The United States spent more to bring the Iraq war to a stalemate than it did to bring the Vietnam War to a stalemate. That’s in inflated dollars. We spent more to bring the Iraq War to a stalemate than to bring the Vietnam War to a stalemate — how is this possible?
In Vietnam, the other side had open charged accounts with arsenals in China and in Russia. Not here, not in Iraq. Even if you look at exchange rates, in other words, dead and wounded per dead and wounded, over the average of the war — not in firefights, where the Americans used to crush the other guys — but over time; the daily grind of attrition, particularly from IED’s, you find that if you put the Americans and their allies together and the other side together, the exchange rates are actually somewhat worse now than they were in Vietnam. This also seems a little bit strange.
Now, all these statistics, the input statistics, they’re all kind of — they’re spurious. I don’t know how the Congressional Research Service precisely measured how much we spent in Vietnam and how much we spent in Iraq; but the direction of things is clear, that the other side — the bad guys, the folk that don’t want you to come and visit and reorder their countries — seem to have quite a lot of skill, and given that it is hard to get a decisive victory, you set up this weird Darwinian process in which you are running the school yard for junkyard dogs: The less ferocious ones are getting killed; the less intelligent ones are getting killed; the other ones are learning better how to fight you, and it helps to make the wars go on.
So, aside from the diffusion of power from the very grey, to the somewhat grey, to the middle, there’s something else happening which I think is part and parcel of globalization — people are just getting smarter. There is a slide — I sometimes use a gag slide to illustrate this — I don’t really know what it means, but there’s a picture from the Syrian war, a Syrian insurgent, he’s laying a mortar and he’s using an iPad to do it, to see him doing it. So, I actually have no idea how to use an iPad, I never had one, but the point is, it just shows that people out there in the world are clever at picking up bits and pieces of technology, figuring out how they work and putting them to work in their own lives.
If you ever get a chance, you should go out to the US National Training Center at Barstow, Fort Irwin. They turned it from an Army Warfare Training Center to a Counterinsurgency training center. Tucked over in the corner of the base somewhere, there’s a little room that does nothing but collect information and collect actual IED’s — adversary IED technology. They’ve got shelf loads of improvised detonators, electronic detonators, and mechanical detonators, just showing again that the other guy is smart, and what is he making this stuff out of? He’s making it out of cell phones, he’s making it out of radios you can buy at Radio Shack.
So, the cost of going to other countries that don’t want you to come and visit is getting high. Remember that there are 25 million people in the country of Iraq, but only about maybe 10 million of them were really involved in the wars against us; 5 or 6 million Sunnis, and 5 or 6 million Shia living in the greater Baghdad area. The rest are basically out of the fight. The Kurds were not in the fight against us — they were on our side! The Shia living in the South were not even in the fight. It tied us up for years, at great cost.
Now the third theory that I work with — it’s not really a theory — it’s about a big social phenomenon. There are lots of theories about it. Books in the library, lots of them. It’s about nationalism and overtones of identity politics, which has been kind of rife in the world since the Cold War ended. We think of ourselves as living in these advanced economic times: Internet, technology, breaking down barriers, whatever it is. Yet if you look at how politics is being organized, and not just in the developing world, in the developed world, identity politics is suddenly front and center. What it had to do with, I don’t know. I suspect it has to do with modernization and globalization.
The U.S. is an easy target of local nationalist entrepreneurs, because the policy that we pursue puts us here, there and everywhere — puts us in their space. If they get a story to explain why things are not turning out the way that they want them to turn out, we make a good protagonist in that story, doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong. We’re there, we’re the target, and if you come to visit then you really have a problem, because these local identities are very strong when others come to try and tell them how to organize their politics.
We have to remember that married to this, especially in the developing world, is quite a large number of young people. Especially teenage males. So you have a large number of — somewhat literate, somewhat technologically skilled — 18 year old males, mobilized along the ideas of identity politics. Mobilized as nationalists, mobilized as Shiites, mobilized as Sunnis. Pretty sure they are in the right, pretty sure they are part of a beleaguered group, encouraged by their leaders to fight and die for the security and the sovereignty of the culture of that group; and that’s what we believe, that these ideas are not powerful — forget whether or not they are right or wrong. I mean to us, sometimes they just seem like voodoo.
But just remember, the Scots almost seceded from the United Kingdom because of identity politics. The United Kingdom is getting ready to have a referendum to secede from the European Union, of which it is not even really a subject. I mean, the European Union is one of the lightest transnational organizations you can imagine; too much for English nationals. The Scots — could we really see the Scots living under the tyrannical boot of the British? I’ve been to Scotland, it seems fine to me, and yet, almost so intolerable that they secede. So this is in the developed West — in the paradise garden of Western Europe, nationalism is alive and well. So imagine what it’s like in other parts of the world. See, if we keep going out to re-organize the politics of other countries, we’re going to be running into this problem.
So what should the U.S. do? Well, the title of the book tells all: The U.S. should do less, and it should focus what it does do on the main potential problems.
I see that there are three enduring problems that the United States has to pay attention to. However, just because I identify the problems, doesn’t mean it’s self-evident what a moderate and restrained approach to those problems would be. I try and suggest what it would be, but there is plenty of room for dispute about what you think.
So first of all is vigilance to assure against hegemony in Eurasia. Why? Because that’s what we’ve always done. Why do we do it? Well, Eurasia is a big place. If there was one country that had as much sway over all of Eurasia as we did over the North American continent, that country could be pretty darn powerful. Maybe powerful enough to reverse some of the advantages that I talked about earlier: advantages in the economic realm, advantages of oceans, advantages of technology. That would be some kind of competitor. It’s why we fought World War II; it’s why we “fought” the Cold War. There is an argument of whether it’s why we got involved in World War I or not. There is still a radical argument about that, but certainly there is little debate about World War II and the Cold War. So China is the present, potential challenge and the Americans should keep an eye on China. That raises a whole bunch of questions because China is a nuclear power so keeping an eye on them doesn’t mean you can wage preventive war; and you can’t exactly wage preventive containment. But this is a country that bears watching. So it has got to figure into American policy to keep an eye on China in some way.
Now China faces a lot of problems. We know a little something about the economic problems they’re facing even in the last few weeks, but it faces geopolitical problems, important ones. On one side it has India. India is another great state, trailing along behind China in development, but lots of people, lots of talent, nuclear weapons. So it would be hard for China to go that way. North of them, it’s pretty empty, except there happens to be the Russians, and they are a nuclear weapons state. Right now the two are aligned, but they are not destined, necessarily, to be aligned together forever. If China pushes too hard, Russia is going to go somewhere else. So it’s hard to push that way. The sea? Maybe we see some action there, but it is ocean. It’s not conquering countries and peoples, and just because you assert a right to a bit of the ocean, doesn’t mean you can really control it. So China faces its own debilities, its own problems, if it decides to embark on a course of hegemony. But we need to keep an eye on them.
Secondly, nuclear proliferation. My view is, if an economic basket case like North Korea can make nuclear weapons work, then it’s not a secret anymore. The idea that you can really prevent all nuclear proliferation I think is fatuous, and the reverse is also the case, I think; it’s nice to talk about zero and global zero or a world free of nuclear weapons, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. Nuclear weapons are very useful assets for states that are trying to defend their sovereignty, especially against others who are more capable, say in the demographic or the conventional forces sense. Pakistan is not going to do away with their nuclear weapons as long as India is so much greater than they are. Israel is not going to give up nuclear weapons. Russia is not going to give up nuclear weapons. If they don’t give up nuclear weapons, nobody else gives up nuclear weapons. We live in a nuclear age, and I think we’re going to continue living in a nuclear age. I’ve been wrong before — I used to think that we’d always have two Germanys. I’m not warranting the statement that we’re going to keep living in the nuclear age; it’s just my suspicion.
So what can we do? Well we should do what we can to slow proliferation [and] manage proliferation. We should work cooperatively to spread best practices on nuclear weapon security, to include not only security of the weapons, but command and control of the stable force postures. I think ultimately, even though it’s going to be incredibly hard and I don’t have the conceptual design to figure out how to do it, I think that ultimately we’re going to need some form of multilateral nuclear arms control. It would be very hard to negotiate this. Bilateral everyone is comfortable with. But if you look at the rate at which the Pakistanis said they’re going to produce nuclear weapons, and the rate that the Chinese could. We could have a world where six, seven, eight countries could have hundreds and hundreds of nuclear weapons and they’re not all conflict dyads. It could be states that have conflicts with more than one.
So we have to start thinking — I think — not about dreams of getting rid of nuclear weapons, but how we’re going to live in, essentially, a “nuclear-armed crowd” as Albert Wohlstetter used to say. That’s not a problem that I answer in the book, but I do kind of outline that this is a project that I think needs some work. Those of you that are looking into research projects, I think there’s a good one.
And finally, we’ve learned something very important on 9/11: that partly because of identity politics, partly because of the diffusion capability, partly because of globalization, it is possible for motivated groups to do great damage to advanced industrial states to kill a lot of people. They killed a lot of people that day, and they might have killed more; they intended to kill more.
So, this isn’t about Al-Qaeda per se, and it’s not about a Global War on Terror because, as we’ve all been taught, terror is a tactic used for different things. However, we have to be on the lookout for the emergence of groups like Al-Qaeda, who identify the United States, or Germany, or Japan, or China for that matter, as the source of the problem in their own society, and decide that the sheer doing of damage is an answer to their problems. We have to have some way of dealing with this.
Again, I don’t think that going out and trying to control and reform troubled nation-states in the hopes that they won’t generate any more terrorists is going to be a winning strategy. We’ve tried it. So I think what we have to do, basically, is to work in the intelligence internal security realm, here and with partners to try and keep our eyes open for these very dangerous, nihilistic groups.
Those are the three problems. I have a moderate approach to all three of these problems. As I say, you can quarrel with mine if you don’t like it and make up your own.
So, we come back to Iraq and Ukraine, and let me just say what I wanted to do politically and militarily to make this thing work. So what should we be doing in the political part of the strategy?
The first thing is, I think we have to do something about the “free rider” problem, and one of the things I wanted to do is try to make our alliances more like old alliances used to be, which is to take some of the military infrastructure out of them. We can’t do that with every alliance, like the alliance with Japan, we’re kind of stuck. I think some people criticize the way I discuss the alliance with Japan, as I’m not direct enough. But, I think that even including the Russian resurgence, the idea that Europeans are not rich enough to look after their own security — I find this notion to be quite preposterous. Almost all of the Middle European powers are significantly richer than the Russians. Each one separately is significantly richer than Russia. Any two of them have a greater population than Russia. Two of them are nuclear weapons states. The idea that the United States has to keep defending Europe against Russia, that they can’t do a better job on this, to me it’s — I don’t want to say it is nuts, but it’s very hard for me to accept it.
Now, you can’t turn these things off overnight, so I think we should have a ten year plan to transform NATO into, simply, the Trans-Atlantic Alliance; more of a traditional political alliance. The United States should gradually move out of the military infrastructure of NATO, and if the Europeans want to keep it, they can keep it. And to start the ball rolling, the first thing we ought to do is have a European SACEUR. I think it’s past time to put a European officer in command of those forces. So, if there’s a place to try restraint as an experiment, a place to try changing our alliance structure, a place to try strongly incentivizing our allies to do more of their own defense, Europe is the place. People say, “Well, against the background of Putin…” I say, “Look at the material facts of the two sides. Putin is in no shape to invade Western Europe.”
In the Middle East, I think the United States has to significantly reduce its forward presence. It’s interesting to me that at the height of the struggle between the last Egyptian government, the Morsi government, and what was to become the Sisi government, that both sides of that country disliked us. Both of the principal political groups; the moderates and/or reactionaries, the Islamists and/or liberals, or whatever you want to call these groups, both identified the United States as their principal problem. This is not a marvelous success for this policy of being so active in the Middle East. So my view is that we should ratchet down on our presence in the Middle East.
Asia is the toughest one, but the thing I try to focus on is when I read the black letter law of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, the way it works is that the U.S. agrees to defend Japan and that Japan agrees to help. This is very unusual kind of alliance. It should be flipped: Japan agrees to defend itself and the United States agrees to help. That should be the way that the treaty works. We’ve seen a little bit of change in Japan in recent months, but it remains to be seen whether the actual resources to support a more active military are really going to be forthcoming, and my own guess is that they probably will not.
Now, on the military strategy, I basically turn into a sea-power guy. Back in the Cold War days, I was a land-power guy. All I cared about was the central front in Europe; I did a lot of work on the central front in Europe. To me this had a lot of different purposes. The naval war against the Russians was interesting because it was a technology war and an ASW war, but it was a means to an end. Now, given the basic security position of the United States, it should be stressing more its naval power, its space power, and its air power, not because these will give you magic answers to wars abroad, because there are no magic answers to wars abroad, but because these are the basic enablers to doing any of the three things that I did say we need to do: practicing and balancing the power of foreign policy against a Eurasian hegemon, engaging in various kinds of policies to deal with management and proliferation, and doing things to deal with terror.
I think America needs to be able to get there. I would try to rejigger the force structure, cut the defense budget, reallocate resources; and I, basically, sold the Army. The Army, which was formerly my favorite service, and they liked me then, is now my least favorite service and they like me less, because that’s where I find the money. And, I basically get the defense budget down to 2.5% of the GDP. Now, anyone who actually does defense budget analysis will admit to you that you do not just take a white sheet of paper and build the forces you want and then go pay for them. What we really do is we’re back-and-forth between some minutia of how much we are willing to spend and a list of the things we would like to do. So I’m not going to tell you that I just generated a bunch of forces I wanted to do, and it magically came to 2.5% of GDP. I worked back and forth between a GDP target and the force structure and the strategy to get the kind of force structure and the kind of defense budget that I wanted.
To close: The U.S. is at a new period where I think we are going to face greater scarcity in security resources at home (we were recently ready to shut down the government); we are going to face more consequential powers abroad; we are going to face more politically mobilized and more capable armed groups of every kind. These changes necessitate that the U.S. plays a much tighter game. To me, incremental adjustments, simply reforming the liberal hegemony strategy looks to me to be insufficient to address the problems that we have already witnessed, and the problems that I think are going to come or are going to take place. We need set political and military priorities much more rigorously and subsidize the security of others much less generously.
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