America 2021: The Military and the World
Our largest threat: Pakistan. Our alliances: reshuffled by demographics. Terrorism: on the wane (maybe). New frontier for conflict: the Arctic cirlce. Four experts discuss
The plague of short-term thinking endemic to Washington politics–the focus on yesterday’s press release, today’s televised teapot tempest–is only exacerbated when the conversation turns to national security. The wars we’re fighting now and the threats directly in front of us come to monopolize our attention at the expense of the big picture. Yet if the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that America and the world are best-served when policymakers and experts take a step back to consider not just the challenges of today and tomorrow–but the challenges of several tomorrows from now.
Where will our armed forces be in ten years, and what will we ask of them? Will we still be in Afghanistan and Iraq? How might our changing demographics change our alliances?
In April, we brought together four distinguished military experts–Lawrence Korb, P.W. Singer, Heather Hurlburt, and Robert Hunter–to grapple with and debate the big picture. We didn’t ask them technical questions about force structure or weapons acquisitions. We instead looked for insight into American strategy and the kinds of challenges we’re likely to confront in the years ahead.
At the foundation of this discussion were two questions: When the dust settles from our current contretemps, what will be the same, and what will be different? And, as we are a progressive journal, we must approach this subject from a progressive perspective, so: What can progressives offer, not only to advance their side in the debate, but to enhance America’s position in the world?
E.J. Dionne, Jr., Democracy’s Editorial Chair, moderated the discussion. Editors Michael Tomasky and Ethan Porter also participated.
What follows is a transcript of the conversation. With it, Democracy is inaugurating a new series, “America 2021,” which will bring together some of the brightest progressive minds to discuss what our country might look like roughly a decade from now.
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: The year is 2021. A new president has been sworn in, and having retreated to the Oval Office for the first time, calls to seek your advice. What conflicts and crises is this president facing? And what do you advise him or her to do?
Lawrence Korb: I think there’ll be two things. One, India and Pakistan will still be very much at odds. Pakistan won’t be stable, and will have been producing more nuclear weapons and more nuclear material. The question is, do you want to get involved, and if so, how do you want to handle it? The second thing is climate change, which will create an increasing number of weak and failing states, particularly in the so-called Third World or under-developed world, which will have led to instability, the spread of disease, migration, militias running around, and possibly created havens for terrorists. I’d ask the president: Do you want to get involved to the extent of using military forces?
Heather Hurlburt: In 2021, the president will need a mix of tools to help him or her deal with a resurgent China, which will have gotten much further along with its economy and its military. But China will also be facing tremendous crises at home, dealing with demographic and environmental concerns, as well as other internal political issues that get expressed externally. In dealing with China, India, and Pakistan, the president will discover that our civilian toolbox has further atrophied. And just about anything the president wants to, whether it’s military or not, will have to be done through the Department of Defense, because that will be the last adequately resourced part of our international affairs structure.
EJD: Any good news?
P.W. Singer: Compared with what we have now, three things will be different. One is the type of conflicts that the president in the year 2021 may be dealing with. By that point, cyber-warfare will be a far more real zone of competition and conflict. War in space will also be on the agenda. And I don’t mean Klingons; I mean the fact that our global security apparatus will depend on nodes in space, and we’ll likely see more competition and even conflict there. Second, to build off what Larry was saying, one of the implications of global warming is that the Arctic is melting and underneath it you’ll have as much oil and natural gas as Saudi Arabia does. You will have a division of the globe that will have to be figured out that will be the largest division of land area since the Pope divided the New World. Finally, the America the president leads in 2021 will be different. Detroit won’t be a powerhouse of manufacturing, as it’s been for past presidents; in an ideal world, maybe it’s a powerhouse of green energy. Or, in a less ideal world, it’s just done. The demographics of America will be very different. The nation will be as much as 30 percent Latino. That has huge implications for our alliances and potential alliances. Maybe we’re looking more southward, instead of toward NATO, for allies. Finally, the president in 2021, and a majority of his or her staff, won’t be of the Boomer generation. If you go into the 2021 White House and say, we have to avoid another Vietnam, that’s a lot like going to Obama right now and making a comparison to World War II. Because, to a president in 2021, Vietnam will be as distant as World War II is to Obama.
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