Issue #17, Summer 2010

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.

Robert Hunter: General Norman Schwarzkopf once said–I think it was him–that: If you told me when I took the oath at West Point that I’d be spending my career in places like Kuwait, Panama, and Vietnam, I would have thought you were crazy. Predicting what we will be doing in the world in 2021 is thus virtually impossible. However, by 2021, it’s almost certain that there will be a greater need for the integration of the elements of power and influence, far greater than we have today. We’re going to need a smarter military–not that people aren’t smart now–but with higher levels of education, and cross fertilization with non-military activities. Furthermore, the trend of 2010 that will continue is that shaping the security environment on our behalf is going to require us to have allies and partners much more than we did before.

EJD: In 2021, will we be talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, and what will we make of what we did there?

LK: Iraq and Afghanistan are going to be like Vietnam: we are never going to do that again. I cannot conceive of any president sending 100,000 people into two Muslim countries again. I think the future model will be like Yemen–maybe some Special Forces off shore to balance limited in-country operations–but I don’t think you’ll ever do Iraq or Afghanistan again. So if we’re not going to do Iraq and Afghanistan again, we’ll have to take a hard look at the size of our active duty Army and Marine Corps.

HH: The other way that Iraq and Afghanistan will be to 2021 what Vietnam has been to the boomer generation is that the folks who are running the military will be the people who served their first tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The people elected to the White House and Congress will be people whose first political experiences, and possibly the things that drove them into politics, will be the experiences of responding to Iraq and Afghanistan.

PWS: I’ve been wrestling with this idea, of what the next generation in power will think, for a book project I’m working on. As part of this project, we’re taking surveys of high school student leaders from around the United States, and getting those students’ views on politics, policy, and national security. And just like Vietnam was a dividing line for the boomers, for this upcoming generation it’s this combination of 9/11, the Iraq war, and then, interestingly enough, Hurricane Katrina. The ways they are thinking about politics are shaped through those lenses.

HH: By 2021, if we keep going as we’re going, government is going to have very little legitimacy. Katrina is an important touchstone for that. We’re in a 20-year slide in belief in government, and in belief that government has efficacy. A lot of people hoped that 2008 marked a turnaround on this front, but you have to ask yourself if it marked a turnaround or a hiccup in a continual decline, and what that will mean for our president in 2021–him or her, though I’m not too optimistic on the her.

You do have to wonder if belief in government is just going to get lower and lower.

PWS: There are two current trends happening now that link to that. They both relate to outsourcing. By 2021, will the American military be more or less reliant on private military contractors to conduct its operations? This outsourcing is both a symptom and a cause of the distrust of government. And the other trend relates to technology. We’re fighting three wars right now, the last of which–in Pakistan–we don’t talk about because it’s basically being conducted by unmanned systems via air strike. How will that play out by 2021?

RH: This is a very important point: the extent to which there is saliency in the body politic for the use of military force. We don’t have a draft; less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military and except when you have reserves going off to war or a spike in people getting killed, a lot of this is out of sight, out of mind. We pay very little public attention now to Iraq. And in Afghanistan, you don’t have the groundswell of opposition, in part because it doesn’t affect people the way it did in Vietnam.

The American vocation of being the “City on the Hill,” which gets ridiculed depending on what form is used, each new generation seems to adopt it in a new guise. Whether we will reach a point by 2021 of saying that there are some things not only that we can’t do, but maybe we shouldn’t do–or if they should be done, let somebody else do it. I don’t yet see any basic transformation on our perspective on that point.

Michael Tomasky: None of you identified terrorism as one of the major challenges of the future. Is that because you feel it can be contained, or that it’s chiefly an intelligence matter, or what?

LK: I think you’re never going to eliminate terrorism; you’re always going to have violent extremists. Within ten years it’ll be there, but it won’t be all consuming, and people won’t focus on it as much. It’s interesting: 2001 was almost ten years ago. You talk to people about 2001 now who are in high school or even college, and it doesn’t have the same resonance as it did with us. In ten years, assuming that Al Qaeda doesn’t get a nuclear weapon or launch another spectacular attack, then yes, terrorists will still be out there, but they’ll sort of be like the Red Brigades in Europe in the 1970s and 80s.

RH: Let me issue an important qualifier. One reason terrorism has gone down in our perception is that we haven’t had a major terrorism incident since 9/11. We have had some minor ones. Objectively speaking, terrorism tends to be just a nuisance, unless it involves a weapon of mass destruction. But the psychological impact of it, particularly of an attack in the lower 48, can still be immense. And as we move forward, it may not be Islamist elements that are attempting to use this weapon. It may be some others, especially from more deprived parts of the world.

PWS: There is really one possible asteroid to American governance and sense of democracy: the scenario of a WMD used inside America. It would fundamentally affect not just our economy, but even how we respect the Constitution could fall by the wayside. I think terrorism is more of a threat than we’ve talked about. Even in those domains I’ve spoken about–cyber and space–not to mention traditional warfare or counterinsurgency, you will see terrorism continuing. The role of individual, non-state actors is not going away. Their lethality is growing. During World War II, FDR and the U.S. military didn’t have to worry about Hitler’s Luftwaffe hitting the United States, as the Luftwaffe did not have the capacity to do so. Several years ago, a 77- year-old blind man built his own aerial drone that flew across the Atlantic Ocean. This is the world we’re heading into.

: It’s important not to approach this as something that we don’t have any control over, that what happens in ten years is unknowable and we can’t see it. We have an enormous amount of control over how we structure our own thinking and talking about resilience and response. Because, as you say, as people are empowered to do all kinds of things outside traditional government structures, the potential for lethality will grow. But the potential for lethality to equal societal disruption doesn’t have to grow along with it. In fact, it can shrink and go back down as people see what we can absorb. On the other hand, if somebody detonated a nuclear weapon, that would change everything.

RH: I have to ask: What is the level of casualties that is the threshold level? We had an incident with somebody on an airplane in Detroit last Christmas Day that bent the media out of shape. Did the average American respond to that? What is the threshold that pushes people to action?

HH: I don’t think there is a threshold. There’s no number you can pick out. It’s much more about how a government responds and how non-government entities respond, and how different societal actors respond. Peter, what you’re saying about something new, scary and different is relevant here. What was so terrifying about the [Twin] Towers was that unless you worked in terrorism you hadn’t thought about this before.

RH: But are there things that could happen that would prompt the experts to say: This isn’t really a threat to our national security? When I was working on the framework for the Quadrennial Defense Review six years ago, the Pentagon insisted that, for the future, it needed to be thinking mostly about terrorism. And that was ludicrous.

Issue #17, Summer 2010

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