US Strategy and Strategic Culture from 2017

FEATURES | February 19, 2016     

American Strategy and Strategic Culture – Next AdministrationThe US will remain indispensable to global problem-solving, provided an updated mindset, new institutions, and flexible alliances are in place

The American government elected in 2016 will face a transforming world – one that will require strategic approaches that are markedly different from those of the last two US administrations.

Every country has what might be called a ‘strategic culture’ – that is, the instincts at play and the means employed as the country defines and advances its interests in the world. This affects everything from how countries set priorities to how they fix the balance between diplomacy and the use of force. The strategic culture of the US over the last 16 years has reflected the unusual circumstances and characters of two very different – and in some ways very unusual – administrations. The first under President George W. Bush (2001 to 2009) had to deal with the most devastating attack that America has suffered since 1941. The administration responded aggressively and, while it succeeded in thwarting much of the terrorist threat of that time, it also generated enormous controversy – largely due to its instinct for preemptive action, and in particular its forceful removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and that operation’s violent and chaotic aftermath.

The second administration under Barack Obama (2009 to today) had its own set of priorities, but was marked more heavily than most administrations by a reactive character as it determinedly sought to reverse many of the policies of its predecessor. While pursuing terrorists aggressively, it has placed more weight on domestic priorities and, in the international arena, has been wary of the use of force, with a default instinct toward diplomacy and engagement when confronted with international problems.

It was the fate of both of these administrations to operate at one of the hinge points of modern history – the moment when America’s superpower status began to experience serious challenge for the first time since the end of WW2. America emerged from that war realizing that, as the strongest survivor of the conflict – the largest single event in human history – it could not avoid global responsibilities. Between 1944 and 1950, it led the creation of most of the global and regional institutions that are today taken for granted – the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, and NATO – and all of this as it embarked on a four decade-long struggle with a Soviet adversary bent on global domination.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the US entered a 17-year era of nearly unfettered influence – until the global financial crisis of 2008. Until that crisis, the US economic model was unchallenged, and few could effectively oppose what America chose to do in the international arena. But the financial crisis, because it affected the US as profoundly as many others, and stemmed partly from flawed US financial practices, jolted international confidence in the US model, dented America’s image of invulnerability, and conveyed a sense for many that American power might be slipping.

No factor influences a nation’s strategic culture more than its power relative to others – and how that power is perceived. Against the backdrop just described, many observers argue that the US is losing influence because its global share of economic activity is declining (some calculate by more than 30 percent over the last decade); or because the US has overextended itself as a decade of war pushed it deeper into debt; or simply because the world is reverting to a more natural balance among powers after the historical abnormality of the last century’s two world wars.

But power is a slippery concept. There is military power, economic power, the power that derives from fixed things like geography and natural resources, and power connected to things that countries can control to varying degrees – population, industrial capacity, and governing systems. And then there is the newest idea, ‘soft power’ – the term devised by Harvard professor Joseph Nye to capture the influence that countries can exert by virtue of the appeal of their culture or values.

Of course, America has been through ‘decline anxiety’ before: in the 1950s, when the USSR beat it into space with the Sputnik satellite; in the 1970s, after its loss in the Vietnam War; and in the 1980s, when it feared what it called “Japan Inc.,” as Japanese industry was besting it and buying up American icons like the Rockefeller Center.

Standing against a pessimistic outlook for US power and influence, however, are a number of factors. First, the US has a strong record for renewal and adaptation. For example, the flexibility of the US regulatory system, technological breakthroughs, and the absence of a large, bureaucratically stifling national oil company combined to spawn the shale-oil boom, which, along with conservation, will make the US self-sufficient in oil in the next couple of decades. This is likely to lower the cost of US manufacturing, stimulate exports, and cut the current account deficit – at just the moment when many in the world were wondering if the forward momentum of the US economy had finally stalled.

Second, no country yet rivals the global cultural appeal of the US and its closest partners. Consider American cinema: it remains extraordinarily popular globally, with 70 percent of the major studios’ box office receipts now coming from international audiences (and with the Chinese and Russian markets holding special prominence).

Third, other countries’ receptivity to US leadership is unmatched by the appeal of any other country. The current US administration would argue – not without justification – that it is leading in its own way and in the conditions that it faces. And yet the most frequent comment that I hear personally from international contacts is a desire not for less but rather for more US leadership – that is, a complaint that the US is not leading to the extent desired or needed. Whatever the truth of the matter, the broad perception is that more is desired by allies and by those who feel endangered by America’s adversaries.

Fourth, it is still nearly impossible to solve major world problems without American involvement – although an important distinction is that the US cannot solve such problems alone.

Fifth, demographics will play a role. Much of the developing world is burdened with overpopulation, high unemployment, and a youth bulge. China faces a looming ageing crisis. India suffers from a marked split between haves and have-nots. The US, on the other hand, is growing at a balanced rate, has a population that is refreshed by immigration – election pyrotechnics notwithstanding – and is still a meritocracy compared with much of the world.

Sixth, America’s military power, while under budgetary pressure, still dwarfs the capabilities of other states. Defence and all of its associated expenses totalled about US$600 billion in 2015. Even with cuts of around $50 billion, America’s defence budget will still be more than that of the next seven countries combined, and about 40 percent of total global military expenditures.

Having said all of this, let us agree that the challenges of today are substantially different than those that the US has faced before, and therefore require more complex calculations from US strategists.

First, in the years ahead, American strategists will have to take note of much more serious competition than they have faced in the 25 years since the Soviet Union’s collapse. The relative power balance among nations is shifting, and while America seems likely to remain preeminent among nations, the margins of its lead are contracting. Much has been written about ‘China rising,’ but the key point is that China represents a competitor that is different from others that America has faced. Even if China’s economic model (cheap labour = cheap exports = strong growth) appears to be sputtering as President Xi tries to shift the economy from an export-driven one to one driven by domestic demand, we must concede that, unlike the USSR, China is no longer weighed down by a sclerotic command economy. Unlike Japan, it has a population four times that of the US, and can swiftly reallocate resources and labour. The Chinese have thought deeply about their position in the world, and that of the US as well. This came through when I asked a senior Chinese official a couple of years ago to name China’s number one national security concern. Answer: “internal development.” This told me that the Chinese see themselves quite realistically – a key first step to success in the vast transformation that they are attempting.

China is just one among the five BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that are pressing for more influence in organizations like the UN and the IMF. Of course, symbolizing the global diffusion of power is the declining role of the old G7 or G8 in favour of the G20, as well as the recent China-led creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Second, the US will need to work even harder to defend its interests and to build coalitions in the world that is emerging. This is because, as mentioned, the international system is trending toward what might be called a balance of power world – not in the classical conception of equilibrium among a set of relatively equal powers, but more in the sense of power diffusing among countries to the point where the most powerful are less able to exert influence over the others.

This is not the kind of world in which the US has heretofore had to practice statecraft. The most recent modern analogue would be the interwar period from 1918 to 1941 – a time of rising powers and growing challenges to the contemporary order. But except for the last few years of that period, the US did not feel the burden of global leadership in anything approaching the way that it did after 1945.

Emblematic of that time was an incident in my former field of intelligence: in 1929, Secretary of State Henry Stimson summarily removed funding for America’s first cryptological organization, famously remarking that “gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail.” (Thinking of the recent surveillance controversies, this is proof again that Mark Twain was on to something when he said: “History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”)

When global leadership did set on the US after WW2, the kind of power balance that it had to manage was the simpler bipolarity that it shared with the Soviet Union until the latter’s collapse in 1991 – after which the US fell into the aforementioned unitary ‘superpower moment.’

The bottom line, then, is that the world coming into view – a world of shifting power relationships among a larger constellation of countries, and sharply growing assertiveness outside US borders – is a new strategic context for the US. This will place a high premium on American alliance management skills, as Washington will seldom, if ever, be able to ‘go it alone’ in formulating international policies in a global arena in which most problems will span borders and involve the interests of multiple countries.

Third, the US will have to live with and continue to refine techniques for dealing with the reality of what many call ‘asymmetric power’ – that is, the ability of small numbers of people to exert power dramatically in excess of their potential influence (measured in conventional terms). This is most vividly demonstrated by terrorists – from Al Qaeda, to ISIS, to the so-called ‘lone wolf’ assailants who have shown up with devastating results in so many countries. There is certainly nothing new about terrorism – its basic techniques and the power theory that it represents have been part of international life for centuries. What is new is the technology that now increases destructive power: the jet aircraft that struck New York City’s Twin Towers; bombs that defy metal detectors; biological weapons that are easy to make; information technology that enables the recruitment of extremists and training in techniques and weaponry; and the overall stealth in concealing and carrying out operations.

A major impact of all of this for the US will be in the realm of defence preparedness. For the last decade and a half, the US has had to give priority to fighting counterinsurgencies and to the training, weaponry, and skills appropriate to that type of mission. These requirements will not abate, but with countries like China and Russia operating more assertively and a balance of power world coming into view, the US will also have to hedge against the more traditional threats that are potentially emerging.

A further related complication comes from what defence specialists are now calling ‘hybrid warfare’ or ‘grey conflicts.’ It follows that the US will have to supplement conventional military techniques with new tools that are not yet fully developed in order to counter the kind of approaches that Russia has used in Crimea and southeastern Ukraine, or that China has favoured all the way back to the writings of Sun Tzu in the sixth century BC. This type of warfare eschews the frontal confrontations typically associated with conventional war in favour of a shifting mixture of ambiguously designated troops (Russia’s ‘little green men’ in Crimea), psychological warfare, information operations, covert action, deception, special operations, and often plain old lying. This is a hard combination to counter, and one that does not come naturally to open, democratic, pluralist societies like the US, the Commonwealth states, or the US’s European continental allies. But these countries will have to ‘get with the programme,’ as it were, and develop effective countervailing strategies in the coming years.

Fourth, the US will have to work with others to establish a consensus on what constitute the norms underlying the global order in this new era – clearly a matter of some dispute. I have heard Russians and Chinese argue that the US itself, with its actions in places such as the Balkans, Iraq and Libya, has been disruptive of that order. Generally, though, the US has operated with some multinational consensus hammered out at the UN or in a regional organization like NATO.

By contrast, Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent incursions in the Donbass were carried out unilaterally and without reference to bilateral and multilateral agreements that many see as forming the foundation of European security. These include the 1994 Russia-UK-US Budapest Memorandum on the non-use of force against the territory or independence of Ukraine after it gave up its nuclear weapons; the 1997 bilateral friendship treaty in which Russia and Ukraine agreed to respect each other’s borders; and a host of UN agreements against such violations.

For its part, China in the South and East China Seas has operated unilaterally to challenge the existing international consensus on maritime and aviation freedoms. Under international law, states can claim territorial waters only 12 nautical miles from shore. China flouts that rule by building artificial islands atop coral reefs some 500 miles from the Chinese mainland as part of a strategy to claim some 90 percent of the South China Sea – opposing the claims of at least five other nations, including the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. China has resisted efforts by those nations to place the issue under international arbitration, although last October, the Philippines finally convinced the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to take on the dispute. It is expected to deliver a ruling later this year.

Beyond such age-old issues, new ones are arising – traceable to phenomena such as climate change. Melting Arctic waters, for example, have heightened controversy among Arctic rights claimants like Canada, Norway, Denmark, the US and Russia. The melting waters are opening up new possibilities for navigation and seabed resource exploration. This gives the US new incentive to finally ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – a prerequisite for formal claims in the area.

And then there is the challenge to the traditional state system by the advances in the Middle East of ISIS, which has for now erased century-old borders with no certainty as to what will replace them, and indeed as to whether the states most affected – Iraq and Syria – will survive. All of this is exacerbated by the Sunni-Shia conflict – driven by Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran – that cuts through all of the other conflicts in the region.

Particularly in the case of maritime and air practice, the US will not just be defending some abstract principle. Maintaining freedom and security of navigation and flight amounts to defending what many call the ‘global commons’ – on which all nations depend. Until others are ready to pick up more of this burden, many countries will expect the US – particularly its global navy and air force – to continue ensuring these freedoms.

Finally, the US must be prepared for the geopolitical turbulence that could come from changes in something that for decades has been the ‘X factor’ in international relations – the global supply of oil. The availability and price of oil has determined the policies of many countries and the character of others. But the world, after decades of shortages or uncertainties about supply, is now experiencing an oil glut. This, as mentioned, has come about due to a combination of factors, including increased US production due to ‘fracking’ technology, conservation, ‘green’ technologies, and the fact that, with oil prices now at their lowest point in more than a decade, most producers are pumping at record rates to capture market share. For all of these reasons, it is harder, if not impossible, for the big oil producers to push up prices by simply limiting supply as in the past. And these conditions seem likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

The precise impact of the oil price collapse on politics is incalculable, but it is hard to imagine that it will not alter the policies, character and politics of countries like Russia, the Gulf states (principally Saudi Arabia), and Venezuela (where the opposition is already benefitting) – countries that depend almost entirely on oil revenues. The US, for its part, is largely insulated from direct impact because of its diversified economy and its emerging status as the world’s largest oil producer. But it will have to adjust to the indirect impacts and, above all, resist any temptation to believe that its energy self-sufficiency permits it to ignore the kind of turbulence that we are now seeing in oil-producing theatres like the Middle East. None of its key allies – particularly in Europe – have the luxury of energy independence, and they will look to the US to lead in ensuring the stability of supply. Once again, then, it is the burden of the leader to protect the ‘global commons.’ To dodge this responsibility would be to forfeit leadership – although, clearly, in a world of rising powers the US should demand a greater degree of burden-sharing than has existed heretofore.

Bref, the next 10 years will present unique challenges for US strategists, who will have to deal with a greater level of complexity in all matters than at any time since the years immediately after WW2. The issues rushing toward America will range from those carrying instant danger, such as terrorism and cyber-attacks, to those with longer-range and more controversial implications, such as climate change. So what is to be done by the next US administration to deal with this world?

First, work consciously to dispel any impression abroad that the US is reluctant to lead. Unfair as it may be to hold that view, it is ‘out there.’ Erasing it will involve leading others in decisions that incur risk, because none of today’s most pressing international problems has a clear-cut solution. All of the options have downsides. But the lesson of Syria is that failure to make choices amounts to a choice – one that ensures that future options are only more agonizing and complex.

Second, recognize that the keys to success in a competitive world of rising powers will be coalition-building and alliance management. There will be more competition than in the past, as shown by China’s brainchild – the aforementioned 57-nation AIIB, an initiative from which the US at present abstains, but which most of its traditional allies support. This is a rare post-WW2 example of a major, potentially transformational international initiative that was not the creation of the US. It shows that China is turning into a real competitor – and not just on military hardware or economic indices.

Third, strive for balance in defence preparedness, ensuring that US forces are able to handle both counterinsurgency and conventional challenges with equal assurance. This will probably require increased defence spending, as others are catching up to the US in certain categories. At the same time, conduct a strategic review aimed at developing countermeasures for the increasingly prevalent reliance on ‘hybrid warfare’ techniques, mainly by conventional adversaries.

Fourth, do whatever it takes to overcome the crippling domestic partisanship that suggests to the outside world governmental incompetence that is inconsistent with the US claim to global leadership. Emblematic of such failure is the 2011 budgetary sequestration law (mandating automatic cuts and arbitrary budget caps without regard to strategic needs). This law was passed because legislators could not agree on a budget. The perverse logic was that because the law was so obviously foolish, legislators would be forced to replace it with a sensible compromise. They could not. Only in the last few months have Congress and the Executive come together on some adjustments that provide modest relief for 2016. But in 2017 and 2018, the problem will be back on the table.

Fifth, give serious thought to restructuring a national security decision-making process that is now creaking – having been put in place nearly 70 years ago, in very different circumstances. The result is a vastly overburdened White House and National Security Council. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others have noted this, calling for “new organizations with a 21st century mindset” to better integrate and apply all aspects of national power. Part of this must be a reinvigorated long-range strategic planning process – a feature that in recent years has been pushed aside by the demands of immediate problems, cramping the national capacity to look three or four moves ahead on the international chessboard.

In the end, the things that are likely to determine America’s future strategic margins are not fixed elements like unfortunate geography or resource limitations – for the US remains richly endowed in these respects. Instead, the things that are likely to determine America’s destiny in the world are things that Americans can affect – the quality of America’s governance, the agility of its diplomacy, and the management of its economy.

So when it comes to America’s future power and influence – its standing in the world and its status as a leader – its greatest good fortune is simply that these really are in American hands.


John E. McLaughlin was Deputy Director and Acting Director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, and now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).


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