Shadow Government

How Dangerous is the World? Part IV

In my previous three posts, I argued that the world today is more dangerous than it was during the Cold War because the threat from Russia and China is still present, on top of which we face new threats from new nuclear autocracies hostile to the United States, including North Korea, soon Iran, and possibly Pakistan.

In addition to the old-fashioned state-centric threats of hostile nuclear powers, the United States now faces a whole new category of threats that simply did not exist during the Cold War:  the threats that come when state failure meets globalization, when non-state actors can operate with impunity outside the write of any law but act with global reach because of new technology.  These are the threats that are the current fads of IR and security studies:  pirates, organized crime, drug cartels, human traffickers, WikiLeaks, hackers, the global Islamist "pansurgency," and, yes, terrorists.  (Throw in pandemic disease and ecological disaster and you get all the research funding you want.)

There is nothing new about the existence of many of these actors, of course.  Pirates and terrorists have existed for centuries.  However, their ability to present an immediate and large-scale threat to the United States is new, or at least greater than during the Cold War.  Travel and communication is easier and weapons technology is more lethal, state failure is more widespread (giving them more space to operate with impunity), while U.S. and allied border, port, and infrastructure security has not kept up.

I earlier argued that the faddish, new-fangled theories about non-state actors were overstated.  They are, but that doesn't mean they're completely wrong.  Osama bin Laden and Julian Assange clearly did massive and irrevocable harm to the United States in ways literally inconceivable for a non-state actor during the Cold War; the same may be true of the drug gangs in Mexico today.  Coupled with the United States' almost complete lack of homeland security, and there is a very real possibility of large-scale, massive, direct harm to the U.S. homeland from a globalized non-state actor.

The preeminent threat of this type is, of course, the global campaign by violent Islamist militants and terrorists to eject the "west" from "Muslim lands," overthrow secular governments and replace them with Islamic regimes, and establish the supremacy of their brand of Islam across the world.  (I agree here with David Kilcullen's characterization of the conflict as a global insurgency).  Violent Islamist movements have done most of their direct damage to people and states across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.  But those attacks certainly don't make the world safer for the United States, nor would their victory in, for example, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.  And the movement has, of course, directly attacked the United States and our European allies.  Note that violent Islamist groups-whether al Qaida or Hamas or Hezbollah or al Shabaab or Lashkar-e Taiba-typically flourish in and around weak and failing states.

The only thing comparable to the global proliferation of Islamist insurgencies and terrorist movements over the last two decades was the Soviet Union's sponsorship of communist insurgencies around the world during the Cold War.  But the Islamist insurgencies are likely to be more resilient, harder to defeat, and more dangerous because they are decentralized, because their ideology is not linked to the fate of one particular regime, because globalization has made it easier for them to operate on a global scale, and because of the higher risk that Islamists will acquire and use weapons of mass destruction since they are not accountable to a deterable sponsoring power.

Even setting the threat from violent Islamism aside, a host of other non-state actors threaten the world order and make American leadership more costly.  In fact, the aggregate effect of state failure multiplied across scores of states across the world is so great that "failed states may eventually present a systemic risk to the liberal world order, of which the United States is the principal architect and beneficiary," as I argue in the current issue of PRISM.  State failure and the rise of non-state actors-a problem non-existent during the cold war-is a threat to American national security.


Essentially, the United States thus faces two great families of threats today:  first, the nuclear-armed authoritarian powers, of which there are at least twice as many as there were during the Cold War; second, the aggregate consequences of state failure and the rise of non-state actors in much of the world, which is a wholly new development since the Cold War.  On both counts, the world is more dangerous than it was before 1989.  Essentially take the Cold War, add in several more players with nukes, and then throw in radicalized Islam, rampant state failure, and the global economic recession, and you have today.

I recognize that the world doesn't feel as dangerous as it did during the Cold War.  During the Cold War we all knew about the threat and lived with a constant awareness-usually shoved to the back of ours minds to preserve our sanity-that we might die an instantaneous firey death at any moment.  We no longer feel that way. 

Our feelings are wrong.  The Cold War engaged our emotions more because it was simple, easily understood, and, as an ideological contest, demanded we take sides and laid claim to our loyalties.  Today's environment is more complex and many-sided and so it is harder to feel the threat the same way we used to.  Nonetheless, the danger is real. 

The next question is, if this is true, what implications should this have for our grand strategy and force posture?

Denise Truscello/WireImage

Shadow Government

Facts and arguments regarding China’s military

Late last month, the front page of the Washington Post contained the kind of story that I, as a professional educator, like to see.  The piece discussed the work of Georgetown University's Asian Arms Control Project. Specifically, it chronicled the laborious effort of a couple dozen Georgetown graduate students to uncover, over the course of years, China's "underground great wall," a network of thousands of kilometers of underground tunnels constructed by the People's Liberation Army Second Artillery Corps - the same branch of the Chinese military that controls Beijing's nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles.  The students have amassed a lot of evidence, including some eye-catching pictures, of China's tunnel system.

The Georgetown project demonstrates the value of open-source basic research on the Chinese military.  Unlike the Soviet Union, which closely guarded even the most mundane bits of information, China publishes quite a lot on its military, including voluminous information on its underground tunneling program.  The problem is that, until the Georgetown students began to document the program, few in the United States paid much attention to the fact that China has poured massive amounts of resources into underground facilities over the course of decades.  Indeed, it was not until this year's edition of the Pentagon's Congressionally mandated report on Chinese military power that China's tunneling program received official acknowledgement.

China's tunneling program is of more than academic interest, however.  It raises legitimate questions about the ability of the United States to verify the scope of Chinese military modernization, including the size of China's missile force and its nuclear arsenal.

It is that inconvenient fact that has drawn the ire of the arms control community. Over the past month, arms controllers, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the blog Arms Control Wonk have launched a series of vitriolic attacks on the Georgetown students; their professor, Phillip Karber; and that staunch member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, the Washington Post, which had the temerity to report on the students' efforts.  The Post's Ombudsman summarized the attacks - and stood by the paper's original story - yesterday.

If this were an isolated event, I wouldn't give it too much attention.  Unfortunately, it appears to part of an emerging pattern that indicates that the debate over China's military modernization is entering a new phase.  Over the past few months, I've been peripherally involved in an academic controversy that offers both similarities and contrasts to the contretemps between Georgetown and the arms control community.  The latest issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies (which I help edit), contains "Space: China's Tactical Frontier," an article by Eric Hagt and Matthew Durnin, that documents China's growing military space program and explores its implications for the United States. Hagt and Durnin's manuscript was vetted through the journal's peer review process and was deemed worthy of publication.

Like the Georgetown project, Hagt and Durnin's work has drawn a sharp response from the Union of Concerned Scientists' David Wright, who objected to the researchers' methodology and conclusions and argued that the authors overestimated China's space capabilities.  We agreed to publish the critique as well as the authors' response.

I draw a couple of conclusions from these episodes.  The first is the need for additional scholarly research on the Chinese military.  The Chinese write extensively about modern warfare, but the vast majority of their publications remain beyond the reach of all but the small number of researchers who are fluent in Mandarin. 

The second is the need for a civil scholarly debate.  The increasing modernization of the Chinese military, combined with the Obama administration's "Pacific Pivot," strongly suggests that there will be more rather than fewer controversies over Chinese military power and what it means for the United States.   The sort of ad hominem attacks that the arms control community has aimed at the Georgetown team over the past month are unbecoming and, in fact, undermine their case.  The American people deserve a real debate, not name-calling.

Feng Li/Getty Images