Shadow Government

The 'Obamians' and the truth about American decline

American decline is in the news again. Now even the embarrassed Australians have joined the debate, with an awkward "clarification" of Foreign Minister Bob Carr's reported comments to Mitt Romney about how to reverse America's decline. Meanwhile yesterday President Obama's remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference continued what appears to be an election-year conversion to the anti-declinist view (more on this below) as he rejected accusations of decline and called the 21st century another "American century." Governor Romney will likely present his own take in his VFW remarks today.

All of this came to mind as I recently read Jim Mann's engaging new book The Obamians profiling the Obama administration foreign policy team. Like Mann's other books, this one is generally thoughtful, balanced, and insightful. Yet what emerges from Mann's book is an unflattering (perhaps more unflattering than the author intends) reminder of just how many strategic mistakes the Obama administration made when it first took office. Taken at face value the book portrays the combination of hubris and naiveté that consumed the Obama team during their first year in particular. Most of their signature policy initiatives from that time became strategic failures: the embrace of China around a "G-2" partnership; the support for Medvedev as a pillar of the Russia "re-set"; the ideological commitment to unconditional negotiations with the Iranian regime that prevented support for the Green Movement or tightened sanctions during a more opportune window; the failed push for Israeli-Palestinian peace based on unprecedented pressure on Israel; the belief that the war in Afghanistan could be simultaneously escalated (with a troop increase) and ended (with a politically-driven drawdown date).

Beyond these specific mistakes, what also springs from the book is the overriding sense of how President Obama and his team internalized a belief in America's decline as they sought to frame American foreign policy. This animated their worldview and became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as they consciously chose to cede American leadership to other actors on the world stage and downplayed American influence and capabilities. It is one thing to understand and act on shifts in global power balances, such as the relative decline in the EU and the relative ascendance of China and India. But it is another thing altogether to deliberately position the United States as a declining power.

In Mann's description, part of the Obama team's belief in America's diminished power came from what they saw as fiscal resource constraints. He cites Obama administration officials lamenting that, unlike the supposedly ample budgets of the Clinton years, the U.S. now has very little money to devote to national security concerns, and thus can exercise less global influence than during the 1990s. That today's national security budgets face considerable pressures is true, but Mann's account and the Obamians' attitudes gloss over two important points. First, in comparison with the allegedly halcyon days of abundant resources during the Clinton administration, the Obama national security team actually has substantially more money -- roughly twice as much -- at its disposal. For example, the FY 2000 defense budget (during Clinton's last year) was $295 billion, whereas the FY 2011 budget is almost twice that at $549 billion -- which rises to over $700 billion when the Iraq and Afghanistan accounts are included. The percentage increase in the diplomacy and development budgets, known as the "Function 150 account", over the same time span is similar. The combined budget for the State Department and USAID in FY 2000 was around $23 billion, whereas the comparable FY 2011 budget was over $48 billion (the FY 2010 budget was even higher). The international affairs budget actually hit a 30-year low in 1997, in the midst of the Clinton presidency. In short, it is easy to view history through greenback-colored lenses and assume that previous eras had abundant resources -- and forgot that the 1990s were characterized by severe reductions to both the defense and international affairs budgets from the post-Cold War "peace dividend."

Second, Mann fails to probe a primary reason why the Obama national security team feels the fiscal pinch. National security is not a budget priority of this White House, especially in comparison with domestic entitlement programs. The only line in the federal budget that the Obama administration has targeted for specific reductions is Defense, while leaving relatively untouched the main drivers of the fiscal crisis and the largest portions of the federal budget: domestic entitlement programs. What the Mann book elides is that these budget realities reflect deliberate policy choices and priorities of the White House.

Recently this White House seems to have realized that they may have prematurely bought into the decline notion -- at the very least, they have realized that it is not helpful to Obama's reelection prospects for voters to believe the administration embraces decline -- and they responded with a time-honored Beltway gambit, touting an author making the opposite argument on the president's reading list. However, this election-year conversion follows three years of damage to America's global standing, and the bills for this erosion will come due in the coming years. (Curiously, Mann portrays Secretary Clinton as differing from Obama in still affirming American preeminence).

Finally, if the United States does face the real prospect of decline, should American leaders be resigned to this fate -- or should they resolve to resist it? The picture that emerges from the Mann book is of an Obama administration that chose the former path. American power and influence is diminishing, they seem to believe, and one task of statecraft is to manage this new reality.

Perhaps so. But I recently came across a quote from an American statesman from a previous generation that displays a fierce resolve against succumbing to decline. Bill Clements served as Deputy Secretary of Defense during the Nixon and Ford Administrations from 1973-77, and he famously admonished his staff: "Let us never send the president of the United States to the conference table as the head of the second-strongest nation in the world."

This resolve is all the more remarkable when considering the historical context. During the years of Clements' Pentagon service the United States faced the most sustained erosion of its global standing since becoming a world power. It had just lost its first war in Vietnam; seen its first president ever to resign from office; was enduring the triple economic whammy of oil price shocks from the OPEC embargo, inflation, and stagnant growth; and was witnessing its foe the Soviet Union make strategic advances around the world. American decline was not just a fear, it was a fact. Yet Clements did not resign himself to merely managing this decline, but urged his staff and colleagues to work to renew American power.

This should be remembered today. Some data points of decline may be unavoidable, but how we respond is a choice.

(For those interested in further commentary on the decline debate, check out the National Intelligence Council's blog on its upcoming Global Trends 2030 report, which this week considers various angles on the question of American decline).

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Why cyberwar isn't the warfare you should worry about

News reports describing the U.S. role in developing the Stuxnet computer virus, and similar allegations about the existence of a second computer virus, named Flame, have sparked a much-needed debate of cyberwarfare and cybersecurity. President Obama contributed to the discussion last week with a call for greater attention to the latter in the Wall Street Journal.

News of Stuxnet has also, however, generated its share of hysteria. Writing in the New York Times, Columbia University's Misha Glenny painted an alarming picture:

"The ... Stuxnet computer worm ... marked a significant and dangerous turning point in the gradual militarization of the Internet ... If it continues, contemporary warfare will change fundamentally as we move into hazardous and uncharted territory ... Stuxnet has effectively fired the starting gun in a new arms race that is very likely to lead to the spread of similar and still more powerful offensive cyberweaponry across the Internet."

Glenny goes on to warn of the "frightening dangers of an uncontrolled arms race in cyberspace" where viruses "inevitably seek out and attack the networks of innocent parties." He worries that "Nobody can halt the worldwide rush to create cyberweapons" but calls for a treaty to regulate their use in peacetime.

Strong stuff. And certainly there is reason to harden U.S. infrastructure against cyber attack. In doing so, however, we should avoid cyber hysteria. Earlier this year, Thomas Rid of King's College London published an important article on cyberwarfare in The Journal of Strategic Studies (which, in the interests of full disclosure, I edit). Rid argues, persuasively in my view, that it is misleading to talk about "cyberwar" when, in fact, all politically motivated cyber attacks to date are merely more sophisticated versions of three traditional activities: sabotage, espionage, and subversion. Stuxnet clearly falls into the first category; Flame into the second.

I would take the argument a step further. Although many view cyber weapons as tools of the weak, they are likely to be most effective when wielded by the strong. That is because cyber means cannot compensate for weakness in other instruments of power. In other words, if a cyber attack by a weaker power on a stronger one fails to achieve its aim, the attacker is likely to face retaliation. In such a situation, the stronger power will possess more, and more lethal, options to retaliate -- what is known in nuclear deterrence terminology as escalation dominance. A weak power might be able to cause a stronger power some annoyance through cyber attack, but in seeking to compel an adversary through cyberwar, it would run the very real risk of devastating escalation.

In addition to escalation dominance, stronger powers, particularly stronger states, are likely to possess a greater ability to combine cyber means with other military instruments to conduct a combined-arms campaign. As a result, it may very well be that although weak powers may attempt to wage cyberwar, they are likely to face cyber weapons wielded by the strong

Because Glenny overestimates the effectiveness of cyber weapons, he also overestimates the speed and scope of their spread. There is a considerable body of work on the diffusion of innovations, and that research tends to show that new ways of war tend to spread more slowly, unevenly, and incompletely than one might think. Adam Liff of Princeton University has recently argued, again in The Journal of Strategic Studies, that the spread of cyber weapons is likely to have a relatively small influence on the frequency of war and that in some cases it may actually decrease its likelihood.

The growth, spread, and effectiveness of cyber weapons is an important subject. Although cyber-hysteria may grab headlines and sell books, it is a topic important enough to deserved focused, reasoned, and thoughtful discussion. Let the debate begin!

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images