War Power, the Essential Element of National Power
Hegemony Ended? Who Will Tell the Military?
A new report issued by the U.S. Army War College, At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World, acknowledges that America has entered a "post-primacy" period in its international relationships. In this new, more competitive post-U.S. primacy era, the report states "conditions promise far-reaching impacts on U.S. national security and defence strategy." Commenting on the report, Lawrence Wilkerson concurs that the U.S. has indeed entered a period of reduced influence, but suggests this realization has come rather late:
"This has been happening since the end of the Cold War. It was quite obvious that it was going to happen because since 1972, markedly and dramatically, American power has been diminishing..."
Wilkerson goes on to say that the report is really a lament for a vanished status quo, as well as a blatant bid to ensure the free flow of cash to the military through the tried-and-true tactic of fear.
The report must be considered in the context of Donald Trump's election slogan, "Make American Great Again." MAGA anticipates this War College report - it places America's domestic decline in the context of its diminishing influence around the world. Trump, however, was less visionary than opportunistic. He ran as the first declinest presidential candidate, as noted by Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch:
"He campaigned on America’s decline, on this country’s increasing lack of exceptionality, its potential dispensability. He ran on the single word “again” - as in “make America great again” - because (the implication was) it just isn’t anymore."
America's decline provided a brilliant, if obvious, election theme for someone willing to exploit it:
In parts of the U.S., white working-class and middle-class Americans could sense that the future was no longer theirs, that their children would not have a shot at what they had had, that they themselves increasingly didn’t have a shot at what they had had. The American Dream seemed to be gaining an almost nightmarish sheen, given that the real value of the average wage of a worker hadn’t increased since the 1970s; that the costof a college education had gone through the roof and the educational debt burden for children with dreams of getting ahead was now staggering; that unions were cratering; that income inequality was at a historic high; and... well, you know the story, really you do. In essence, for them the famed American Dream seemed ever more like someone else’s trademarked property. Indispensable? Exceptional? This country? Not anymore. Not as they were experiencing it.
Trump's fascination with the military, coupled with his disdain for "soft power," may in fact hasten the pace of America's decline, and prove disastrous for the rest of us. As Engelhardt says:
"...the cancelling of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, threats against NAFTA, the undermining of NATO, the promise of protective tariffs on foreign goods (and the possible trade wars that might go with them) could go a long way toward dismantling the American global system of soft power and economic dominance as it has existed in these last decades. If such acts and others like them prove effective in the months and years to come, they will leave only one kind of power in the American global quiver: hard military power, and its handmaiden, the kind of covert power Washington, through the CIA in particular, has long specialized in. If America’s alliances crack open and its soft power becomes too angry or edgy to pass for dominant power anymore, its massive machinery of destruction will still be left, including its vast nuclear arsenal. While, in the Trump era, a drive to cut domestic spending of every sort is evident, more money is still slated to go to the military, already funded at levels not reached by combinations of other major powers."
As Trump continues to emphasize the military, as he continues to outsource his foreign policy to the Pentagon, the likely result is obvious:
Given the last 15 years of history, it’s not hard to imagine what’s likely to result from the further elevation of military power: disaster. This is especially true because Donald Trump has appointed to key positions in his administration a crew of generals who spent the last decade and a half fighting America’s catastrophic wars across the Greater Middle East. They are not only notoriously incapable of thinking outside the box about the application of military power, but faced with the crisis of failed wars and failing states, of spreading terror movements and a growing refugee crisis across that crucial region, they can evidently only imagine one solution to just about any problem: more of the same. More troops, more mini-surges, more military trainers and advisers, more air strikes, more drone strikes... more.
After a decade and a half of such thinking we already know perfectly well where this ends - in further failure, more chaos and suffering, but above all in an inability of the U.S. to effectively apply its hard power anywhere in any way that doesn’t make matters worse. Since, in addition, the Trump administration is filled with Iranophobes, including a president who has only recently fused himself to the Saudi royal family in an attempt to further isolate and undermine Iran, the possibility that a military-first version of American foreign policy will spread further is only growing.
The War College report, as Colonel Wilkerson concludes, "looks at the war power as the essential element of national power." Under the Trump regime, the report is instructive when considered in the context of Andrew Bacevich's excellent work, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. And it reminds us, one hundred years after he wrote the the now-famous phrase, Randolph Bourne's insight that "war is the health of the state" continues to explain U.S. actions abroad. As America's decline continues, though, both at home and abroad, who will tell the U.S. military its over?
On This Page The remainder of this page is given over to two important commentaries on the War College Report, the first by Colonel Wilkerson on TRNN, and the second by Nafeez Ahmed, first published in InsurgeIntelligence. The report itself -linked at the top of the page - is a read well-worth your time.
Pentagon: U.S.Empire Collapsing, So Give Us More Money
In this interview on TRNN, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson provides his insights into the War College report.
AARON MATE: A new Pentagon study explores whether U.S. hegemony is coming to an end. The U.S. army's War College's Strategic Studies Institute says, "While the U.S. remains a global political, economic, and military giant, it no longer enjoys an unassailable position versus state competitors. In brief, the status quo (that was hatched and nurtured by U.S. strategists after World War II and has for decades been the principle beat for the Pentagon) is not merely fraying, but may, in fact, be collapsing."
Well, joining me is someone who has seen the status quo from the inside. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is a former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and currently a distinguished professor at the College of William & Mary.
Colonel Wilkerson, this report is interesting, lamenting the potential collapse of the status quo. You've read the study, tell us about it.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I think it's an acknowledgement. I might say I'm rather ashamed of the Pentagon if this is the first time they've really thought about it. The Army War College is, as you pointed out, sort of the Pentagon's in-house ... the army's in-house think tank. I'm rather ashamed of them from coming to this realization so late. That's one point.
This has been happening since the end of the Cold War. It was quite obvious that it was going to happen because since 1972 markedly and dramatically American power has been diminishing for two reasons.
One, because others' power - China leading the pack if you will - has been growing. Two, because the United States power has, in fact, been diminishing. Whether it's the power of the dollar, or the power of our economy with unprecedented debt. We have a debt now that no human concoction in 5,000 years of human history has ever contemplated. I'm not even sure that we can contemplate it correctly today. Witness the Congress being able to do absolutely nothing about it.
They're lamenting the passing of their cash cow. They want to reestablish it.
We are in a situation that was quite apparent with the end of the Cold War, and certainly in the decade after the Cold War. To come to the realization that power is shifting in the world at this point is sort of a blinding flash of the obvious. I'm a little bit ashamed of the guys for taking so long to get to it.
The second point though that I make about this study is its, alarming sort of, "the sky is falling" nature with regard to what I would call what built up in the post-Cold War era. The post-World War II era, rather, during the Cold War, that being a military industrial complex and all that it has come to mean today - special interests writ large.
The fact that the military, the study at least, is lamenting the passing of this, is to say that they're lamenting the passing of their cash cow. That this war and this Cold War, and the wars that follow it and 9-11 and so forth and so on, invasion of Iraq, have all been a cash cow for the military.
They're now lamenting the passing of this cash cow. They want to reestablish it. They want to move out swiftly and reestablish all the needs in the world, and the U.S. hegemony in the world that brings that cash cow into play. That's disturbing.
Its a very professional use of one of the most powerful elements of politics - fear.
AARON MATE: Now, if this is a new epiphany for the Pentagon what do you think prompted them to come to this realization now as opposed to before? Obviously there have been many policy papers of this type in the past.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, it's a very professional use, if somewhat pedantic, of one of the most powerful elements of politics - fear. If you frighten the American people into thinking that somehow this shift of power in the world is ultimately to their disadvantage, even overwhelming to their disadvantage, rather than looking at it as something that was inevitable and it would have to be dealt with over time, and could be dealt with and managed adequately and maintain their security and their prosperity, if you on the other hand point out to them that this is extremely a dangerous development, perilous development even, existential development even, and that they need to give more money to the Pentagon, yet more billions of taxpayer dollars to the Pentagon and to the military instrument, and to Lockheed, Raytheon, and so forth and so on, then that's their cash cow.
They're afraid they're going to lose it, so you use the politics of fear to frighten the American people, to frighten their representatives in the congress. You get more money. It's that simple. There's nothing complex about this. It's too simple, as a matter of fact.
AARON MATE: That's interesting. As they lament the decline of the military industrial complex, their answer is not maybe to abandon the approach of propping it up, but actually to advocate pumping even more resources into it.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Yes, absolutely. This latest thing by the president, if the president initiated it, maybe H.R. McMaster initiated it, maybe Jim Mattis initiated it, the study of the industrial base and so forth. This is part and parcel of this.
Let's scare the American people. Let's tell them that we can't build ships that Donald Trump wants for his 350 plus ship navy because we've let our shipyards atrophy. Let's tell them that we can't build the airplanes that we might need to build because we've let that talent atrophy. Oh, Lockheed would salivate at that. Let's have more F-35s. Let's have more of these bombers the air force wants to buy that are going to be a billion dollars a piece. Let's have more of this stuff.
This is the way you frighten the American people into giving you what you want. Again, I'm ashamed of the Pentagon for letting this kind of strategic talk come out at a time when they're already so flush with cash that their slush fund, for example, is being used by the land forces, the army in particular, to feed into its readiness problems, particularly with people, and actually buttress the all-volunteer force, for example, which is a failure.
It's an ethical, moral, and physical failure, and yet we won't even talk about it. These are the real problems the military confronts, but all it wants is more money.
AARON MATE: Colonel, when you say slush fund do you mean the money that's allocated outside of the Pentagon budget that goes towards funding overseas wars?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Absolutely. The so-called "OCOO" fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations Fund, which is supposed to pay for war. It's being stolen from every which way to maintain readiness and other things. They use that also as an argument, oh, sotto voce to the congressional committees: "oh, you see why we're doing this. We're doing this because you're not giving us enough money in the appropriated system. The budget caps are killing us and so forth."
My goodness gracious. My goodness gracious. They're getting $600 billion and the National Security Complex is getting over $1 trillion, counting Department of Energy and nuclear weapons, counting veterans affairs, counting the intelligence budget, counting the "150" budget over at the State Department. They're getting over $1 trillion every year. This is nonsense. They need to use that money more wisely and this kind of strategic effort is not wisdom.
AARON MATE: I just want to underline that for people who might not be familiar with it. Those budget caps that the colonel mentions, those have been put in place by law to limit how much the U.S. can spend on things like the military. One way that's avoided is to spend money on the military through other means, like the slush fund that the colonel just explained.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Exactly. Another way to do it, of course, is to just rip, pillage, and plunder all those funds that are out there for poor people, for poverty, for other issues that confront this country, for infrastructure development, for the kinds of things we need to do to confront climate change, and so forth. You just strip those funds of money and give them to the military.
I mean, it is a zero sum game when it comes to the budget, even though we do have the hugest debt in the history of the human race.
AARON MATE: Getting back to the content of this report, there's some curious language that they use when to comes to facts. They talk about "fact inconvenient", "fact perilous", "fact toxic", suggesting perhaps that the facts are an obstacle to U.S. goals.
We're emphasizing the military instrument, but we're not emphasizing the other elements of power, which are necessary in this new world.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I think what they're trying to say there is exactly what we were talking about earlier. They're trying to use the things that are in the world today in terms of power shifts, in terms of shifting landscape that looks like it's in chaos, and in some respects, is. And, incidentally, that chaos was in large part begun by us post-Cold War when we started exercising our hegemony - particularly under George W. Bush - in ways that were inimical to the interest of so many other people in the world. They started to push back.
They're talking about all these things being in essence things that build and build to the disinterest on the United States, even to the danger of the United States. Having more or less pointed out that during ... This is a republican mantra, but it comes from the Army War College in this case, having built on such inadequacies as they think they were of the Obama administration, which tried I think somewhat incoherently at first but towards the end fairly coherently to understand what was happening, understand the power shift that was taking place, and began to accommodate it with instruments of national power other than the military, which is the way you deal with power changes like this.
You can't go around the world bashing everybody and think that that's going to be what keeps you in prosperity and in security. You can't do that. You've got to use your other instruments of national power. What the military sees is that if that is the case then that money's going to come away from the military to do these other things that you need to do.
Contrary to that viewpoint, of course Donald Trump is stripping the State Department of millions of dollars and essentially giving the Defense Department more money. There's not a direct exchange there, but he's reversed what President Obama and Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton set up in the beginning, which was a recognition by both departments that diplomacy was not getting enough money. The military needed to share in the exchange as it were, that is to say some more money needed to go to State.
Trump has reversed that, put more money in the military very, very aggressively, so put more money in the miliary and striped State of some of its billions. We're emphasizing the military instrument, but we're not emphasizing the other elements of power, which are necessary in this new world.
The military wants that to continue apparently, and wants to even deepen the divide between the other instruments and its own. That's bureaucratically understandable, but it's not very healthy for the country.
AARON MATE: Finally, Colonel, we know from internal planners, like those who wrote this piece, that they see emerging states like China as among the threats to U.S. hegemony. I'm wondering, though, when it comes to those who are on the inside, how they regard global grassroots movements? I'm thinking of the Arab Spring especially. Does that factor at all into their conception of what challenges U.S. power?
The military with this report from the Army War College is just flowing right into that special interest problem (military-industrial complex) and making themselves a part of it.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Yeah, it's one of those stack facts that gives them fright. Fright not so much for the very aspect of the danger presented by the Arab Spring, for example, but because something else with regard to national power might be called upon to deal with that rather than the military. If that's the case, you're going to lose money.
Let's look at North Korea for just a minute. North Korea could be solved probably in 18 months. How would you go about solving it? You'd go about solving it by recognizing. You'd have empathy. You'd recognize what Pyongyang's major concerns are. Don't talk about the regime for a minute or two. I know it's a terrible regime. It's an evil regime. It's a criminal regime. Forget that for a minute.
You say, "Okay, let me see what I think about Kim Jong-un. Why is he really possessed of a nuclear weapon? Why did his predecessor develop a nuclear weapon?" It's clear. Because of the U.S. presence, exercise, training, and so forth on the Korean Peninsula. Well, if that presence is not really all that essential, isn't that negotiable? Isn't that what North Korea wants?
In a 18 month period with real negotiations starting with, say, trading exercises of U.S. forces on the peninsula, and a cessation there too for, let's say, a cessation of ballistic missile testing, which I believe is very feasible, you could get that to happen. You could begin a negotiating process that at the end you would have South Korea fully capable of defending itself, and the U.S. able to augment that defense if it needed to but not visibly present on the peninsula 24/7 and not exercising and training and frightening North Korea.
You would have North Korea not doing some of the things that it's doing today. With that start, you could probably work out a modis vivendi that the South Koreans could then flow into over time and probably bring about a unification of the peninsula with Seoul as the capital, not Pyongyang.
Now, let's say who doesn't want that to happen. We're always talking about the Chinese not wanting that to happen. That's probably true because they don't want 70 plus million Koreans beavering away on their border the way the Koreans do, as opposed to 47 million. They're perfectly happy with a basket case case between those 50 million or so South Koreans who are really economically successful and those others in the north who aren't.
The United States is opposed to unification, too. The United States doesn't want unification because it doesn't want a country of 70 plus million Koreans beavering away and being an economic powerhouse contending with Japan and so forth without a U.S. presence there to sort of temper them from time to time.
We've got to back up and look at this entirely differently than we have for the last 50 years or so if we want to make progress. That's what I mean by taking a different approach to some of these problems. You notice that approach does not require the military, except in the background.
What have you just done? You've threatened the United States army four-star command on the Korean Peninsula, and by implication you've threatened the navy four-star command in Honolulu because that's a sub-unified command in Korean of that command. So, you've threatened two of the fiefdoms for four-stars in the military complex. You don't want to do that because when you do that you get the military as one of your opponents.
That's the kind of thing I'm talking about goes into this report is the defense of the status quo, and it's a defense of the status quo in a way that says not only do we need to maintain that status quo, we need to beef it up. What that means is more money to the military.
Look at what else you're threatening. You're threatening Lockheed Martin and Raytheon and the military industrial complex who want to sell that billion of dollars of high altitude missile defense to South Korea. You're threatening that in Eastern Europe, in everywhere else that those people are selling that kind of weaponry at those kinds of dollars. This is a real special interest problem. The military with this report from the Army War College is just flowing right into that special interest problem and making themselves a part of it.
AARON MATE: Colonel, I've mentioned this a few times on The Real News, but there was news recently from CNBC that defense stocks in the U.S. have hit an all-time high. One of the reasons they cited was tensions with North Korea, as we've been discussing, and also NATO tensions with Russia.
The Chinese are not looking for war, they're looking to beat us economically.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Absolutely, and ultimately South China Sea and China. Let's come back to China for just a moment. You mentioned it a moment ago and I just wanted to elaborated on it a little bit with regard to what I just said about North Korea because China's a much bigger threat in the long term to the United States' interest.
China's strategy, clear strategy, is not to go to war with the United States. That's the last thing they want. Now, the Politburo might have some trouble as it gets richer and richer and gives some of that richness to the military, to the PLA; they may have more and more trouble controlling them, and that's a problem to worry about. But right now the leadership in Beijing does not want a war with the United States because it fully believes - and to this point their strategy looks like they're right - that in terms of "beating the United States," economically is the way to do it.
That means ultimately replacing the dollar with some other currency, the Yuan would be really nice, the Chinese currency. Some other currency, some other mechanism might replace it, too, taking a lot of power away from the U.S. economy. That's the Chinese strategy. The Chinese are in Iran right now. The Chinese are making great friends of the Persians. They are building infrastructure. They just ran a standard locomotive, diesel locomotive, from Shanghai to Iran. Yes, it's in Asia. We forget that all the time. We call it the Middle East. It's Southwest Asia.
They are going to build a high-speed network that will cut that time by about two-thirds. They're going to be able to go from Shanghai to Iran in just a few hours! This is incredible. They're building rail networks that will connect the Iranian gas and oil fields and everything else in commerce terms in Iran with Turkey and on into Europe, too, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and so forth.
This is the Chinese strategy. The Chinese are not interested in war. They only have their military instruments to protect these commercial routes. That's one reason the military instruments are changing their nature a little bit, because they're looking more and more like our own in the 50s, 60s, and 70s when we wanted to protect our commercial routes and we had a military to do that.
The Chinese are not looking for war, they're looking to beat us economically. They think that's a fair game. That's how we should be competing with China on our own part. Not militarily, but economically. If we don't get our economic act together, we can forget our military anyway because you can't have a military very long if you can't pay for it.
AARON MATE: Colonel, as we wrap, I wanted to raise just one more point on the topic of North Korea and their thinking about nuclear weapons that you were discussing before. It's an issue that we've actually discussed before on The Real News, but the North Korean regime in its dealings with the U.S. can look to previous models, and it has it's being reported.
They could look to Iraq, where Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction and he got invaded by the U.S. They can look to Libya, where Gaddafi did have weapons of mass destruction. He gave them up to the U.S. and then he got also bombed, invaded, and executed, which certainly goes into the thinking right now of North Korea.
This study looks at the war power as the essential element of national power.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Don't think that calculus doesn't play in the minds of the leaders in Tehran also, and doesn't, for that matter, play sometimes rather perniciously in the minds of the leaders in Washington, that Iran getting a nuclear weapon, or even looking like it's going to get a nuclear weapon, will put them in the same boat as Kim Jong-un. That is to say U.S. would never contemplate an invasion because they might use nuclear weapons on them.
However preposterous that calculation is, because deterrents still works, it nonetheless plays a part in our thinking and also in the thinking in Tehran. When I say preposterous, just think about this for a moment. The chief of staff of the army said this, I believe today or yesterday: If North Korea were to do anything untoward, even if it were to shoot, for example, a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile at Japan or Korea, or at the United States, if they develop that range, they'd disappear from the face of the earth.
The American president would have no choice. If a nuclear weapon went off in California or if it went off in Tokyo, or it went off anywhere in that area where we have allies, and it went off in an ally's territory, Pyongyang would disappear. North Korea would disappear. That's the reality of it.
The first objective of Kim Jong-un and his generals is to stay in power, so why would they commit suicide? Deterrence works, but both sides, and particularly the United States - and the study is a reflection of that - plays this game of creating these fears so that they can get more money, creating the politics of fear so that they can continue to draw on the taxpayer purse and continue to get the things they want. That's not the way we should be running this country. It's not the way we should be running the world, for that matter.
The way we should be doing it is based on economics and finance and diplomacy and so forth, bringing the pressures that are necessary to bear where they're necessary. Doing things in a way that precludes war, not looks at it as the end all and be all. That's what this study looks at ultimately. You have to conclude that. It looks at the war power as the essential element of national power. It says that war power needs to be better funded. That is nonsense.
As Eisenhower said for eight years of his administration, "God help the United States when anybody sits in this oval office who doesn't understand the military the way I do."
An interview of Lawrence Wilkerson by Aaron Mate on The Real News Network
Pentagon Study Declares American Empire is 'Collapsing'
by Nafeez Ahmed...
An extraordinary new study by the The United States Army War College has concluded that the U.S.-backed international order established after World War II is “fraying” and may even be “collapsing”, leading the United States to lose its position of “primacy” in world affairs.
The solution proposed to protect U.S. power in this new “post-primacy” environment is, however, more of the same: more surveillance, more propaganda (“strategic manipulation of perceptions”) and more military expansionism.
The document concludes that the world has entered a fundamentally new phase of transformation in which U.S. power is in decline, international order is unravelling, and the authority of governments everywhere is crumbling. Having lost its past status of “pre-eminence”, the U.S. now inhabits a dangerous, unpredictable “post-primacy” world, whose defining feature is “resistance to authority”.
Danger comes not just from great power rivals like Russia and China, both portrayed as rapidly growing threats to American interests, but also from the increasing risk of “Arab Spring”-style events. These will erupt not just in the Middle East, but all over the world, potentially undermining trust in incumbent governments for the foreseeable future.
The report, based on a year-long intensive research process involving consultation with key agencies across the Department of Defense and U.S. Army, calls for the U.S. government to invest in more surveillance, better propaganda through “strategic manipulation” of public opinion, and a “wider and more flexible” U.S. military. The report was published in June by the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute to evaluate the DoD’s approach to risk assessment at all levels of Pentagon policy planning. The study was supported and sponsored by the U.S. Army’s Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate; the Joint Staff, J5 (Strategy and Policy Branch); the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development; and the Army Study Program Management Office.
Collapse “While the United States remains a global political, economic, and military giant, it no longer enjoys an unassailable position versus state competitors,” the report laments. “In brief, the status quo that was hatched and nurtured by U.S. strategists after World War II and has for decades been the principal ‘beat’ for DoD is not merely fraying but may, in fact, be collapsing.” The study describes the essentially imperial nature of this order as being underpinned by American dominance, with the U.S. and its allies literally “dictating” its terms to further their own interests:
“The order and its constituent parts, first emerged from World War II, were transformed to a unipolar system with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and have by-and-large been dominated by the United States and its major Western and Asian allies since. Status quo forces collectively are comfortable with their dominant role in dictating the terms of international security outcomes and resist the emergence of rival centers of power and authority.”
But this era when the U.S. and its allies could simply get their way is over. Observing that U.S. officials “naturally feel an obligation to preserve the U.S. global position within a favorable international order,” the report concludes that this “rules-based global order that the United States built and sustained for 7 decades is under enormous stress.”
The report provides a detailed breakdown of how the DoD perceives this order to be rapidly unravelling, with the Pentagon being increasingly outpaced by world events. Warning that “global events will happen faster than DoD is currently equipped to handle”, the study concludes that the U.S. “can no longer count on the unassailable position of dominance, supremacy, or pre-eminence it enjoyed for the 20-plus years after the fall of the Soviet Union.”
So weakened is U.S. power, that it can no longer even “automatically generate consistent and sustained local military superiority at range.” It’s not just U.S. power that is in decline. The U.S. Army War College study concludes that:
“[A]ll states and traditional political authority structures are under increasing pressure from endogenous and exogenous forces… The fracturing of the post-Cold War global system is accompanied by the internal fraying in the political, social, and economic fabric of practically all states.”But, the document says, this should not be seen as defeatism, but rather a “wakeup call”. If nothing is done to adapt to this “post-primacy” environment, the complexity and speed of world events will “increasingly defy [DoD’s] current strategy, planning, and risk assessment conventions and biases.”
Defending the “status quo” Top on the list of forces that have knocked the U.S. off its position of global “pre-eminence”, says the report, are the role of competing powers - major rivals like Russia and China, as well as smaller players like Iran and North Korea.
The document is particularly candid in setting out why the U.S. sees these countries as threats - not so much because of tangible military or security issues, but mainly because their pursuit of their own legitimate national interests is, in itself, seen as undermining American dominance.
Russia and China are described as “revisionist forces” who benefit from the U.S.-dominated international order, but who dare to “seek a new distribution of power and authority commensurate with their emergence as legitimate rivals to U.S. dominance.” Russia and China, the analysts say, “are engaged in a deliberate program to demonstrate the limits of U.S. authority, will, reach, influence, and impact.”
The premise of this conclusion is that the U.S.-backed “status quo” international order is fundamentally “favorable” for the interests of the U.S. and its allies. Any effort to make global order also work “favorably” for anyone else is automatically seen as a threat to U.S. power and interests.
Thus, Russia and China “seek to reorder their position in the existing status quo in ways that - at a minimum - create more favorable circumstances for pursuit of their core objectives.” At first glance there seems nothing particularly wrong about this. So the analysts emphasize that “a more maximalist perspective sees them pursuing advantage at the direct expense of the United States and its principal Western and Asian allies.” Most conspicuous of all, there is little substantiation in the document of how Russia and China pose a meaningful threat to American national security.
The chief challenge is that they “are bent on revising the contemporary status quo” through the use of “gray zone” techniques, involving “means and methods falling far short of unambiguous or open provocation and conflict”. Such “murkier, less obvious forms of state-based aggression”, despite falling short of actual violence, are condemned - but then, losing any sense of moral high-ground, the Pentagon study advocates that the U.S. itself should “go gray or go home” to ensure U.S. influence.
The document also sets out the real reasons that the U.S. is hostile to “revolutionary forces” like Iran and North Korea: they pose fundamental obstacles to U.S. imperial influence in those regions. They are:
“… neither the products of, nor are they satisfied with, the contemporary order… At a minimum, they intend to destroy the reach of the U.S.-led order into what they perceive to be their legitimate sphere of influence. They are also resolved to replace that order locally with a new rule set dictated by them.”
Far from insisting, as the U.S. government does officially, that Iran and North Korea pose as nuclear threats, the document instead insists they are considered problematic for the expansion of the “U.S.-led order.”
Losing the propaganda war Amidst the challenge posed by these competing powers, the Pentagon study emphasizes the threat from non-state forces undermining the “U.S.-led order” in different ways, primarily through information. The “hyper-connectivity and weaponization of information, disinformation, and disaffection”, the study team observes, is leading to the uncontrolled spread of information. The upshot is that the Pentagon faces the “inevitable elimination of secrecy and operational security”.
“Wide uncontrolled access to technology that most now take for granted is rapidly undermining prior advantages of discrete, secret, or covert intentions, actions, or operations… In the end, senior defense leaders should assume that all defense-related activity from minor tactical movements to major military operations would occur completely in the open from this point forward.”
This information revolution, in turn, is leading to the “generalized disintegration of traditional authority structures… fueled, and/or accelerated by hyperconnectivity and the obvious decay and potential failure of the post-Cold War status quo.”
Civil unrest Highlighting the threat posed by groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, the study also points to “leaderless instability (e.g., Arab Spring)” as a major driver of “a generalized erosion or dissolution of traditional authority structures.”
The document hints that such populist civil unrest is likely to become prominent in Western homelands, including inside the United States.
“To date, U.S. strategists have been fixated on this trend in the greater Middle East. However, the same forces at work there are similarly eroding the reach and authority of governments worldwide… it would be unwise not to recognize that they will mutate, metastasize, and manifest differently over time.”
The U.S. homeland is flagged-up as being especially vulnerable to the breakdown of “traditional authority structures”:
“The United States and its population are increasingly exposed to substantial harm and an erosion of security from individuals and small groups of motivated actors, leveraging the confluence of hyperconnectivity, fear, and increased vulnerability to sow disorder and uncertainty. This intensely disorienting and dislocating form of resistance to authority arrives via physical, virtual, and psychological violence and can create effects that appear substantially out of proportion to the origin and physical size or scale of the proximate hazard or threat.”
There is little reflection, however, on the role of the US government itself in fomenting such endemic distrust, through its own policies.
Bad facts Among the most dangerous drivers of this risk of civil unrest and mass destabilization, the document asserts, are different categories of fact. Apart from the obvious “fact-free”, defined as information that undermines “objective truth”, the other categories include actual truths that, however, are damaging to America’s global reputation.
“Fact-inconvenient” information consists of the exposure of “details that, by implication, undermine legitimate authority and erode the relationships between governments and the governed” - facts, for instance, that reveal how government policy is corrupt, incompetent or undemocratic.
“Fact-perilous” information refers basically to national security leaks from whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, “exposing highly classified, sensitive, or proprietary information that can be used to accelerate a real loss of tactical, operational, or strategic advantage.”
“Fact-toxic” information pertains to actual truths which, the document complains, are “exposed in the absence of context”, and therefore poison “important political discourse.” Such information is seen as being most potent in triggering outbreaks of civil unrest, because it:
“… fatally weakens foundational security at an international, regional, national, or personal level. Indeed, fact-toxicexposures are those likeliest to trigger viral or contagious insecurity across or within borders and between or among peoples.”
In short, the U.S. Army War College study team believe that the spread of ‘facts’ challenging the legitimacy of American empire is a major driver of its decline: not the actual behavior of the empire which such facts point to.
Mass surveillance and psychological warfare The Pentagon study therefore comes up with two solutions to the information threat. The first is to make better use of U.S. mass surveillance capabilities, which are described as “the largest and most sophisticated and integrated intelligence complex in world.” The U.S. can “generate insight faster and more reliably than its competitors can, if it chooses to do so”. Combined with its “military forward presence and power projection”, the U.S. is in “an enviable position of strength.”
Supposedly, though, the problem is that the U.S. does not make full use of this potential strength:
“That strength, however, is only as durable as the United States’ willingness to see and employ it to its advantage. To the extent that the United States and its defense enterprise are seen to lead, others will follow…”
The document also criticizes U.S. strategies for focusing too much on trying to defend against foreign efforts to penetrate or disrupt U.S. intelligence, at the expense of “the purposeful exploitation of the same architecture for the strategic manipulation of perceptions and its attendant influence on political and security outcomes.” Pentagon officials need to simply accept, therefore, that:
“… the U.S. homeland, individual American citizens, and U.S. public opinion and perceptions will increasingly become battlefields.”
Military supremacy Having mourned the loss of U.S. primacy, the Pentagon report sees expanding the U.S. military as the only option. The bipartisan consensus on military supremacism, however, is not enough. The document demands a military force so powerful it can preserve “maximum freedom of action”, and allow the U.S. to “dictate or hold significant sway over outcomes in international disputes.”
One would be hard-pressed to find a clearer statement of imperial intent in any U.S. Army document:
“While as a rule, U.S. leaders of both political parties have consistently committed to the maintenance of U.S. military superiority over all potential state rivals, the post-primacy reality demands a wider and more flexible military force that can generate advantage and options across the broadest possible range of military demands. To U.S. political leadership, maintenance of military advantage preserves maximum freedom of action… Finally, it allows U.S. decision-makers the opportunity to dictate or hold significant sway over outcomes in international disputes in the shadow of significant U.S. military capability and the implied promise of unacceptable consequences in the event that capability is unleashed.”
Once again, military power is essentially depicted as a tool for the U.S. to force, threaten and cajole other countries into submission to U.S. demands. The very concept of ‘defence’ is thus re-framed as the capacity to use overwhelming military might to get one’s way - anything which undermines this capacity ends up automatically appearing as a threat that deserves to be attacked.
Empire of capital Accordingly, a core goal of this military expansionism is ensuring that the United States and its international partners have “unimpeded access to air, sea, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum in order to underwrite their security and prosperity”. This also means that the U.S. must retain the ability to physically access any region it wants, whenever it wants:
“Failure of or limitations on the ability of the United States to enter and operate within key regions of the world, for example, undermine both U.S. and partner security.”
The U.S. thus must try to minimize any “purposeful, malevolent, or incidental interruption of access to the commons, as well as critical regions, resources, and markets.” Without ever referring directly to ‘capitalism’, the document eliminates any ambiguity about how the Pentagon sees this new era of “Persistent Conflict 2.0”:
“… some are fighting globalization and globalization is also actively fighting back. Combined, all of these forces are rending at the fabric of security and stable governance that all states aspire to and rely on for survival.”
This is a war, then, between US-led capitalist globalization, and anyone who resists it.
And to win it, the document puts forward a combination of strategies: consolidating the U.S. intelligence complex and using it more ruthlessly; intensifying mass surveillance and propaganda to manipulate popular opinion; expanding U.S. military clout to ensure access to “strategic regions, markets, and resources”.
Even so, the overarching goal is somewhat more modest — to prevent the U.S.-led order from collapsing further: “…. while the favorable U.S.-dominated status quo is under significant internal and external pressure, adapted American power can help to forestall or even reverse outright failure in the most critical regions”. The hope is that the U.S. will be able to fashion “a remodeled but nonetheless still favorable post-primacy international order.”
Narcissism Like all U.S. Army War College publications, the document states that it does not necessarily represent the official position of the U.S. Army or DoD. While this caveat means that its findings cannot be taken to formally represent the U.S. government, the document does also admit that it represents “the collective wisdom” of the numerous officials consulted.
In that sense, the document is a uniquely insightful window into the mind of the Pentagon, and how embarrassingly limited its cognitive scope really is. And this in turn reveals not only why the Pentagon’s approach is bound to make things worse, but also what an alternative more productive approach might look like.
Launched in June 2016 and completed in April 2017, the U.S. Army War College research project involved extensive consultation with officials across the Pentagon, including representatives of the joint and service staffs, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM); U.S. Forces, Japan (USFJ), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the National Intelligence Council, U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), and U.S. Army Pacific [USARPAC] and Pacific Fleet [PACFLT]).
The study team also consulted with a handful of American think-tanks of a somewhat neoconservative persuasion: the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the RAND Corporation, and the Institute for the Study of War.
No wonder, then, that its findings are so myopic. But what else would you expect from a research process so deeply narcissistic, that it involves little more than talking to yourself? Is it any wonder that the solutions offered represent an echo chamber calling to amplify precisely the same policies that have contributed to the destabilization of U.S. power?
A large body of data demonstrates that the escalating risks to U.S. power have come not from outside U.S. power, but from the very manner in which U.S. power has operated. The breakdown of the U.S.-led international order, from this perspective, is happening as a direct consequence of deep-seated flaws in the structure, values and vision of that order.
In this context, the study’s conclusions are less a reflection of the actual state of the world, than of the way the Pentagon sees itself and the world. Indeed, most telling of all is the document’s utter inability to recognize the role of the Pentagon itself in systematically pursuing a wide range of policies over the last several decades which have contributed directly to the very instability it now wants to defend against.
The Pentagon frames itself as existing outside the Hobbesian turmoil that it conveniently projects onto the world - the result is a monumental and convenient rejection of any sense of responsibility for what happens in the world.
In this sense, the document is a powerful illustration of the self-limiting failure of conventional risk-assessment approaches. What is needed instead is a systems-oriented approach based on evaluating not just the Pentagon’s internal beliefs about the drivers of risk - but engaging with independent scientific evidence about those drivers to test the extent to which those beliefs withstand rigorous scrutiny.
Such an approach could open the door to a very different scenario to the one recommended by this document, on based on a willingness to actually look in the mirror. And that, in turn, might open up the opportunity for Pentagon officials to imagine alternative policies with a real chance of actually working, rather than reinforcing the same stale, failed strategies of the past.
It is no surprise then that even the Pentagon’s apparent conviction in the inexorable decline of U.S. power could well be overblown. According to Dr. Sean Starrs of MIT’s Center for International Studies, a true picture of U.S. power cannot be determined solely from national accounts. We have to look at the accounts of transnational corporations.
Starrs shows that American transnational corporations are vastly more powerful than their competitors. His data suggests that American economic supremacism remains at an all-time high, and still unchallenged even by an economic powerhouse like China.
This does not necessarily discredit the Pentagon’s emerging recognition that U.S. imperial power faces a new era of decline and unprecedented volatility. But it does suggest that the Pentagon’s sense of U.S. global pre-eminence is very much bound up with its capacity to project American capitalism globally.
As geopolitical rivals agitate against U.S. economic reach, and as new movements emerge hoping to undermine American “unimpeded access” to global resources and markets, what’s clear is that DoD officials see anything which competes with or undermines American capitalism as a clear and present danger.
But nothing put forward in this document will actually contribute to slowing the decline of U.S. power. On the contrary, the Pentagon study’s recommendations call for an intensification of the very imperial policies that futurist Professor Johan Galtung, who accurately forecasted the demise of the USSR, predicts will accelerate the “collapse of the U.S. empire” by around 2020.
As we move deeper into the “post-primacy” era, the more meaningful question for people, governments, civil society and industry is this: as the empire falls, lashing out in its death throes, what comes after?
Written by Nafeez Ahmed, first published in InsurgeIntelligence, July 17, 2017