US Security Analysts Tackle Shape-Shifting Threats With… More of the Same

Yves here. It’s not at all a good sign that it was the US armed services, in the early 2000s, that did scenario planning on how global warming would be geopolitically destabilizing. For instance, the analysts’ reports discusses how rising sea levels and falling agricultural productivity would lead to mass migration out of Bangladesh. Yet the hollowing out of state operational capacity continued….save for the military/security apparatus. And we’ve seen in the Middle East that they don’t see nation building as part of their job and accordingly aren’t terribly competent at it.

In other words, the people nominally in charge showed their true colors a long time ago. They are not even pretending to minimize damage to as many people as possible. The emphasis on armed forces and policing confirms that the focus is on the powerful and connected protecting their, and the hell with everyone else.

By Paul Rogers, professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy’s international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is ‘Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins‘ (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows ‘Why We’re Losing the War on Terror‘ (Polity, 2007), and ‘Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century‘ (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers Originally published at openDemocracy

In 1993, President Clinton’s newly appointed CIA director, James Woolsey, described the post-Cold War security environment and the collapse of the Soviet bloc as the United States slaying the dragon and being left in a jungle inhabited by poisonous snakes.

Throughout the 1990s, the United States duly reconfigured its huge military power away from heavy armour, anti-submarine forces and other Cold War elements and towards expeditionary warfare, special forces, stand-off weapons and rapid deployment, all useful for fighting small wars in far-off places. What was not expected was that those “snakes” could hit both the metropolis and the centre of military power, which partly explains the rush to large-scale war after 9/11.

From his own perspective, Woolsey may have been right in seeing a radically changed world but he, as well as many throughout the West, were decidedly wrong in thinking that those they considered jungle adversaries would easily succumb to Western military power. After all, as the US and NATO prepare to exit Afghanistan, this is only one of four recent failed wars – along with Libya, Iraq and the more recent four-year air war against Isis.

Now, nearly 30 years later, there is the risk of the wheel being reinvented. The US Directorate of National Intelligence recently published a detailed analysis of the state of international insecurity as it is now and as it will evolve in the coming decades.

In one sense, much of it will likely strike a chord with openDemocracy readers, as it presents a picture of a divided, environmentally constrained and volatile world, but what is unclear is whether the US has any new solutions. Will it just be business as usual, with yet more failures to come?

The report, ‘Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World’, is one of a four-yearly series from the Strategic Futures Group, which is part of the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence. This edition of the forecasting report looks ahead to the next two decades. It is certainly far superior to the UK’s ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’, that was published last month. However, sadly that is not saying much.

The Washington Post summarised the gloomy nature of the ‘Global Trends 2040’ report’s findings: “Looking over the time horizon, it finds a world unsettled by the coronavirus pandemic, the ravages of climate change – which will propel mass migration – and a widening gap between what people demand from their leaders and what they can actually deliver.”

John Mecklin, editor-in-chief of the non-profit media organisation, ‘The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’, compared it with the Bulletin’s annual ‘Doomsday Clock’, currently as close to midnight as it’s ever been, even at the height of the Cold War.

He makes the valid point that: “The authors of the report, which does not represent official US policy, describe the pandemic as a preview of crises to come. It has been a globally destabilising event – the council called it ‘the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II’ – that ‘has reminded the world of its fragility’ and ‘shaken long-held assumptions’ about how well governments and institutions could respond to a catastrophe.”

Fragmented Economics

The 156-page report covers a wide range of issues, including demographic trends, increases in migratory pressures and technology changes, as well as emphasising the risks of climate breakdown. On economic trends, it points to a more fragmented trading environment, rising governmental debt, employment challenges and increasing corporate power. At the state level, it focuses particularly on more strained relationships between societies and their governments, as if accentuating the recent rise of many populist trends in politics.

Overall, a picture emerges of a more volatile and uncertain world, but the authors have little to offer in the way of new answers. The chances, therefore, are that the responses will be all too similar to the post-9/11 world, with military capabilities to the fore. This is made even more likely as the report fails to get to grips with two basic elements of the global predicament.

One is that there is no recognition of the fact that the dominant, neoliberal economic culture is not fit for purpose and is hastening the fracturing of an increasingly divided and marginalised society. The idea of marginalisation is certainly there in the analysis, but the intelligence culture simply does not recognise the neoliberal failure at the root of so much of it.

The other, related not only to the intelligence culture but to the much wider security culture embedded in the military-industrial complex, is that responses to security challenges are almost always of the military kind.

In reality, preventing the instability and conflicts implicit in the report requires early action that rarely has anything to do with the military, being concerned much more with the need for a progressive economic system that incorporates accelerated moves towards zero-carbon economies.

This is not to decry much of the analysis in the report, which does provide food for thought on many relevant issues. The trouble is that it only goes halfway, and so it appears that readers, and society at large, have to be prepared to do the rest.

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  1. duffolonious

    Makes sense to me, for example, as much as I find Pat Lang insightful on the Middle East security situation, when it comes to the home front econ and political policy he sounds like any Chicago school undergrad. If that’s pretty much the norm than I’d be surprised to see anything else.

    All the worse that our intelligence agencies seem to be growing in power and making the need for what the Soviets did to the NKVD all the more necessary.

    1. Equitable > Equal

      ‘All the worse that our intelligence agencies seem to be growing in power’ Could be something to do with the new US obsession with putting exmilitary/ex CIA heads in positions of power, both in elected government and in private media/business. Nothing says ‘Banana republic’ to me like the creeping tendrils of military/surveillance people into more and more centers of power.

    2. vlade

      Soviets to NKVD? You mean like turning it into an official ministry?

      Soviets (and Russians) intelligence agencies wielded and wield massive amounts of power. Putin is ex-KGB (so has plenty of FSI/GRU friends and contacts). Andropov (Soviet party chair post Breznev) was KGB, and he famously fabricated claim that CIA was running Prague Spring in 1968 (hint, it wasn’t, it was too busy in Vietnam). He’s also famous for pushing Gorbachev as his sucessor, in which he failed.

      As far as I can tell, China is about the only superpower where the intelligence agencies don’t have overlarge sway, and it’s likely because the party controls its grip on the power against all comers.

      1. Synoia

        The Communist Party includes the Intelligence agencies. They are integral to the Communist Party.

  2. The Rev Kev

    If the United States slew the dragon and found themselves in a jungle inhabited by poisonous snakes, then maybe (ecologically speaking) that that dragon was keeping down those poisonous snakes. So after 30 years the US military find itself in a quandary. On one hand they want to get back to facing peer competitors like Russia & China – which means all that heavy equipment and all those lucrative contracts.

    On the other they have all those mini-expeditions to places like Iraq, Syria, etc. Probably that is why the US Special Forces have grown so huge as a stopgap solution though if any of them get themselves into trouble, things can go south fast like happened in Africa back in 2017. The real threat of course is climate change and the US Navy has found that a lot of their naval bases will be underwater before too long and the US Army and US Air Force will have their own problems as well-

    The fact remains that if the US military has not been able to win a clear victory over even inferior forces, how are they to prevail when climate chaos may see refugee swarms in the tens of millions in other countries and rampant militia bands? It may be that a lot of them will be occupied at home in any case in not only giving aid and relief to internal climate-change disaster survivors but also providing a law and order force. Any military is a blunt instrument but the problem is that they are “sexier” than a Roosevelt-style Civilian Conservation Corps working on solving environmental problems before they arise. And it is the later that is desperately needed more.

  3. Christopher Horne

    I am curious to know how the fall in the fertility rate in the US will affect the power
    of capitalism in this country. The premise of capitalism being that markets will continually
    expand because the population also continuously expands.
    For instance, in reaction to the recent anti-voting laws in Georgia, the baying of outraged
    Southern Politicians was roundly (if superficially) denied by some ‘kingpin’ corporations,
    because the corporations can read the numbers when it comes to monitoring the desires
    of their customer base. When you’re a pearl diver, you count the pearls.

  4. Lambert Strether

    > and a widening gap between what people demand from their leaders and what they can actually deliver

    In the words of the old saw: Don’t say “can’t.” Say “won’t.”

  5. David

    Well now, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is a coordination organisation for the vast US Intelligence Community, and the job of this report is to “serve as an unclassified strategic assessment on the key trends that might shape our world over the next 20 years.” That’s it. As Rogers presumably knows, you pay intelligence organisations to tell you how it is, or how they think it’s going to be. It’s not their job to tell you what to do. There will be a plethora of other organisations doing that, and they produce documents like the recent Defence and Security Review in the UK. (Comparing the two documents is pointless, by the way, for that reason). Because the Report doesn’t offer solutions, it isn’t, in fact proposing “responses to security challenges … of the military kind.” He’s made that bit up. It’s hard, in the end, to criticise a report for not doing something that it was not asked to do.

    On his two points: such reports, whilst not official, will have to go through a political vetting process, and anything that could be taken as critical of the government will be taken out. So you’re as likely to find criticism of neoliberalism in such as report as you are to find criticism of Chinese commercial policy in Africa in a similar report from Beijing. Just doesn’t happen.

    Second, there is a long-running argument about military vs. non-military solutions. Everybody recognises that the famous “underlying causes” should be addressed, but since there’s no consensus on how these causes result in specific problems, how they interact with each other or even how to tackle them, in most cases you’re left dealing with the consequences as best you can. In any event, quite a lot of the problems of the kind the Report discusses – the effect of global warming on various parts of the world, for example – don’t have a solution because it’s already too late. Curiously, I suspect the US military would largely agree with Rogers on this point. They see themselves as essentially high-tech warriors fighting conventional wars against similar opponents. They hate “nation-building” and anything which isn’t classic military operations, even if the political leadership and ambitious Generals get them involved in it. The problem, though, is what the military describe as “mission creep.” You send the military into an area to provide a secure environment, so all the non-military tasks can be carried out. Except they can’t because delivering food, opening schools, providing hospitals, combating crime etc. are too dangerous to send civilians to do, or simply unattractive to NGOs and others who don’t want to take the risk. So you wind up using the military because they know how to protect themselves. So far as I know, there’s no answer to this conundrum.

    1. Alfred

      “the famous “underlying causes” should be addressed, but since there’s no consensus on how these causes result in specific problems, how they interact with each other or even how to tackle them, ”

      When I was doing accounting work and fretting to my therapist about the perils, she said to me, “Just keep your own end clean.” If the U.S. stopped meddling for profit and power, and all this navel gazing and using crises to make even more money, we could move toward a healthier system. I will say that keeping my own end clean led to upheaval in my life, but I ended up free and healthy. Not participating was the best course.

        1. Alfred

          “Not” to was my own personal choice. You might say I had no other choice, if that’s what you are getting at.

  6. cnchal

    > . . . the intelligence culture simply does not recognise the neoliberal failure at the root of so much of it.

    It is impossible to get the intelligence culture to understand anything when their funding depends on not understanding it

    Put another way, venal to the core.

  7. Susan the other

    I liked Rogers’unequivocal point about governments today not being up to the task of the future and especially his point about neoliberalism not being fit for purpose. Strangely, this review of “intelligence” dovetails with HR McMaster’s push for “strategic competition.” In that: If the dragon we actually slay is Neoliberalism (hopefully) that will relieve societies (and therefore, with regulation, the environment) of all the unnecessary exploitation that has guided every economy in the 20th century. But at the same time we’ll have snakes: International Corporations with effective military/government authority. The MIC will get bigger. That’s OK if this evolution is toward local environmentalism which is the grassroots of global environmentalism. And the military, imo, is fit for purpose here. Somehow I think international corporations, relieved from the imperative of competition, could contribute to a reasonable form of government. With a few tweaks to make them more responsive democratically. And it is one rational way to end out-of-control neoliberal conflict. So maybe HR McMaster was on to something – it didn’t sound very democratic however. I’d like to see it called “strategic cooperation”.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I believe international corporations, relieved from the imperative of competition are called Cartels. I suppose they could contribute to a more “reasonable form of government” — “more responsive democratically” but that seems highly unlikely as well as out of character.

      1. Susan the other

        Lots of things here. Cartels, SOEs, maybe even co-ops of a sort. It will be the spirit, not the letter. And one of the things that bothers me is the deep pit we dig when we are all out there competing. Forced to compete as it stands. I’m not a fan of competition these days.

  8. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    The trend toward small, agile special operator teams began at the end of WW2 with units like the Jedburgs, Chindits, Brandenbergers, Friedenthal Special Team, Commandos, MAS X, Spetznaz and Teishin Shudan. After the war was over the Axis versions of these melded into the Fascist International, staffing terror groups like the P2 Lodge while also working freelance as spies and assassins for a variety of governments including Isreal (what better way to keep your hands ‘clean’ than to hire some Nazis to carry out your reprisals on foreign soil. Then be sure that the media repeats the refrain that ‘Isreal neither confirms nor denies.’ – hey! Win-Win!
    JFK was very enamored of the idea of commandos taking the place of costly past ham-fisted habits of ‘sending in the Marines’ to places like Honduras or Dominican Republic. Which handed the Commies a propaganda victory. Before the USSR was around, who was going to complain? The Kaiser? Thus the constant growth and media fixation on the exploits of the “Green Berets” and so on.
    Fast Forward to the post Vietnam era. Small teams of saboteurs were instrumental in America’s campaign to subvert the socialist governmwnt of Afhghanistan. Much further on, JSOC, a sort of central control systems and general staff for these groups has a global reach. Anyone take a good close look at the men who murdered Qaddafi? Those sure look like some Viking type Americans to me.
    Note also the depiction of dramatic raids by ‘special operators’ in the media. Films like Star Wars are full of small plucky and fantastically skilled killers striking deep into the heart of the evil Empire. Endless films extoll the invicibility of America’s terror squads. “You can run but you can’t hide” The Chelsea Manning/Greenwald/Assange revalations spoiled the soup for a bit. Which explains much.
    Really a lot of this has its genesis in the exploits of people like Franis Drake, ‘singeing the King of Spain’s beard’ against impossible odds.

  9. Keith Newman

    My problem with the article, as well as with David’s issue regarding “underlying causes”, is that the purpose of the US military is not to resolve particular political/military differences nor to win wars. It is to produce weapons and to destroy them, and to destroy disobedient countries. With that lens one realises that Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, etc., etc. are great successes.
    Any other viewing of the US military results in puzzlement and questions like “why can’t we win any wars, even even against barely armed cave dwellers?” Wrong question.
    Accordingly military equipment producers generate vast profits due to the limitless spending to their benefit by the US government. I note as well that the industry employs 70 % of US generals post-retirement (according to Larry Wilkerson) to help grease the wheels and to keep up the demand for new, ever more expensive weapons systems.
    Beside resulting in the slaughter of millions of innocent people this objective also runs the risk of blundering into world war more or less by mistake.

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