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Culpable Complacency & U.S. National Security Strategy

December 31, 2013

The rhyme of human events is once again cycling from arrogance in overstretch to studied complacency.  George Santayana’s famous warning that   “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is once again being ignored.  Advocates of defense budget reductions, including my friend Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center, continue to claim that we live in an “unusually secure” world.  Not only does Adams claim that we do not face existential threats, he also mistakenly asserts that the rate of civil and international wars is the lowest in measured history.  But such statements lack context and historical perspective. When history does inform such arguments, it does so only in caricature, assuming a linear version of history that marches uninterrupted toward Progress. We can wish it were so, but that does not make it so.

I fear too many of my Beltway colleagues assert as fact   what they want as desirable policy goals – namely, a peaceful world   – and then reason backwards into an interpretation of benign global security  to justify a reduced defense budget.  They dismiss all the messy complexities of predicting the future, assuming that history’s march toward Progress mitigates the risk of being dead wrong.  Being a true realist makes me wary of being complacent about the future or embracing hope as insurance against a Hobbesian world.

To be sure, we should not be apologists for Pentagon budget levels that are not sustainable.   We can agree with those informed critics (including Dr. Adams) who rightly call for more efficiency and less overhead at the Defense Department, including in the areas of compensation and health care reform.  The same reforms should be applied to the real drivers of our currently stifling national debt: our projected dramatic growth in entitlements.   Critics of Defense spending should spend half as much time uncovering poorly performing non-defense government programs and unchecked medical spending.  As a nation, we spend 12 times more on health care than security, but with far less scrutiny or demonstrable evidence of added value.

What concerns me is not that advocates of reform exist, but, rather, that they create confections about the current and projected security environment.  This misreading of history and ignoring of potential risk is used to back our way around any reasoned analysis of risks in a rush to shrink the military, especially ground forces.  I have posted my take on this dangerous illusion a while back in these pages.

A solid grasp of history should help us avoid illusions about the nature of the international system.  Writing years ago, in The Purpose of the Past, the American historian Gordon Wood observed that “Historical knowledge takes people off a roller coaster of illusions and disillusions; it levels off emotions and gives people a perspective on what is possible and, more often, what is not possible.”  As we proceed with the restructuring of our defense establishment by sequestration, we should get off the roller coaster.  Wood continues that “Americans have had almost no historical sense whatsoever; indeed, such a sense seems almost un-American.”  As we approach a new year with a new strategy, we should restore a historical mindset to the center of our worldview and look more deeply into the trends with which we are faced.

Of course, some colleagues will accuse me of being a “fear mongerer.”  They could claim that, as a career employee – in and out of uniform – of the Department of Defense, I am overly invested in threat perceptions that produce the bloated Pentagon budget.  At a recent conference at CATO one academic railed against “the pathological beliefs” and vested interests of Pentagon leaders who find the future complex and  daunting.  Given my agreement with these Pentagon leaders, I will have to plead guilty, but not to any pathological devotion to high spending — just to a realistic and historically grounded conception of national security freed from the blinders of academic ideology.

While the last decade has been statistically encouraging in terms of the reduced number of current conflicts,  from a global perspective, it is not axiomatic that the past is prologue.   Much progress has been made, but it is all at risk.  Should we  keep these trends on track, rather than interrupt the stabilizing forces of American military power that have underwritten them?  Moreover, while many global ills do not directly challenge American interests, there are a handful that do (China, Iran, North Korea and Russia).   So while the geopolitics of the last decade have been relatively restrained, threats to U.S. core interests and our allies remain.  My concern is that the future decade could be more dangerous due to many possible combinations of rising powers, nuclear proliferation, proxy wars, catastrophic terrorism, resource competition, and economic disparity.  This argument was summarily dismissed by one panelist at CATO as “specious.”   He predicted the proliferation of new democracies rather than nuclear weapons, in line with the democratic peace theory, known in modified form as the McDonald’s peace theory – which states that democracies (or countries with McDonald’s franchises) do not war against each other.  This is a dangerous misreading of the violent history of illiberal democracies and the drivers of conflict more generally.

General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, spoke recently in Los Angeles and mocked the notion that war was predictable and controllable.  “There is hubris,” he said, “in the belief that war can be controlled.  War punishes hubris. That’s actually worth remembering.”  War punishes hubris.  You can’t say it any clearer than that.   The Chairman’s own combat experience has reinforced his sense of the realities of armed conflict and the long arc of human history.  Instead of being a threat mongerer, the Chairman appears to have a realistic grasp of the past and, more importantly, is not complacent about the risks he wants to ward off.

General Dempsey’s assessment was recently reinforced by a short but a remarkably lucid essay by the historian Margaret MacMillan on the fast-approaching 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, wrote that this occasion

should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident. So we have good reason to glance over our shoulders even as we look ahead….The past cannot provide us with clear blueprints for how to act, for it offers such a multitude of lessons that it leaves us free to pick and choose among them to suit our own political and ideological inclinations. Still, if we can see past our blinders and take note of the telling parallels between then and now, the ways in which our world resembles that of a hundred years ago, history does give us valuable warnings.

MacMillan pushes back on the optimists of globalization and the modern-day Norman Angells who argue that evolution or integrated trade guarantees us peace and that war is too costly to consider. Indirectly she counters the rising degree of irrational optimism that exists today about future wars and the unbridled enthusiasm for slashing defense spending.

MacMillan goes on to find numerous analogies between the era just preceding World War I and our present circumstances.  Pulling from years of scholarship and her latest book, The War That Ended Peace, she warns “we have grown accustomed to peace as the normal state of affairs. We expect that the international community will deal with conflicts when they arise, and that they will be short-lived and easily containable. But this is not necessarily true.”

MacMillan appreciates that Peace is truly an invention of mankind’s own device, and that someone must continually work to sustain that peace.  Continuing with her comparison of the present to the last great era of globalization and presumed peace, MacMillan writes:

The most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency. Businesspeople today are like businesspeople then: too busy making money to notice the serpents flickering at the bottom of their trading screens.  Politicians are playing with nationalism just as they did 100 years ago.  China’s leaders whip up Japanophobia, using it as cover for economic reforms, while Shinzo Abe stirs Japanese nationalism for similar reasons.  India may next year elect Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who refuses to atone for a pogrom against Muslims in the state he runs and who would have his finger on the button of a potential nuclear conflict with his Muslim neighbours in Pakistan.  Vladimir Putin has been content to watch Syria rip itself apart.  And the European Union, which came together in reaction to the bloodshed of the 20th century, is looking more fractious and riven by incipient nationalism than at any point since its formation.

MacMillan is not alone amongst us so-called fear mongerers, apparently.  The editorial team at The Economist shares MacMillan’s sense of historical analogy and concerns about complacency.  They wrote that

The chances are that none of the world’s present dangers will lead to anything that compares to the horrors of 1914.  Madness, whether motivated by race, religion or tribe, usually gives ground to rational self-interest.  But when it triumphs, it leads to carnage, so to assume that reason will prevail is to be culpably complacent.

The Economist, MacMillan and General Dempsey are all reinforced by the journalist Anne Applebaum, writing recently in the Washington Post.   “We are intellectually, economically and militarily unprepared to contemplate Great Power conflict,” Applebaum concluded, “let alone engage in the hard work of renewing alliances and sharpening strategy.  But History is back, whether we want it to be or not.”

Overlooking history and the potential for geopolitical conflict is surely “culpably complacent.” This is a lesson that Washington’s revised National Security Strategy and the Pentagon’s quadrennial planning exercise need to consider.  History is a reflection of the enduring aspects of human nature.  It’s one thing to have to make conscious tradeoffs and accept risk.  It’s an entirely different matter to delude oneself about threats and challenges to stability.  The Pentagon’s policy community fortunately knows the difference.  While the United States may enjoy a preponderance of power today, it cannot afford to overlook the world’s present dangers or the possibility that madness may triumph yet again.   Complacency reflects a poor grasp of history and a low amount of  imagination.  Today’s security forecasters can look backward at a record of steady progress, but they must also face forward and embrace new dynamics and rising risks.   Rash thinking and hubris brought on huge costs in the past decade, and complacency could just as easily plague us tomorrow.  Once again the reward will be carnage and nemesis.


Frank Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University (NDU).  These comments are his own personal views and not that of NDU or the Department of Defense.  


Image: French troops crossing a destroyed bridge over the Canal du Nord, Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War

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8 thoughts on “Culpable Complacency & U.S. National Security Strategy

  1. Much as I’d love to see a vast and glorious US defence establishment cast its security blanket over the world* the US reality is really very different to this.

    In any serious conflict, and this article uses that bogeyman to scare up defence funding, the winner is not the country with the biggest army at the start, but rather the biggest industrial base.

    If you truly wanted to guarantee American security you would abolish the US Navy, Army, and Airforce, somewhat augment the Marine Corps, and spend the money saved on public education and healthcare. Money which would, in time, create a greater and wealthier body politic on which to build a military in time of need .

    In the event of serious fighting the Marines would act like the British regular army of 1914 (aka the dead little red little army) using their superior professionalism to grind the numerically superior enemy to a stalemate while the weight of industrial production shifted to a war footing.

    *Speaking as an Australian

  2. It might be worth elaborating American interests so that we can intelligently discuss what risks are posed to those interests.

    Global trade is in our interest, as is sustaining safe shipping routes. The greatest risk to addressing that is Army petulance about losing equity to the Navy.

  3. Surely there is hubris in warning about unspecified “lessons of history” without so much as a useful example except that “wars happen,” or any any specific mention of what military contingencies the U.S. should be preparing for. Surely China’s rise and challenge to the established order in Asia has numerous historical precedents but too many economic, political and other variables to be dealt with strictly as a military issue. My own list of lessons of history includes the fatal mistakes of placing confidence in unstable alliances, mindless nationalism, arms races, letting military-indusrial complexes drive decisionmaking resources allocation, and–yes–complacency.

    Sorting through all of that requires a more thoughtful response than just throwing money at the defense budget “just in case” The only existential threat to the United States is the nuclear Sword of Damocles” that still hangs over our heads.

    For the time being, it seems to me that realigning current assets and investing in cost-effective technological superiority to address the main source of geopolitical-based threat makes sense. I thought that’s what Rebalancing was all about.

    One consolation is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been so costly in blood and treasure and with so little to show for it, if at all, that this time at least, the generals aren’t so keen to prepare for the last war.

    But I haven’t seen any suggestions for defense budget cuts that threaten the rebalancing of military capability, though not necessarily increased numbers of ships and aircraft. I don’t know how much of the Army’s current strength should be maintained “just in case,” but I feel pretty confident that allowing the Army to concoct a new mission for itself in Asia is not a reasonable investment given the nature of current or foreseeably emerging new threats.

  4. As always, Frank Hoffman provides a worthy and insightful read. His use of history is both apt and bounded. The past is not necessarily prologue, and you cannot steer by your wake, but history marks the left and right bounds of our common human nature and is indicative of what we are capable of. History is our story. It encompasses great slaughter and singular sacrifice. History does not repeat in any predictable way, but human nature is resurgent. Prudence demands we be constantly vigilent against the dark side of ourselves–and history provides compelling reasons why. Or as Frank points out–complacency kills.

    I am concerned that among the ‘confections’ Frank aludes to that will supposedly ameliorate future threats is the extension of technological superiority into the indefinite future. The democratization of technology and the loss of the industrial base is making that panacea a diminishing possibility. The problem is no longer just one of technological superiority, but of increasing and potentially overwhelming adversary capacity.

    When we look at potential competitors who might resort to conflict the crux nature of the threat is likely to be a capability / capacity mismatch–think blackhawk down on a grand scale with far more technologically astute enemies.

    We have no reason to be complacent. Of course, keeping our hand out of the bee hive is also prudent. Endless winless elective wars need to be avoided. Punitive expeditions need to replace nation-building in our Range of Military Operations (ROMO) considerations.

  5. An excellent article by Frank who once again raises provocative views that should make us pause. This time he’s in concert with James Wile (Will 2014 See a Repeat of 1914?), Margaret MacMillan (The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War), and the Economist (The First World War – Look Back With Angst). We started similar discussions last week (looking at NSS and policy), and Frank’s thoughts come at a good time. Personally, I’d rather try to learn something from history then continue to repeat many of our worst mistakes.

  6. Time to recognize and better incorporate the wisdom and experience of U.S. tribal leaders as we fight–nation by nation within the nation-state context–against the forces of darkness.

  7. Looking from the outside in (as a German observing US strategy and defense spending) one can’t stop to wonder about an American obsession with shiny new toys, which is the crux of mismanagement in American defense spending.

    There are several issues at hand here.

    1.)The American Industrial Base:
    In the last 20 years, the American industrial base has been thoroughly eroded. Much has been outsourced overseas. What remains in the US are companies that can hardly compete in the internation field, be it on price or on quality (I am thinking of the LCS compared to the new ship for the Danish navy, which has been scrutinized in WarOnTheRocks, and also of American automobile manufacturers that ignored the trend to more fuel efficient cars and were crushed because of that). The new startup trend in the US surely gives the economy a much needed boost, but most of these startups are in the software realm, hardly of any use if you need guns and ships and tanks.
    Worse still is the dependency on other countries. In WWII the US had a huge economic base that could (and was) mobilized. If not successful in the field, the Axis powers could have been crushed by sheer numerical superiority (in machines as well as men). This is hardly the case anymore.
    China seems to be the favorite adversary for many American analysts. We can talk about A2/AD strategies as much as we want. But I wonder when the first analysts are going to talk about economics. The US plain and simply depends on China and the Asia-Pacific countries. Period. Any major war would lead to a catastrophy, not only in the US, but also in Europe and the rest of the world. Add to that the fact that in the last 20 years American leaders have been very bad at convincing the public of the neccessities of war, and voila, you have a nice little cocktail.
    How long are Americans going to support a war, when the dead bodies of their loved ones arrive at home and the economy is destroyed?

    2.)Shiny Toys:
    The American defense establishment seems to be obsessed with shiny new toys. As long as it is expensive and complicated and looks cool it is game on (case in point: F-22 and F-35 programs).
    The reliability of technology is grossly overestimated. Let me tell you one thing as an aerospace engineer: the more complex it gets, the hardy it is to keep in the air. Also, it seems like people think that as long as it is expensive, as a cool name and promises features, it will lead to excellence in the field, which is simply not true.
    This goes hand in hand with a false feeling of superiority and invincibility.

    3.)Lack of Emphasis on the Infantry & Ground Combat:
    This kind of goes hand in hand with point 2 I made.
    First, this overreliance on technology leads to a lack of education in the ground combat arms. Very serious arguments are being made that with the right schooling (Ground Sign Awareness, Tracking) many IED deaths could have been prevented. Instead of investing in the education of ground combat forces, shiny new toys (that don’t work, case in point: MRAP) are being purchased.
    Secondly, it seems like many analysts think that the next major war will be a war of robots and technology. Remotely piloted airplanes will give air superiority. Shipborne and airborne missiles will wrack mayhem.
    If we consider the new US favorite opponent, China, this seems unrealistic. Not only does the US arsenal seem unadequate to engage Chinese targets from far away (compare the radius of the F-35 to Chinese shore guns), it also seems unrealistic that the US technological advantage will not be compromised.
    I firmly believe that in case of a war with China (highly unrealstic scenario, but let’s go with it) GPS will be the first thing to go out and US carrier groups will be easy targets for Chinese shore batteries.
    What happens then?

    (Please excuse any spelling mistakes, as it is still very early in Germany)