The Office of Net Assessment: Swept Away by a Revolution in Socio-Political Affairs?

November 5, 2013

As budget cuts sink deeper, the Pentagon is considering reorganization of its “deep think” tank, the Office of Net Assessment. The Office has been associated for its entire tenure with the unique personality of its chief and spiritual guide, Andy Marshall, a brilliant nonagenarian often compared to Yoda. Marshall, in turn, is often associated with the concept of revolutions in military affairs (RMAs). The RMA idea was born of the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s and spread to general popularity with the help of Marshall and his office.

In a time of (relative) austerity, it is surely sensible to consider trimming the defense bureaucracy and the number of reports floating unread within it. There is some degree of irony, however, in the fact that Marshall, his office, and indeed the American defense establishment writ larger are being blindsided not by one of the flashy RMAs that they theorized, but rather by a more fundamental shift in the socio-political landscape. It isn’t technology or tactics that present the biggest challenge to America’s military primacy. Rather, society’s shifting political preferences and conceptions of the role of the state are changing the way leading states prioritize their efforts, allocate their resources, and conceive their international objectives. Instead of looking for the next RMA, we should concern ourselves with the deeper revolution in socio-political affairs that will spawn it.

The RMA concept is alternatively revered and reviled and is too often oversimplified by both sides of the debate. In essence, the argument is that there have been periodic revolutions in which advances in technology, accompanied by concomitant advances in military organization and tactics that applied such technology in a highly effective manner. The militaries that adopted these revolutionary technologies, organizational paradigms, and tactics had a revolutionary advantage over their peers. The brutal audit of combat, though, tended to quickly force the wide adoption of these advances, periodically revolutionizing warfare.

When you read more deeply about the RMAs, for example in Williamson Murray and Macgregor Knox’s masterful edited volume, The Dynamics of Military Revolution: 1300 – 2050, you can see that the RMAs were much more than military revolutions. They were revolutions in socio-political affairs. Knox and Murray list:

  • The seventeenth century creation of the nation-state and the “large-scale organization of disciplined military power”
  • The French Revolution’s merging of “mass politics and warfare”
  • The Industrial Revolution and the subsequent ability to “arm, clothe, feed, pay, and move swiftly to battle” the masses unleashed by nationalism
  • The First World War, which combined the nationalistic fervor of the French Revolution with the refined legacy of the Industrial Revolution in a now-familiar pattern of modern warfare
  • And finally, the advent of nuclear weapons as the technological crown of total war

All but the last of these revolutions were more socio-political and economic than technical, though each created huge organizational, technical, and tactical changes. The military revolutions were only smaller included pieces of much larger changes. The military progression, however, cannot be extracted from the socio-political context or vice versa. As Charles Tilly famously said, war makes the state and the state makes war.

Looking at Tilly’s statement more deeply, though, we will see that military considerations are secondary, not primary. His thoughts are distilled in the essay “War-Making and State-Making as Organized Crime.” This should clue us in to the fact that, while war makes the state and the state makes war, the state has made war so that the rulers can extract more rents from the surrounding world. This is the way it started anyway. Warlords ran a protection racket, securing people from other warlords in their territory, watching over trade in their periphery, and going farther afield to dispossess other warlords of their protection rackets. As the scale of this protection racket increased, warlords became feudal lords, while kingdoms grew into empires, and eventually into nation-states with nuclear weapons. In their quest for more commerce and more rents, rulers needed larger militaries. To fund larger militaries, they needed better taxation systems, more accurate records for both tax and conscription purposes, better maps and roads—in short they needed government. Government grew because rulers needed better extractive means and better control in order to expand their spheres of influence and to deny others’ expansion. This contest was about economics for the most part: rulers’ rents from economies growing in productivity and geographic scope. Even as the power of the ruler decreased in comparison to that of the ruled, the expansive economic interests of the elites continued to drive this dynamic.

In Thucydides’ famous quote, fear, honor, and interest are the three strongest motives for conflict. Fear and honor are the wildcards of human emotion that make diplomacy and war such unpredictable things. The common thread throughout, though, has been not only interest, but economic interest. Wars have long been fought over the world’s breadbaskets and lines of communication. The Nile River Valley. The plains of Anatolia. The rich ground of the Ruhr Valley and the Arabian Peninsula. For lebensraum and co-prosperity spheres.

For millennia, the state has been a key driver and facilitator of economic development. While the state made war and war made the state, the state (much maligned today) did much more. In the words of Douglass North, in Europe “there gradually evolved a set of adaptively efficient institutions that persistently tended to lower the costs of transacting, producing, and transporting in a way that produced a continuous evolution of productivity increases in these societies.” Today’s adherents of the omniscient free market unleashed by small governments will scoff at such a notion, but it was governments that took over the spotty and difficult to enforce covenants that were used by merchant families and later guilds to lower uncertainty and transaction costs of international trade. It was governments that provided dispute mitigation, contract enforcement, and helped to generalize and standardize instruments and capital markets that enabled bolder ventures. In the long run, governments bound rulers with laws to make profitable economic transactions less uncertain and risky. Additionally, citizens called upon to pay taxes and provide service to the state demanded some accountability in return. It wasn’t just war that made the state. Human commerce made the state and the state made war at times to expand or defend its commercial claims.

It seems today that we are in much different times. We have forgotten the long historical road that got us here, leaving our thoughts about economics and conflict untethered from the context they grew in. Too often, we assume them to simply exist in a rarified and perfected state of nature completely abstracted from the human decisions that socially construct our economic, diplomatic, and military interactions.

The state still makes war and it still facilitates (or impedes) commerce. But our world system has matured to a point where that role is attenuated enough that many of us fail to see it at all. Global markets and the firms that operate in them seem to have taken on a life of their own, leaving some to argue that the state has little role to play. Let market forces do it all, they say.

In the most economically advanced countries, the state is no longer seen as having a key role in shepherding economic expansion in a geographic sense. Likewise, need for the state’s protective role is sharply diminished, terrorist threats notwithstanding. Thus, the whole apparatus that was built to extract rents, make wars, and drive commercial expansion has shifted toward a new and much questioned role: redistributing wealth or providing social insurance and a minimum standard of living and safety for its citizens. When considered against the broad sweep of history, this cannot be seen as anything but a revolutionary socio-political development, however unresolved it may be.

On the other hand, in the world’s most feeble countries, the state has never been more than a revolving shell for rentier parasites. Here, too, the logic of military and commercial conflict that once drove state development is lacking.

In essence, the question of interest has largely absconded from the purview of governments in the two economic extremes of today’s world. With the motive of interest, then, greatly diminished in these states’ calculations, we are left only with fear and honor to drive conflict. Taken in this light, it should be no surprise that the world’s most recent wars are confused, stumbling affairs.

We have left the middle out of our picture of today’s world, though. There are countries that are up and coming, following the well-worn path of state-led development. These states certainly do have economic interest, economic expansion, and all the competitive concerns thereunto pertaining squarely in their calculus. We can expect these states to approach conflict in a very different way than their contemporaries, but in one wholly in keeping with the historical record.

No matter what becomes of Andy Marshall and his Office of Net Assessment, this time of great socio-political and economic change demands that we not get too wrapped up in the technical aspects of what may or may not be forthcoming from a future revolution in military affairs. If we want to understand what is to come, our investigation would be best to start—as all RMAs have—with the changing socio-political contexts that our wars are waged in. That may help to explain some of our recent confusions and help to avoid future surprises.

After all, it is not for want of raw economic power or technological prowess that the U.S. is re-examining its role in the world and its ability to fund things like the Office of Net Assessment. No, these changes stem from much more profound shifts in the concepts that order our socio-political world.


Peter J. Munson is responsible for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation, coming to this position after his retirement from the US Marine Corps in 2013. He is a Middle East specialist with professional proficiency in Arabic. Munson is the author of two books: “War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History” and “Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.”

Photo credit: Secretary of Defense