Culpable Complacency & U.S. National Security Strategy


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