National Security: the Ground Shifting Underneath Us
Posted by Suzanne Nossel
I spent Wednesday through Friday of last week at a national security conference at Princeton hosted by the awe-inspiring Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School and a blogger at America Abroad.
A similar group - comprised primarily of academics with a heavy quota of ex-Clinton Administration people along with a handful of current and former Bush Administration officials - met in the Spring of 2004 for a series of broad-ranging foreign policy discussions, and the changes in tenor and substance between that meeting and this one were striking. Here are a few highlights in terms of what was discussed, and what was notable for being left out of the debate:
What was in:
The Centrality of China - China was a much bigger story this year than last. I attribute this in part to developments like the exchange rate dispute, China's role in the N. Korea negotiations, and the short-lived Unocal episode, all of which have forced notice of China's rapid economic growth and voracious appetite for resources. The rough consensus seemed to be that China poses at least as serious a medium and long-term threat as Islamic terrorism, but that we need to be careful not to shoot ourselves in the foot by reacting to China in ways that undercut what ought otherwise be major economic benefits we derive from its rise. Lots of debate over China's intentions both toward the US or in shaping its global role more generally.
India's Importance - A corollary to serious concern about China's growing power and uncertain intentions is the potential for India to become an increasingly critical ally in tempering China's rise. I had always thought of India as an important regional ally, but this discussion helped highlight for me that, in the years to come, its conceivable that an alliance with India could become as important as our relationships in Europe.
The Decline of Europe - This was a more controversial point, but many of those present were convinced that Europe is near the start of an irreversible decline in global importance. Grounds for the conclusion included the defeat of the EU constitution, the EU's inability to act in concert as a major global power, the internal divisions in the alliance, economic stagnation in Germany, and the geopolitical rise of the East in general. Though the meeting was too short to fully work through the implications, if this is true, or if its simply a serious enough possibility to warrant contingency planning, the implications for US policy are profound. Bottom line is we will badly need something we lack today: a bigger bench of allies from around the world willing to step up to confront threats, rebuild failed states, spread norms like democracy and free trade, etc.
American Unipolarity Waning - Probably the most notable change in the tenor of this meeting from the 2004 session was the universal sense that America's position in the world has weakened sharply as a result of all the factors we talk about here all the time: Iraq, military over-extension, frayed alliances, lapsed moral authority, plus China's growing economic power and increasingly effective use of diplomacy and other forms of influence. Whereas a year ago, before the 2004 election, the sense seemed to be that - - depending on who was in the White House - - things might go back to Clinton-era US dominance, the sense now was that the unipolar moment may be at the beginning of its end, and that its unlikely to come back as it once was.
The Importance of Non-Political Threats - A leading expert on global pandemics and related threats attended the conference both years and made a compelling case that the threat of avian flu or similar could kill many more than any terrorist attack, and that insufficient steps are being taken to prevent and prepare for such a threat. The difference this year, which I attribute to Hurricane Katrina, was that participants understood very clearly that a "natural" disaster or epidemic could well become the next major foreign policy crisis, and that, particularly if we are as poorly prepared for it as we are today, the social and political ramifications could easily rival those of a major war.
Iraq as a Lost Cause - Iraq barely featured in the major presentations during the meeting. This was partly because of a deliberate focus on long-term issues and threats. Though opinions were divided, the majority of those I spoke to favored the US withdrawing the bulk of its troops in 2006. It was not that they disagreed on the potentially devastating consequences of Iraq becoming a failed state, nor that they had any confidence that the country would hold together. They were just convinced that the continued American presence was doing more harm than good. (Personally, having seen nothing that makes me confidence that the glaring holes in the US's strategy and approach in Iraq are being filled, I am slowly coming to the view that withdrawal may be the best among lousy options - more on that another time).
Fight Against Terror - The overall view was that - while there are numerous ways to make the battle against terror more effective - we risk overlooking other serious threats by focusing single-mindedly on terror. The view that the greatest terrorist threat may emanate not from the Mideast but from alienated Muslim youth in Europe was also voiced.
Multilateral Institutions - While there was a great emphasis on the importance of multilateral institutions - existing ones like the WTO and new ones, for example, in South Asia - the UN was scarcely mentioned during the two days. My sense was that the failure of last month's Summit to achieve more concrete results puts the UN squarely at the margins for the time being. I brought up at one point that on issues like pandemics, where the causes are not primarily political, UN forums (WHO, FAO, etc.) tend to function much better.
Anyway, lots to chew over here at DA and elsewhere. I hope we rise to the challenge of addressing some of these key agenda items.