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October 02, 2005

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.


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» Iraq Report from Political Animal
IRAQ REPORT....Suzanne Nossel spent last week in Princeton at a conference on "National Security in the 21st Century." Her report: compared to last year, attendees were more bullish on China, India, and avian flu, and more bearish on Europe, the... [Read More]

» So how did the grand stategizin' go? from Daniel W. Drezner
I was in Princeton last week to attend a conference on "National Security in the 21st Century." Over at Democracy Arsenal, former guest-blogger Suzanne Nossel provides a lengthy post outlining the general sense of the meeting. Go check it out.... [Read More]

» Relative deprivation and perceptions... from The Duck of Minerva
I wasn't at the conference, so I can't comment on the specific substance of these concerns - at least as they were expressed by participants - but it strikes me that not that much has changed since 2004 in terms of America's position in the world. Pe... [Read More]


I am surprised to see no mention of the Palestinian Israeli conflict in those deliberations. Was it talked about?

Many thanks to Suzanne for sharing with a larger audience the gist of thinking at last week's Princeton conference. (I was there for the Woodrow Wilson School 75th anniversary program that followed, where the biggest star was Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean herself.)

A couple items in Suzanne's excellent account should occasion a bit of debate, however, and I wonder if this blog's insightful commentators might want, as Suzanne proposes, to "chew over" such issues as these:

1. The premise that "China poses at least as serious a medium and long-term threat as Islamic terrorism" -- which apparently derives from an underlying assumption that we must always face a "threat." What is the nature of the supposed Chinese threat -- do we imagine that they, like Al Qaeda, they are lying in wait to launch deadly attacks against America? The issues with China are in economic policy -- there is much to be said for prudential measures to protect our industrial base and workers' incomes from collapse in the face of China's low-wage economic conquest, and there is even more to be said about getting our fiscal fundamentals back to Clinton-era order so we don't have to beg and borrow from Beijing. But the dark warnings about China as a strategic adversary seem to emanate most from those who make their living in the security domain. The real issue is how the US sets the example of superpower behavior for emerging powers -- governed by international law and institutions, or by outlaw power? (It might also be interesting to have some discussion as to whether China's rise is inexorable, or bound to hit some constraints, e.g. tensions arising from heightened inequality; 20 years ago we were all convinced Japan would overtake the US economy in a decade, and then forgotten constraints kicked in.)
Perhaps to have such a discussion taken seriously one needs to summon the specter of a Chinese security "threat," but policy thinkers need to think clearly about what's really at stake. And perhaps some will find a silver lining in a fifth of humankind escaping absolute poverty.

2. The next fifth of humankind that appears at long last also to be on track to escape absolute poverty is in India. Here the security conferees' reported consensus on viewing India as "an increasingly critical ally in tempering China's rise" is the (pardon the expression) red flag. India, it seems to me, is far more important as a model for the developing world of steady economic progress for a long poor population under (and in part thanks to) vigorous democratic governance. This is the way in which it can serve as a foil to a China still in the grip of a party that brooks no domestic challenge or dissent. Such a role as alternative model is, arguably, a more realistic goal than that of a military counterweight against China (a China that evinces no ambitions of military or political designs outside Chinese territory). And there is every reason to believe that Indians will be deeply suspicious about Washington's intentions toward them with such hints of using them as cannon fodder against China.

3. The confabulators' "scarce mention" of the United Nations probably has less to do with the "concrete results" of the September Summit than with Washington's usual indifference to the world organization. (Had any of the confabulators publicly advanced any proposals for more far-reaching measures to strengthen the U.N., or protest the Bush administration's crabbed negativism? Where were the proposals for requiring military commitments from nations that sit on the Security Council?) Is it not telling that after debating security threats, Europe's supposed political eclipse, the self-inflicted end of America's unipolar moment, and the futility of unilateral force projection in Iraq, that the talk about multilateral institutions focuses on the World Trade Organization and imaginary South Asian pacts rather than on the global framework for peace and security?

Suzanne has done well to bring this summary of debate to a broader audience to "chew on." Let the gnawing begin.

I'm quite puzzled by "The Decline of Europe" part. I would rather call it "Foreign affair pundits reconnecting with reality". Except for trade, Europe never had any significant ability to act as a major global power and any impression to the contrary was delusional. So, I guess, welcome back in the real world.

Some specific points are also puzzling. The geopolitical rise of the East will affect everybody, Europe, the US, South America, etc. Europe is not at a specific threat (or if you think so, please enlighten me). So why single it out? Also, the defeat of the EU constitution is not so much a cause of Europe’s decline as a symptom of the fundamental weaknesses and popular illegitimacy of its institutions. You could actually see that as a positive thing actually as it has laid bare those issues and prompted a serious debate on the future of Europe for the first time in more than 20 years. I have no clue where that debate will lead but at least, it's there.

And I suppose this 'threat' is the same whether or not China becomes more democratic?


I've been trying to get your #4 across to anybody who'd listen for a while.

The UN is a great thing for "technical" issues, through agencies such as ICAO, UPU, ITU, WHO, FAO, etc.

But it is and always has been rather useless on political issues.

I think Africa becomes the story of the next 25 years, either as a resource rich timebomb like the Middle East has been, or as the next Asia with a mixture of startling success and crushing failure in close proximity.

John Penta:
"The UN is a great thing for "technical" issues, through agencies such as ICAO, UPU, ITU, WHO, FAO, etc.

But it is and always has been rather useless on political issues."

Something which is basically a forum + some support staff, where a large number of countries go to work on those things which they don't want to do with simpler bilateral negotiations, isn't good at things when a signficant numbers/'weights' of countries oppose each others?

I'm not surprised.

Notable by its absence from either list is what in olden days was called the Good Neighborhood. Among people who do not regularly attend foreign policy conferences, developments to our south consistently have more day-to-day impact than any of the subjects that do appear to have been discussed. At local Republican Party meetings I hear a lot more talk about illegal immigration than I do about China, and the Atlanta media has drug-related crime stories every day. As we pour lives and treasure into a quixotic effort to bring democracy to the Arab world, democracy in Latin America is in full retreat. And what happens when Castro dies?

What's even more puzzling, even ridiculous, is the idea of "American Unipolarity Waning." Why should this be so? Proponents of the "soft balancing" school, or perhaps those now arguing a renewed imperial overstretch thesis, mistake foreign oppostion to U.S. policy or current military resource and personnel strains in Iraq and Afghanistan as an indication of the decline of American power. However, the unipolar moment will not be over until American preponderance is challenged by a rising global challeger, or a coaltion of states, with profile of military and technological capabilities commensurate to the U.S., and that possibility, because of U.S. economic dominance, is decades, if not centuries away. The work of Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, among others, should be required reading for those of this new "declinist" school.

Jeff Laurenti,
You are wrong in believing that China happens not to have any expansionist tendencies beyond "chinese territory". The problem with the Chinese is that they designated territory they occupy as "chinese" and then proceed to try and expand. This is what happened with Tibet for example.

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