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March 24, 2008

Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Read Shawn's article in Small Wars Journal.  It's really good.  I'm in complete agreement with the overall thrust. 

The purpose of American grand strategy in the early 21st century should be to maintain our position of leadership in the world by rebuilding our legitimacy, renewing our key alliances, and ensuring our access to the global commons, in order to help sustain an international order based on a vibrant world economy.

I think that's right.  The status quo is no great shakes.  There are still many problem in the world, but massive systemic change tends to lead to horrific and violent wars, which in the long term is what will happen if we continue to alienate the entire world.  So, the best strategy is one that basically tries to maintain stability by having others buy into the current system and allows the system to evolve gradually.  This of course requires a much more deft and gentle leadership role.  But it does require a leadership role. 

One area where I would go further is in the description of maintaining "Global Commons."  The environment is a global common.  World health is a global common.  Global warming or a massive pandemic would present threats to the overall system and need to be viewed as important elements in any national security strategy. 


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Shawn's piece doesn't contain anything I haven't read in any number of similar statements from the center and center-left over the past five years: restore American leadership, rebuild our alliances, strengthen the international order, protect and extend the benefits of the globalized economy, etc., etc. It's the same old stuff.

I would like to suggest that Shawn is wrong in his assumption that what is needed is more Grand Strategy thinking. We've got lots and lots of Grand Strategy statements. Every blogger and his mother has a Grand Strategy statement somewhere. Every foreign policy wonk has a Grand Strategy statement in his drawer. I've got a whole folder on my computer desktop filled with PDFs trumpeting some new Grand Strategy or others. And these statements are all tediously similar, since they're all written by members of the the same small club of like-thinking guys and gals. What we need is less ivory tower, Big Think BS and more practical, concrete problem-solving applied to identifiable global and national challenges. But when it comes to actually proposing concrete measures that might seriously disrupt ivory tower inertia or rock some boat somewhere in the FP establishment, none of these Grand Strategists is willing to really step up.

I really do try to read a lot about geopolitics, and try to understand exactly what seismic forces are driving geopolitical dynamics in the present. I have to think that a historian of the future, looking back at the present time, would note how many of these national security manifestos and "Grand Strategy" documents manage to skirt the most significant geopolitic phenomenon of 2008, and the one which is almost certainly destined to cause more wars like Iraq, and larger ones. That phenomenon is the global economic competition over resources: the competition for strategic access to those resources; the competition to control the markets for these resources; the competition to profit from those resources; the competition to build rival systems of security protection around those resources; and military, social and political ramifications that attend the fluid shifts in resource power. This is the main phenomenon, in my view, making the geopolitical world go around these days - as it was during much of the twentieth century. If the US builds a new base somewhere, it probably has much to do with resource competition. If China opens up a new relationship with an African or South American country, the same factor is at work.

Energy security and resource competition are challenges for global economic and security management. This challenge does not fall into the category of managing the global commons, because most of these resources are not part of the commons - they are private or state property. But the global security challenge is no less real. I keep hoping some new generation of thinkers will come along, one not so deeply committed to neoliberal orthodoxies and free market mania, and somewhat less inclined to treat these matters as though they were purely the invisible hand workings of the economic Fates, over which we don't have, nor should have, any control. But so far, no luck. The foreign policy VSPs, who one would hope are working for the broader public to help us achieve some sort of control over are destiny, seem clueless. And the people who really run the world aren't quite so free about sharing their Grand Strategy plans.

The world is a highly competitive business environment, in which huge stores of wealth are at stake and the rise and fall of nations, and industrial and financial empires, hangs in the balance. Some of the major players in this environment are private firms. Some are whole states. But it's a business environment in which a number of these players have fantastically destructive weapons and armies at their disposal, in one way or another. And history tells us the possessors of these tools tend to unleash them at some point, whether intentionally or through the accumulated effect of commitments, miscalculations and irrational passions. It's not much different than competition among organized crime families.

Within 20 years, I suspect we're going to be at war. And I'm not talking about some piddly little regional war like Iraq. I'm talking about a global scale, kill-a-hundred-million-people, kill-your-kids, kill-my-kids, blow-the-crap-out-of-the-world war. I'm 48. Maybe I'll be dead by then. Who knows? For you younger guys, it's your world. What are you going to do to stop it? More free trade and unregulated globalization? More pap about restoring American leadership? More paeans to our exceptional, exemplary moral excellence? More sophomoric liberal fantasies about flat world utopia, run by preppy think tanks and NGO's? More head in the sand avoidance of what is really going on?

The pathology of our contemporary liberal, Reagan-baby, foreign policy establishment reflects a crazy American approach to the world where nothing having to do with economics, commerce and competition falls withing the scope of "government". Government, according to neoliberal religion, is just supposed to keep the shipping lanes open - with the shipping lanes now expanded to include the skies, space and the internet, I suppose - and leave the fate of the world in the hands of the corporations and gangsters, and those massive and organized state-capital fusions that aren't so enamored of the minimal government laissez faire free-for-all beloved by Americans.

Isn't it the job of national security and global security professionals to identify the sources of actual and potential conflict in the world, and to propose practical steps to manage and resolve these conflicts before they end up killing many millions of people? Where the hell are the people doing this work? The world isn't a damn grad school seminar.

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I will have to check out Shawn's pdf, but those are some great points Dan. The post cold war New World Order was designed to have the US act as pirate control, and keep the markets and lines of trade open and safe.

As the competition for resources increases, there will be more temptation to set up sweetheart deals or even to make grabs at territories. I think Iraq was designed to be part of the former, designed to be a part of the new NWO. The US was to move on to other areas and leave our bases and police/troops to keep the oil flowing. The latter could be exhibited in something like Clancy's novel about China invading Siberia.

I do think the comments that followed are one strategy for coping with the future. I believe Huxley outlined it in more detail.

I agree that there's nothing new in that piece. Joseph Nye, John Ikenberry et al made this argument years ago. It just seems more relevant now against the backdrop of the Bush administration's foreign policy.

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