Monday, March 02, 2015

The Hard Science of Harder Truths

There are two parallel universes of people who think about what the next few decades hold in the national security arena. 

The people in one universe are as smart and as well educated as those in the other. They have solid, reasoned expectations about the national security challenges we face in the near to medium term. They can discuss probable and possible technology "game changers" that will impact how we can project national will on a global scale, and other of the "sexier" topics that are fun to talk about nonetheless.

They have an admirable understanding of how nations work together with their friends and competitors. Internally, they have a good diversity of ideas on how to create the right mix of manpower, training and equipment now to set the stage for preparing our nation to be able to address the future's challenges as they come up.

In that first universe, as there is in the second, there is much conflict between national security confessions; they have their own think tanks, preferred authors, opinion leaders, and theorists. They can have dramatically different approaches to things as diverse as diplomatic priorities, strategic communications, and military force structure.

In that first universe they do have one thing in common - a common variable that separates them from the second universe. 

They base their ideas on the recent past (except for the futurists who in both universes are the over-caffeinated 11-yr old boy at the dinner party, but that is a topic addressed in other posts) and the metrics that dominated it; demographics, growth models, business cycles, but their time-relative bias is off; the metrics of 30 years ago are given the same weight as those of 10 years ago. 

They are doing the right thing - benchmarking the past to help understand the future - but as if in some strange state of denial, they seem blind to what will actually shape this century the most - the facts on demographics, economics, budgets, and plain hard math - that show in the near-mist shapes that are unfamiliar and intimidating. With each passing year the shapes get clearer and clearer, yet in the first universe they try to look other the other direction, and ignore the gathering clarity in the hope it will drift away or simply not be that bad once it comes in to full view. It is on that point that our universe splits and becomes parallel.

In the second universe, at the inflection point where they look in to the future, the people in the second universe do not look away. When that shadow appears in the mist, they focus on it. They stare unblinking at the emerging shape and, as opposed to wishing away any nasty bits coming forward, they instead outline exactly what possible dangers exist, regardless of the discomfort it causes. They want to make sure that they are fully prepared to do what needs to be done to deal with what is coming - because coming it is. 

If you were to pull up a chair next to one of the people in that second universe cleaning his glasses so he could see the edge of the mist as clearly as possible, you would be sitting next to our friend Jerry Hendrix.

You need to read it all, as I'm only going to pull a small bit - but here is the scene he sets in the opening to his latest work from CNAS, Avoiding Trivia: A Strategy for Sustainment and Fiscal Security.

Gird your loins and lean in with him; he sees it clearer than most.
If the goal were a strategy to undermine the power and influence of the United States and bring its era of global leadership to an end, a Bismarckian grand strategist could not have designed a series of events as debilitating as those of the past fourteen years. For the United States to reverse current trends and sustain its position in the world, it will need to move from reactive policies to a posture of proactivity. It will also have to examine the extent of its interests and reconnect with the basic, cultural fundamentals of grand strategy.

Grand Strategy has never resided purely within the military realm; it is rather an expression of national goals in totality. To express strategy purely in military terms would neglect the logistics line that stretches from the front to the factories that produce armaments and to the economy that supports the overall effort. The military function cannot be separated from the economic: Clausewitz and Mahan cannot be considered with out Keynes and Friedman. Deficit spending and growing debt, along with a weakening economy and crumbling national infrastructure, present a growing threat to the United States that may far exceed traditional security threats, especially when we consider that the national security complex is dependent upon these components of national life: the economy and national infrastructure form the foundation for U.S. actions in the world.
Americans, sadly, too often do not see anything that does not have a USA stamp on it. As a result, there is the assumption that the challenges they see in the USA are in isolation and don't exist elsewhere - a thought that "we" are having trouble, but as "we" don't make the effort to study the rest of the world, we assume that everyone else is doing well. That warps our thinking and planning.

Yes, we have problems - and the one represented in the graph above is at the top of my list both directly and in the secondary effects it will have for me in my dotage, and my children's entire life. But what about the condition of other power centers?

One of the more valuable aspects of Hendrix's article is that he gives the reader a thumbnail view of the three other power centers of the world and the challenges they face. We don't come off all that bad in comparison.

...When industrialization, urbanization, cultural maturation, and the decline of religion in daily life led to a reduction in the size of the family, and hence of the working population, policy makers attempted to reverse the shortfall by expanding immigration to bring in additional workers ... exacerbated Europe’s overarching handicap: its fractured sense of self. Despite efforts to form a collective whole within the European Union and bind themselves together economically with the Euro as a common currency, the states of Europe still consider themselves sovereign entities. ... Without an amalgamation of effort and resources, it is difficult to envision how Europe could emerge as a serious global competitor in the near future.
Ultimately Putin’s Russia faces the same challenges as his strongman predecessors: how to control a small population scattered across a vast territory, vulnerable to the threat of outside invaders, with scarce resources. With all of its historic, economic, and demographic challenges, as well as the results of the current sanctions regimes and, no doubt, lingering distrust of Russia in Europe following its aggressive actions, Russia will not reemerge as a significant world power for a number of decades.
Given its centrally planned, mercantilist approach to economics, China is not and cannot be considered a “responsible actor” within the current global economic system. It cannot regain its historic central position in Asia, the “Middle Kingdom” within the current system. Thus, it must be understood that China is actively working to time its rise to coincide with the United States’ decline so as to create both a soft landing and an alternative for the current global system.

However, it cannot accomplish these goals on its own. It is not strong enough economically or militarily to take over the system, and its culture and diplomacy are not similar enough to entice others outside of Asia to voluntarily join their destinies with China. For China to accomplish a peaceful transfer of power, it would need a willing partner in the United States. This is not outside the realm of possibility at the moment, given that America has its own historic and cultural issues to deal with.
Some may make the charge that Hendrix is simply dismissing and assuming away challengers, yet those are mostly the same people who ignore challengers' problems and instead like to point to our challenges alone. That simply is no way to get a clear view of the future; to disregard your strengths and amplify your weakness, while at the same time disregarding your competitors' weaknesses and emphasizing their strengths. That way of thinking is to make a dedicated effort to avoid looking clearly at the problem.

We are not alone in having challenges, but we have a great gift. Our greatest challenges are internal. They are our problems to solve - and in comparison to others, arguable simpler problems. All it takes is will, maturity, and leadership.
The largest single threat to the U.S. position in the world arises within the United States itself. Seeking to focus on the competition of ideas, it has lost sight of the state of its own economy and the very real sources of friction – on land and predominantly at sea – that characterize the global arena.

Its natural tendency to confuse “American exceptionalism” with its real economic and military interests has resulted in a confused and disjointed national strategy. If it is to maintain its position of global leadership, the United States needs to refocus on its economic health and on its maritime roots.
Still, there are those who will point out America’s advantages, despite its debt. The United States still has the world’s largest economy, for a time, and it still has the world’s largest military, for a time.

In addition, the global economic system remains tilted in America’s favor: the laws remain Western and are premised on free trade and self-determination, for now. Lastly, the global exchange and reserve currency remains the dollar, which has been strengthening following the Federal Reserve’s 2014 decision to cease quantitative easing. The United States still has time on the clock; the question is how to use it?

This is not a problem of the military side of the national budget alone - though some will act as if it is. That is just not in line with the facts. There is also the danger of what we have seen in the past - the military takes the hit, and everyone else demurs. That won't work anymore - we have used that trick one time too many.

Hendrix has made an honest proposal from the military side of the argument. There should be parallel efforts to address these hard truths by others in the Beltway whose specialties are welfare, federal employee management, health care, regulation, and taxes. They cannot have as their answer, "more money; more taxes" as that simply is not a solution by serious people with a focus beyond the next election cycle. 

To keep this momentum going, those in other policy areas must join with equally bold ideas that are willing to take their "bite of the sandwich." For the Hendrix's specifics, difficult to summarize here, I point you to his article. Invest the time and read it all.

We are long overdue for serious, adult conversations about the position we have put ourselves in to. We should do it as the Germans did two decades ago. By doing so, we can avoid becoming what Greece is now.

In a work both broad in scope, but surprisingly narrowly focused in areas, Hendrix's work is a great entering point of discussion for what needs to be an iterative debate to get a view on the challenge, accept it as it is, and put this nation back on a track that will leave our children and grandchildren a nation at least as strong, united, and wealthy than the one we inherited.

No comments: