Monday, July 31, 2017

America's "Post-Primacy" Era

Washington had no end of opportunities since the days of Reagan/Bush Sr. and Gorbachev/Yeltsin, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of American unipolar primacy. They took much for granted. Hubris set in exemplified by The Project For the New American Century mentality. Those fleeting opportunities were squandered. Today the world has moved on and even the massively powerful United States must acclimate to today's "Post Primacy" era.

The case for adapting to this new Post Primacy world is made in a new report, "At Our Own Peril, DoD Risk Assessment in a Post Primacy World."

Here are some highlights of this 140-page report:

For DoD, post-primacy is marked by five interrelated characteristics: • Hyper-connectivity and weaponization of information, disinformation, and disaffection; • A rapidly fracturing post-Cold War status quo; • Proliferation, diversification, and atomization of effective counter-U.S. resistance; • Resurgent but transformed great power competition; and finally, • Violent or disruptive dissolution of political cohesion and identity. 

While the United States remains a global political, economic, and military giant, it no longer enjoys an unassailable position versus state competitors. Further, it remains buffeted by a range of metastasizing violent or disruptive nonstate challengers, and it is under stress—as are all states—from the dispersion and diffusion of effective resistance and the varied forces of disintegrating or fracturing political authority. In brief, the status quo that was hatched and nurtured by U.S. strategists after World War II and has for decades been the principal “beat” for DoD is not merely fraying but may, in fact, be collapsing. Consequently, the United States’ role in and approach to the world may be fundamentally changing as well.

In short, most of the instruments, approaches, concepts, and resources that have historically either helped the U.S. defense enterprise generate advantage or adapt to change are likely not keeping pace with the strategic change afoot in the post-primacy era. Thus, American senior leaders and strategists will have to simultaneously design, build, and persistently adapt strategic responses to an environment where the one certainty is in fact uncertainty. The defining quality of that profound uncertainty is constant, meaningful change in strategic and operational conditions. Thus, DoD requires a nimble and adaptive risk assessment and management approach that rivals DoD’s exogenous decision-making environment in its inherent proclivity for adaptation and change.  

While the United States may still be the most important international actor in the state system, it can no longer count on the unassailable position of dominance, supremacy, or pre-eminence it enjoyed for the 20-plus years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Recognition of post-primacy is not a defeatist perspective. It is a wakeup call.2 The concept of post-primacy (explained in great detail in Section IV) is the basic recognition that global security affairs are much more competitive now than at any other time since the Cold War. 


The study team identified the following as a contemporary set of foundational enduring defense objectives: • Secure U.S. territory, people, infrastructure, and property against significant harm. • Secure access to the global commons and strategic regions, markets, and resources. • Meet foreign security obligations. • Underwrite a stable, resilient, rules-based international order. • Build and maintain a favorable and adaptive global security architecture. • Create, preserve, and extend U.S. military advantage and options.

The United States faces a range of fundamental hazards from across joint domains (including and increasingly most troubling—the cyber domain). Further, it faces new or growing challenges from and within the electromagnetic spectrum, on and from the bloodless battlefields of information and influence, and finally, from the leaderless forces of social disintegration and virtual mobilization and resistance.

Secure Access to the Global Commons and Strategic Regions, Markets, and Resources. 

The United States and its international partners rely on unimpeded access to air, sea, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum in order to underwrite their security and prosperity. Indeed, even states and actors with which the United States has substantial disputes also benefit from the free and open use of what have been universally recognized as international common spaces and resources. All five of the aforementioned domains or environments are increasingly vulnerable to the predations of malicious nonstate actors, as well as states seeking to extend their influence and exploit obvious competitor vulnerabilities. In the process, they are increasingly limiting or constraining American freedom of action as well.

Access for access sake is obviously not enough. Routes and connections between strategic markets, marketplaces, and resources in both the physical and virtual context run through common space virtually every international actor of consequence depends on. Goods and services are distributed via physical conveyance, as well as voice or data communications. There are obstacles or chokepoints along the way that also require constant security and maintenance to ensure they facilitate vice impede the legitimate political, economic, and security business of states.

Continued adherence to traditional U.S. security commitments, and attempting through engagement to expand the community of like-minded states will serve to bolster what many recognize as an increasingly compromised U.S. position. Further, to the extent that the United States leads its partners to find and enact workable solutions to common defense and national security challenges, the more likely the United States will return to a position of decided advantage vis-à-vis its competitors. If the United States remains prone to accommodate partners and reduce collective allied anxiety, the United States will regain some lost ground internationally and will do so with the wind of strong international partnerships at its back. Failure to do so, however, is likely to result in further erosion of American position and increased strategic-level risk.

Both inside and outside the United States, a great number of analysts and opinion makers are questioning the continued strength of U.S. commitment to its commonly recognized security obligations. At the same time, the study team found through extensive interactions with key defense stakeholders that the maintenance of the U.S. position as a dominant global power is untenable without both active maintenance and expansion of meaningful security partnerships worldwide.

The world has grown accustomed to U.S. leadership. Yet, there are real fears that a combination of effective counter-U.S. resistance and deliberate, unilateral U.S. hesitation and restraint have both diminished American leverage and eroded many of the key advantages essential to the United States maintaining and leading its historically strong network of alliances and partnerships.  According to General David Petraeus, “The paradox of the moment is that, just as the threats to the world order [the United States] created have grown ever more apparent, American resolve about its defense has become somewhat ambivalent.”

Since 9/11, however, U.S. perceptions of both the complexity of the contemporary order (or disorder) and its inherent hazards have grown more sophisticated, uncertain, unsettling, and confounding. While the United States still clings to significant political, economic, and military leverage, that leverage is increasingly exhibiting less reach, durability, and endurance. In short, the rules-based global order that the United States built and sustained for 7 decades is under enormous stress. The greatest source of stress lies in an inherent dynamism in the character and velocity of consequential change in strategic conditions. 

General Petraeus is instructive here as well. He recently observed: Americans should not take the current international order for granted. It did not will itself into existence. [The United States] created it. Likewise, it is not self-sustaining. [The United States has] sustained it. If [the United States] stops doing so, it will fray and, eventually, collapse.

American military power does continue to insure or underwrite stability in critical regions of the world. And, while the favorable U.S.-dominated status quo is under significant internal and external pressure, adapted American power can help to forestall or even reverse outright failure in the most critical regions.29 There is significantly more to effective solutions than military power. However, a broad front of hostile challenges and forces are in position to sweep the status quo aside and in the process, create conditions that are profoundly unfavorable to U.S. interests.

If the United States is to regain significant control over the most important international security outcomes, it will need to pursue a deliberate campaign that progressively re-seizes lost initiative and invests U.S. power in a remodeled but nonetheless still favorable post-primacy international order. Anticipating and adapting early to dynamic change will have a profound and positive impact on the U.S. global position. Further still, DoD will be a central player in both conceptualizing the character of and components of both the most compelling hazards to U.S. position, as well as American responses to those hazards.

In reality, decisive or definitive defeat of adversaries may not always be realistic, as it may simply exceed U.S. risk and cost thresholds. This is especially true when U.S. decision-makers come face-to-face with more organic and durable rejectionist hazards. Here, defense and military leaders will face the unsatisfying requirement to contain hazards at an acceptable cost to prevent strategic exhaustion or the fatal erosion of U.S. and partner interests.

While as a rule, U.S. leaders of both political parties have consistently committed to the maintenance of U.S. military superiority over all potential state rivals, the postprimacy reality demands a wider and more flexible military force that can generate advantage and options across the broadest possible range of military demands. To U.S. political leadership, maintenance of military advantage preserves maximum freedom of action. Further, it underwrites yet another bedrock principle of American defense policy—nuclear and conventional deterrence. Finally, it allows U.S. decision-makers the opportunity to dictate or hold significant sway over outcomes in international disputes in the shadow of significant U.S. military capability and the implied promise of unacceptable consequences in the event that capability is unleashed.

The United States and its defense enterprise are navigating uncharted waters of late. The potency, endurance, and resilience of once unassailable post-Cold War American reach, influence, and effectiveness are increasingly in doubt.

The United States has recently entered, or more accurately has freshly recognized that it is in the midst of what can only be described as the early post-U.S. primacy epoch. While jarring for strategists and policymakers who are accustomed to the assumption of primacy, they will need to adapt. This new reality has far-reaching implications for American defense policy, strategy, planning, and risk calculation.

From a defense strategy and planning perspective, post-primacy has five basic defining characteristics. • Hyperconnectivity and the weaponization of information, disinformation, and disaffection. • A rapidly fracturing post-Cold War status quo. • Proliferation, diversification, and atomization of effective counter-U.S. resistance. • Resurgent but transformed great power competition. • Violent or disruptive dissolution of political cohesion and identity.


Arguably, the most transformative characteristic of the contemporary environment is the sudden onslaught of threats emerging from the dark underside of hyperconnectivity.7 One can hardly exaggerate the degree to which hyperconnectivity enables: 1) hostile or disruptive virtual mobilization worldwide; 2) the collapse of privacy, secrecy, and operational security; 3) penetration, disruption, exploitation, and destruction of data storage and transmission, as well as the use of data and data-enabled systems; and finally, 4) the unfettered manipulation of perceptions, material outcomes, and consequential strategic decisions. That which is loosely identified as the information sphere—indeed often wrongly characterized exclusively as the “cyber domain”—has of late become the world’s most contested and congested competitive space. Indeed, while well-meaning strategists and planners work through the incredible complexity of cyber competition and conflict, the broader competitive space that revolves around information has rapidly transcended the challenges of 1s and 0s alone.

Recent events indicate that hyperconnectivity as it relates to unfettered manipulation of perceptions, material outcomes, and consequential strategic decisions may just be the most immediately consequential. Largely free-riding on the back a metastasizing global cyber superstructure, actors are increasingly weaponizing information, disinformation, and popular disaffection in order to by-pass the traditional defenses of target states and institutions. Furthermore, the incidental or accidental weaponization of the same is increasingly creating unguided and unintended collateral effects from the strategic to tactical levels of decision and action. There are myriad examples of both impacts in the contemporary environment.

As information now literally travels at light speed, it is very difficult to limit its adverse effects. Sometimes the exposure or exploitation of high-impact information is factfree. Sometimes it is fact-inconvenient. Still other times it is fact-perilous. Finally, there are times that it is fact-toxic.

The first proliferates in ways that undermine objective truth. In short, once fact-free information is deposited in or employed through the information sphere, the real story is lost in a sea of alternative realities. George F. Kennan was prescient in this regard when he observed, “the truth is sometimes a poor competitor in the market place of ideas—complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemmas, always vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse.

Fact-inconvenient information exposes comprising details that, by implication, undermine legitimate authority and erode the relationships between governments and the governed.

Fact-perilous data gives away the keys to the castle—exposing highly classified, sensitive, or proprietary information that can be used to accelerate a real loss of tactical, operational, or strategic advantage.

In addition, finally, when exposed in the absence of context, fact-toxic information poisons important political discourse and fatally weakens foundational security at an international, regional, national, or personal level. Indeed, fact-toxic exposures are those likeliest to trigger viral or contagious insecurity across or within borders and between or among peoples.

Status quo forces benefit from and act as the self-appointed guardians of the U.S.-led post-Cold War international order and its components. Outplayed described status quo forces as international actors that “value the current order and actively work to secure it to their advantage.” The order and its constituent parts, first emerged from World War II, were transformed to a unipolar system with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and have by-and-large been dominated by the United States and its major Western and Asian allies since. Status quo forces collectively are comfortable with their dominant role in dictating the terms of international security outcomes and resist the emergence of rival centers of power and authority.

Revisionist forces benefit from the same basic international order but believe they have a rightful place at the table in the negotiation and determination of the precise terms of that order going forward. In short, they seek a new distribution of power and authority commensurate with their emergence as legitimate rivals to U.S. dominance. In the current environment, Russia and China are the most obvious examples of revisionist powers. Both are engaged in a deliberate program to demonstrate the limits of U.S. authority, will, reach, influence, and impact.

“[R]evisionists advocate and agitate for a more favorable redistribution of influence and authority . . . and demonstrate a willingness to act with purpose and volition to achieve it.”

Revolutionary forces are neither the products of, nor are they satisfied with, the contemporary order. They lie outside for a variety of political, cultural, and historical reasons. At a minimum, they intend to destroy the reach of the U.S.-led order into what they perceive to be their legitimate sphere of influence. They are also resolved to replace that order locally with a new rule set dictated by them. Iran and North Korea may be seen as the best current examples of revolutionary forces in action.

Rejectionist forces offer very little in the way of legitimate political alternatives. Rejectionism is just as it sounds—the outright violent or disruptive rejection of legitimate political authority regardless of who happens to exercise it. Rejectionists seek to destroy formal sources of political power, especially those perceived to represent existential threats to their freedom of action.

Of all the forces at play, the rejectionists are largely represented by various nonstate, sub-state, and transnational entities and movements that pray on the current vulnerability or rejection of contemporary political convention and tradition. They free-ride on hyperconnectivity to mobilize adherents around radical, criminal, or fundamentally unconventional sources of inspiration, and their reach is increasingly limited only by the number of disaffected willing to listen to and act on their various messages.

[Rejectionists] are largely destroyers not builders. . . . They self-identify as profoundly aggrieved, denied, or disenfranchised. Rejectionists are keen to confront what they perceive to be the unfair and illegitimate exercise of status quo political authority and they are loathe to accept a new, revisionist-led status quo that might also profit at their expense.

The study team concluded that the status quo that virtually all U.S. strategy rests on is, in fact, an artifact of a prior era. It lingers precisely because it comports well with the U.S. self-image of a matchless global leader. In reality, it is an increasingly flawed foundation for forward-looking defense strategy and risk assessment under post-primacy conditions.

A final implication rests in the fundamental uncertainty associated with post-primacy. Many states and peoples are operating under a renewed commitment to self-interest over any notions of collective common good. This more Hobbesian worldview makes alliance building and maintenance challenging. Further, to the extent this trend is operative in the United States relative to its relationships with the rest of the world, it will naturally appear more threatening to some and less attractive as a partner to others.

Indeed, the study team concluded that increasing trends toward what the current administration calls “economic nationalism” and its election on the back of a more inward looking brand of populism are themselves sources of pressure on the U.S.-led status quo.

The United States is in direct competition with revisionist great powers like China and Russia who have discovered complicated military and non-military work-arounds to limit U.S. freedom of action, drive up U.S. risk perceptions, and erode American reach. At the same time, mid-level revolutionary powers like Iran and North Korea present the United States with similar complex “gray zone” challenges. These manifest largely on a regional basis as both direct sophisticated military threats, as well as more destabilizing, surreptitious manipulation of fragile political balances within and between vulnerable states and peoples.

As each of these play out and on still other levels, the United States is buffeted by hostile, inhospitable, or uncertain networks, movements, and/or environmental disturbances manifesting as organized and purposeful resistance (e.g., Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] and al-Qaeda) on the one hand and leaderless instability (e.g., Arab Spring) on the other. The former threatens core U.S. interests and enduring defense objectives directly, the latter by implication. All are part of a generalized disintegration of traditional authority structures, fueled, and/or accelerated by hyperconnectivity and the obvious decay and potential failure of the post-Cold War status quo. While the most prominent of these forces currently emanate from the greater Middle East, it would be unwise not to recognize that they will mutate, metastasize, and manifest differently over time. Thus, it is imperative for the creation of an objective based vice threat-based risk model.

Go Gray or Go Home.

[The report explores what US military planners call the "gray zone " of military struggle. The term refers to "activity that is coercive and aggressive in nature, but that is deliberately designed to remain below the threshold of conventional military conflict and open interstate war." ... Gray zone challenges, in other words, are ambiguous and usually incremental aggression.]

The United States faces new and meaningful opposition from at least two great powers who are bent on revising the contemporary status quo. China and Russia are engaged in purposeful campaign-like activities that are focused on the material reduction of American influence as the principal arbiter of consequential international outcomes. They seek to reorder their position in the existing status quo in ways that—at a minimum—create more favorable circumstances for pursuit of their core objectives. However, a more maximalist perspective sees them pursuing advantage at the direct expense of the United States and its principal Western and Asian allies.

Each possesses substantial conventional and nuclear military capability. Further, each is aggressively pursuing interests in direct contravention of international norms and in ways that are threatening to U.S. and allied interests. Finally, both have adopted complex “gray zone” approaches that to date have vexed U.S. national security and defense leadership.

These “gray zone” approaches exhibit three common characteristics: hybridity, menace to defense/military convention, and risk confusion. The latter—“risk confusion”—generates paralysis among U.S. defense and national security decision-makers in the face of this kind of opposition. Outplayed describes “risk confusion” this way: “threats emerging from the gray zone have a decidedly disruptive effect on strategic risk calculations. Often, the risk associated with action and inaction appears to be equally high and unpalatable.”

...Contemporary great power antagonism occurs principally in the “gray zone” where U.S. adversaries’ substantial military capabilities are sidelined, over the horizon, or only marginally employed, but deter more activist U.S. responses nonetheless. Meanwhile, the principal competition occurs in murkier, less obvious forms of state-based aggression, where “rival states marshal various instruments of influence and intimidation to achieve warlike ends through means and methods falling far short of unambiguous or open provocation and conflict.”

One expert engaged during the research aptly characterized these gray zone approaches as effectively deterring the United States with one set of methods and capabilities while operating against and securing objectives at the expense of the United States using wholly different methods and capabilities.


As the United States and its foreign partners adapted to a war with Islamic extremists in the aftermath of 9/11, and as insurgencies raged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the term “persistent conflict” or “an era of persistent conflict” grew popular in Pentagon lexicon. At the time, that phrase had a very particular meaning. It implied that the United States had entered an era where peace as it was previously conceived of—the complete absence of violent conflict—would no longer be the norm.

... Sources of pressure include aspects of all of the aforementioned post-primacy characteristics including hyperconnectivity, the weaponization of information and disinformation, rapid deterioration of the post-Cold War status quo, the proliferation and diversification of meaningful resistance, the emergence of gray zone methods, and the rise of distributed sources of allegiance and identity. Paraphrasing one SRG member, some are fighting globalization and globalization is also actively fighting back. Combined, all of these forces are rending at the fabric of security and stable governance that all states aspire to and rely on for survival.

...All states great and small are increasingly “wrestling on quicksand.” In sum, the nexus of hyperconnectivity, distributed sources of identity and allegiance, profound discontent, and political factionalism are merging with access to the means of meaningful resistance, harm, and disruption to dangerous effect. Therefore, while the United States and China compete for Pacific primacy, for example, they do so on a less stable political foundation than in the past.

The report depicts a world of wheels spinning within wheels, lapsing at times into chaos, and major superpower rivalries being fought out in the shadows with deadly yet bloodless weapons. Without mentioning the current regime the arguments reveal plainly how Trump and his minions are undermining America's "post primacy" resilience, in effect giving Russia and China ever greater foothold.

Hold onto your hat. It looks like a wild ride ahead.


Toby said...

I suppose all that translates into the Pentagon wants lots more wars but mostly out of sight.

I have long believed that if Canadians tried to keep any of our own resources for domestic consumption that the marines would be up here to save us. A country that is willing to topple a foreign government for bananas would certainly come after us for oil, water, uranium, etc.

Purple library guy said...

If what they really wanted was peace and stability, they'd pack up most of their bases and go home. They're not doing that, they're not going to do that, and this convoluted report makes no hint of suggesting they might want to do that. Basically it seems to be saying that with an inability to go it alone, they need to come up with better ways of conning other people into doing some of their dirty work for them. For their own good, honest!

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm sticking with my earlier assessment.

"The real focus, however, is to maintain America's preferred access to overseas resources that her new rivals also need and ultimately must contest. What they're really proposing is a military response to the global dilemma of climate change, overpopulation, and rampant over-consumption. They want to try to fight their way out."

I believe this lurks in the heart of the American military's almost obsessive focus on AA/AD (anti-access/area denial) policies. Today's hot spots are the East and South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Nobody is quite ready for a head-to-head in the Arctic but that can't be far off. Putin is clearly ahead in that next challenge.