As I had predicted, a global recession, budgetary chicken in Congress and national weariness after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have forced a public rethink of the prominence of counterinsurgency doctrine in America’s military kit. Colonel Gian Gentile, long the intellectual archenemy of FM 3-24 and the “Surge narrative” has pronounced COIN “dead” and even CNAS, spiritual home of COIN theory inside the Beltway, is now advocating COIN-lite FID (Foreign Internal Defense). As this entire process is being driven by a global economic crisis, there is another aspect to this American inside-baseball policy story.
While COIN as the hyperexpensive, nation-building, FM 3-24 pop-centric version of counterinsurgency is fading away, irregular warfare and terrorism are here to stay as long as there is human conflict. Moreover, as economic systems are to nation-states as vascular systems are to living beings, we can expect an acceleration of state failure as weak but functional states are forced by decreased revenues to reduce services and diminish their ability to provide security or enforce their laws. The global “habitat” for non-state, transanational and corporate actors is going to grow larger and the zones of civilized order will shrink and come under internal stress in the medium term even in the region that Thomas P.M. Barnett defined as the “Core” of globalization.
The theory of Fourth Generation Warfare is helpful here. Many people in the defense community object to 4GW thinking, arguing that it is a poor historical model because it is overly simplified, the strategic ideas typified by each generation are cherrypicked and are usually present in many historical eras (albeit with much different technology). For example, eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray writes of 4GW in Another Bloody Century:
….The theory of Fourth Generation Warfare or 4GW merits extended critical attention here for several reasons. It appears to be a very big idea indeed. It’s author [ William S. Lind] and his followers profess to be able to explain how and why warfare has evolved over the past 350 years and onto the future….
….Talented and intellectually brave strategic theorists are in such short supply that I hesitate before drawing a bead on Lind and his grand narrative of succeeding generations of warfare. Nonetheless, there is no avoiding the judgment that 4GW is the rediscovery of the obvious and the familiar.
4GW theory is not something that can be defended as having sound historical methodology. However, it works well enough as a strategic taxonomy of mindsets and political environments in which war is waged; particularly with the inclusion of the van Creveldian assumptions of state decline, it is a useful tool for looking at warfare in regions of weak, failing and failed states. The same global region Dr. Barnett has termed “the Gap” in his first book, The Pentagon’s New Map.
Tom predicated his geostrategy on the power of globalization being harnessed with judicious use of Core military power to “shrink the Gap” and provide connectivity as an extremely powerful lever to raise up billions of the world’s poor into a more stable, freer and middle-class existence. While that still holds, the flipside is that times of sharp economic contraction limit the ability of the Core, led by the United States, to intervene robustly, permitting the “bad guys” to make use of connectivity and black globalization for their own purposes. Where the great powers are disunited, disinterested or increasingly in the case of European power projection, disarmed, the Gap could potentially grow.
A new Iraq or Afghanistan sized campaign is not in the American defense budget for at least a decade. Or NATO’s. Hence the newfound interest in cheaper alternatives to massive intervention on the ground, for which the Libyan campaign might charitably be classed as an “experiment” ( where it was not simply bad strategy and negotiated operations) or as a multilateral reprise of Rumsfeldian ideas of transformative, light and fast military force mashed up with Reagan Doctrine proxy warfare, justified under a new ideological theory of R2P.
These are rational policy responses to conditions of parsimony, but it also indicates a coming era of strategic triage rather than grand crusades in using military force to stabilize parts of the global system. The US and other great power are going to be more likely to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have” than they are to heed JFK’s call “to pay any price, bear any burden”. The politics of hard times means that we will be minimizing our burdens by replacing, where we can, boots with bots, bullets with bytes and Marines with mercs. Not everywhere, but certainly on the margins of American interests.
Beyond those margins? We will aid and trade with whatever clients can maintain a vestige of civilized order without too much regard to the niceties of formal state legitimacy. Too many states will be ceding autonomy to subnational and transnational entities on their territory in the next few decades and we will have to abide by that reality if regions of the world become Somalia writ large. What to do? A number of recommendations come to mind:
- Get our own economic house in order with greater degrees of transparency and adherence to rule of law in our financial sector. Legitimacy and stability, like charity, begins at home.
- Adopt policies that strengthen the principle of national sovereignty and enhance legitimacy rather than weaken or erode it. This does not mean respecting hollow shells of fake states that are centers of disorder, but respecting legitimate ones that effectively govern their territory
- Foreign policies that reject oligarchical economic arrangements in favor of encouraging liberalization of authoritarian-autarkic state economies prior to enacting political reforms ( democracy works better the first time on a full stomach).
- Create a grand strategy board to advise senior policy makers and improve the currently abysmal level of strategic calculation and assessment prior to the US assuming open-ended commitments to intervention
- Accept that the Laws of War require a realistic updating to deal with the international equivalent of outlaws, an updating that contradicts and rejects the 1970’s era diplomatic effort to privilege irregular combatants over conventional forces.
- Fighting foreign insurgencies is something best done by primarily by locals, if willing, with our aid and advice. If those with the most to lose are not willing to stand, fight and die then they deserve to lose and the US should either eschew getting involved at all or resolve to secure whatever vital interest that exists there by brute force and make certain that reality is clearly communicated to the world (i.e. Carter Doctrine). Truly vital interests are rare.