Editor’s note: In 2014, Cato released A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security an edited volume of papers originally presented at a Cato conference the previous year. In each chapter, experts assessed and put in context the supposed dangers to American security, from nuclear proliferation and a rising China to terrorism and climate change.
As part of our Project on Threat Inflation, Cato is republishing each chapter in an easily readable online format. Even six years after its publication, much of the book remains relevant. Policymakers and influencers continue to tout a dizzying range of threats, and Americans are still afraid. We invited each author to revisit their arguments and offer a few new observations in light of recent events. You can view previous entries here and here, and on the Project on Threat Inflation homepage.
This week’s entry comes from Martin Libicki, the Keyser Chair of cybersecurity studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. His reflections on his chapter are informed by his years teaching and researching the world of cybersecurity, including multiple books and monographs for the RAND Corporation.
No one would believe that a field as dynamic as cyberspace operations could undergo no change over the seven years since this chapter was written. Such incredulity would have been well‐placed. There have been changes. But most of them have reinforced the lessons of this chapter: cyberspace is unlikely to be a national security problem. As with much in life, what has started as an acute problem (rare but intolerable) has continued to evolve into a chronic problem (common but tolerable).
Perhaps the largest change in cyberspace is one that is hard to miss but harder to assess: during national lockdowns, it is now possible for a large percentage of the labor force to get work done at home without encountering others face‐to‐face. It is hard to think of an event which so underscores the extent to which what was born as an academic plaything has become so essential to life.
But just as the uses of cyberspace have evolved so have its abuses. North Korea, which started out using cyberattacks to destabilize South Korea later concluded that stealing money produces more tangible results: hence its $81m theft from the Bank of Bangladesh and a later rash of cybercrimes against cryptocurrency depots. China has professionalized its cyberspace operations within its Ministry of State Security, trimming the ranks of its rogue and noisy hackers, and turning the PLA hackers back to military tasks. Iran continues its mischief, albeit with more of a regional focus. Russia’s hackers, by contrast, which as of 2013 were rarely heard from but considered highly talented, are now heard from a lot. Its cyberspace operations in 2016 against the integrity of the U.S. election were politically if not necessarily technically sophisticated. But many of its efforts were undertaken to support a civil war in Ukraine.
One such attack, NotPetya (2017), managed to take Ukrainian tax software and insert into it malware, which in turn trashed multiple corporate networks wreaking $5 to $10 billion in remediation costs. But, some sanctions tightening aside, there were few (known) reprisals from the United States and lack of any follow‐on or copycat attack of that magnitude suggests that the results were not deemed a resounding victory in Moscow.
One element of added predictability has been in attribution. Rarely does a newsworthy cyberattack take place without one or more private cybersecurity companies jumping in to let us know which country – and often which group within the country – is responsible. Without knowing how correct they are, the competing cybersecurity companies are at least self‐consistent. And while mistakes are made – many operations initially blamed on ISIS, North Korea, and Iran were later found to be Russian false flag operations – the notion of impunity via invisibility has seen better days.
As a whole, cyberspace operations have been increasingly professionalized. Many countries, not least being China and Germany, have assigned their hackers formal roles within their military organizations. The U.S. Cyber Command has announced its “persistent engagement” strategy, a way to do unto others before they have a chance to do unto us. In so doing, it is indicating that they see their most salient target as other hackers – following in the footsteps of tank, submarine, and fighter jet warriors, all of who also see their opposites as their most important foes.
Meanwhile, so far, Las Vegas rules seem to hold: what starts in cyberspace stays in cyberspace and does not escalate beyond. Recent academic research suggests that war game participants are less likely to raise the stakes in response to a cyber incident than to physical incidents with similar levels of damage. And U.S. actions in 2019 when physical attacks by Iran were (reportedly) met by cyberattacks from the United States indicates the latter can play an important de‐escalatory role.
All this may change tomorrow. But the last seven years have only reinforced the arguments made in 2013.
The Intelligence Community’s annual Statistical Transparency Report was released earlier this month, and there’s a significant piece of news buried in a footnote: On at least six occasions in 2018 and once in 2019, the government unlawfully reviewed wiretapped communications from a foreign intelligence database while pursuing ordinary criminal investigations unrelated to national security—something the previous year’s report claimed had never happened. The disclosure validates civil libertarian concerns about so‐called “backdoor searches”: The use of broad foreign intelligence authorities nominally aimed at non‐Americans outside the country to monitor Americans’ communications, circumventing the normal constitutional warrant process.
First, some context. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which Congress created in 2008, permits the National Security Agency to obtain sweeping general warrants from the secretive FISA Court, under which they may intercept the communications of non-U.S. persons who are outside the country without individualized authorization. This effectively codified an extralegal wiretapping program secretly approved by President George W. Bush shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. Traditionally, when intelligence agencies conducted wiretaps inside the United States, they needed a particularized warrant naming a specific target as long as one end of the communication was American. But §702 loosened the rules: Now instead of individualized warrants, the government asks the FISA Court to sign off on general “targeting procedures” used to select foreign targets located abroad. The communications of those targets can then be intercepted as they pass through American networks, including their communications with American citizens protected by the Fourth Amendment.
From the outset, civil libertarians have been worried that such an authority would inevitably vacuum up enormous quantities of Americans’ communications, even if wiretap “targets” were foreign. The incredible scale of collection virtually guarantees that’s the case: Last year the number of foreign §702 targets rose to an astonishing 204,968 (up from 164,770 in 2018). This massive cache of intercepts creates a tempting means of bypassing the ordinary warrant process for criminal investigations: Simply search for a U.S. person’s e‐mail address, phone number, or other identifier in the §702 database.
Backdoor searches are quite common. We know that agencies other than FBI (which in effect means NSA and CIA) searched the database for U.S. person identifiers and reviewed intercepted contents as a result 9,126 times last year. FBI doesn’t count how frequently they query the database, but they’re now required to obtain a court order before actually reviewing U.S. person communications for criminal investigative purposes unrelated to national security. Until this most recent report, the government claimed that this had never happened. But the 2020 report discloses a number of recently discovered instances in which they did just that: One in 2016 (before the warrant requirement was added), six in 2018, and one in 2019—that we know of, at least.
While it’s good these instances were belatedly detected, this disclosure underscores the problem of giving FBI, which has dual law enforcement and intelligence responsibilities, such poorly monitored access to the fruits of §702’s general warrants. Unlike other agencies, FBI is not required to report how often they query the §702 database for U.S. person identifiers—though by their own admission, they do so far more often than their peers.
Congress should conduct vigorous oversight over how these unlawful searches occurred—and remove the exemption that spares FBI from having to tally their searches for Americans in this enormous database. The loophole exists because FBI says their systems aren’t designed to track the necessary information… a design choice that makes compliance problems like the ones newly disclosed more likely, and harder to catch when they occur.
Editor’s note: In 2014, Cato released A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security, an edited volume of papers originally presented at a Cato conference the previous year. In each chapter, experts on international security assessed, and put in context, the supposed dangers to American security, from nuclear proliferation and a rising China, to terrorism and climate change.
As part of our Project on Threat Inflation, Cato is republishing each chapter in an easily readable online format. Even six years after its publication, much of the book remains relevant. Policymakers and influencers continue to tout a dizzying range of threats, and Americans are still afraid. We invited each author to revisit their arguments and offer a few new observations in light of recent events. The first of these, by Brendan Rittenhouse Green, appeared here last week.
Paul R. Pillar, a non‐resident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University, and a non‐resident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, provides his thoughts below. His reflections on his chapter are informed by his 28‐year career in the U.S. intelligence community, and his voluminous writing and research, including his most recent book, Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception (Columbia University Press, 2016), which he discussed at Cato in late 2016.
Prevailing American thinking about substate threats—and more specifically the thinking that shapes U.S. policy—exhibits at least as much of a disconnect between perception and reality as when A Dangerous World? was published six years ago. The policy players and their principal bugbears have changed, but broader patterns my earlier essay identified persist. Perhaps the most glaring demonstration of this persistence is the continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan—more than eighteen years after the original intervention, in what has become America’s longest war. A major impediment to withdrawing those troops continues to be the notion of Afghanistan as a unique “safe haven” for terrorists who, because of that haven, are supposedly more likely than they otherwise would be to inflict harm on Americans. The result is an interminable military expedition that in important respects is doing more harm than good.
The evolution of international terrorism during the last six years has challenged other common but flawed thought patterns about terrorism. The biggest development in that evolution has been the rise and, as a territorial entity, fall of the Islamic State or ISIS. This group’s split from, and competition with, Al Qaeda underscore the error of the earlier tendency to treat violent Sunni radicalism as monolithic, with the accompanying habit of applying the label “Al Qaeda” to the whole phenomenon. ISIS’s history also further refutes the thinking about terrorist safe havens. When ISIS had its mini‐state in Iraq and Syria, it was focused primarily on running and maintaining that entity and less focused on international terrorism than it has been when lacking such a territory.
The Trump administration appears to have centered its threat perceptions more on states than on substate phenomena. Nonetheless, its foreign policies demonstrate some of the patterns identified in the earlier essay, including the tendency to divide the perceived world simplistically into competing camps of good guys and bad guys. A prime example is the administration’s idea of a NATO‐like security alliance in the Middle East that would unite the United States, Israel, and some favored Arab states against a presumed bad guys’ bloc led by Iran. Nonstate actors such as Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi movement in Yemen, and some militias in Iraq are placed in the bad guys’ camp because of their association with Iran. The idea hasn’t gotten anywhere partly because it does not correspond to the more complicated lines of conflict and competition in the Middle East.
The administration’s obsession with Iran also illustrates a corollary to a pattern the earlier essay identified regarding perceptions of revolutionary violence and regime change. The pattern is the habitual assumption that regime change in any state the United States currently considers a friend or ally is assumed to be a threat to the United States. The corollary is that any regime change in a state the United States considers an adversary is assumed to be good. Thus, the Trump administration presses on with its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which, in the absence of feasible demands or constructive diplomacy, can only be aimed at collapse of the current Iranian regime. It presses on—and in so doing raises the risk of escalation to a wider war—oblivious to the likelihood that a replacement regime, such as a Revolutionary Guard dictatorship, would be even worse than what Iran has now.
Now the United States and the world are confronting a nonstate threat, in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, that is inflicting death and damage orders of magnitude beyond what was ever inflicted by the substate actors that for years have been the focus of American threat perceptions. Unlike with, say, terrorism, there certainly has been no problem of previously prevailing threat perceptions exceeding the reality. With terrorism, more sober voices have had to point out that in most years more Americans drown in bathtubs than fall victim to terrorism. Even after an outlier event such as 9/11, the casualties have been many times fewer than, say, the number of Americans who die in traffic accidents. But in only a couple of months, COVID-19 has left bathtub drownings in the dust and has killed more Americans than a year’s worth of traffic deaths.
One pattern applicable to other nonstate threats that does apply to the current pandemic is the tendency—a characteristically American tendency—to overstate the newness of a threat. The novel coronavirus may be novel in terms of virology, but infectious disease epidemics certainly are not. Plagues go back to ancient times. A failure to think in such terms is one factor underlying the inadequacy of preparations to deal with the likes of COVID-19.
Some of the U.S. responses to COVID-19 can be attributed to Trump’s habits, such as the flagellation of China as a way to deflect blame and attention away from the administration’s performance. But a more general American tendency is in play as well. COVID-19 is a nonstate threat, but it also is a nonhuman threat. As such, it does not conform well with the way Americans habitually think of their bêtes noires. Americans have long looked for monsters to destroy, but they expect the monster to have a face, in the form of a loathed leader, regime, or substate group. They have difficulty thinking ahead about meeting faceless threats such as a disease or a changing climate.
This is one reason to temper silver‐lining hopes that the pandemic will get people and their government to think more about threats that are most likely to kill them and less about foreign regimes or groups that are unlikely to do so. Just look at how the Trump administration has continued with its maximum pressure campaign against Iran. As thoughtful and expert observers on both sides of the Atlantic have observed, any nation’s inability to get the virus under control impedes efforts to contain the pandemic globally and thus threatens other nations’ citizens. A prudent step, therefore, would be to ease the U.S. sanctions that are impairing Iran’s ability to contain COVID-19. At a time when tens of thousands of American deaths ought to make control of the pandemic an overriding priority, the Trump administration ignores this advice.
- Paul Pillar, Washington, DC
Many of us hoped that economic liberalization in China would encourage political reform. The country did change dramatically: Maoism was tossed into history’s trash bin, while personal autonomy and economic opportunity greatly expanded.
Unfortunately, with Tiananmen Square the Chinese Communist Party decisively chose repression. Nevertheless, even though the regime remained authoritarian, academics, independent journalists, and others could debate ideas as long as they avoided directly challenging the CCP. The regime’s control remained somewhat loose, giving hope of long‐term improvement.
Everything changed under Xi Jinping, who has turned the country in an aggressively authoritarian direction. The crackdown has been brutal: widespread religious persecution, a million or more Uighurs in reeducation camps, much tighter internet controls and social media censorship, elimination of independent media, restriction and elimination of academic freedom, and attempt to suppress any independent political thought. The PRC’s foreign policy also has grown more aggressive, particularly toward Taiwan, Hong Kong, and territorial disputes.
Into this volatile environment has come the COVID-19 crisis, which, I note in Foreign Policy online, “has greatly inflamed anti‐China sentiments in a dangerous and counterproductive way. The Xi Jinping regime responded badly, missing an opportunity to isolate Wuhan early and perhaps prevent the emergence of a pandemic. Beijing’s ham‐handed propaganda afterward, including attempts to blame the United States for the virus, created additional antagonism.” Worst was failing to share information internationally and punishing doctors and citizen journalists who tried to report on facts on the ground.
Wanting to “make China pay” is an understandable impulse for Americans, but treating the PRC as a campaign prop is no answer. As I point out: “Beijing deserves criticism, though that would be best delivered with multilateral backing in a nonpolitical setting. Washington has an opportunity to build on global anger toward China and especially the CCP but risks losing the moment by shamelessly seeking partisan gain.”
As I explain in Foreign Policy, almost all of the ideas being advanced by the administration and its allies are bad. One is limiting or eliminating sovereign immunity, which would loose lawyers upon Beijing. The impact might be worse than a swarm of locusts hitting a farm, but it would set a precedent for the PRC and other states to do the same to America. As the most globally active nation—routinely sanctioning, droning, bombing, invading, and occupying others—imagine the potential litigation and demands for damages that could be made against Washington.
Other schemes are no better. Raising tariffs would punish American consumers who would be doing the paying. In essence, Washington would be taxing Americans to compensate Americans. A very stupid idea, as the president might say.
Limiting repayment on or repudiating debt held by the PRC likely would lead Beijing to retaliate against private U.S. investment. That’s not all, I warn: “voiding Chinese holdings would lower barriers to international debt repudiation. If the United States politicizes its debt, it would make foreign borrowers more willing to follow suit. Worse, buyers, private investors, sovereign wealth, and governments would be more reluctant to purchase U.S. securities.” Indeed, the U.S. already has politicized its control of the financial system with sanctions, even targeting nominal allies. No one has any reason to trust Washington.
Finally, launching a full‐scale economic war would have unpredictable but likely dangerous consequences. I warn: “While economic conflict does not guarantee military confrontation, the disintegration of commercial cooperation and contact that once provided the glue in the relationship between very different systems would yield an incendiary environment.” Moreover, the U.S. would be attempting to conscript other countries into its anti‐China campaign, spreading great power conflict around the globe. When forcing them to choose Washington might not be pleased by many of their responses.
The PRC poses a serious challenge to American values and interests and requires a response, but one that is thoughtful, nuanced, and targeted, not the product of a desperate presidential reelection campaign. As I conclude my Foreign Policy article: “a crusade to make China pay, no matter how appealing politically, would backfire badly. Consciously blowing up a relationship already under great strain would be worse than irresponsible. It could become the trigger for a new cold war or worse.”
In a blog post entitled “It Is Time For a Libertarian Case Against China,” Tanner Greer responds to a piece in Reason magazine by Dan Drezner, in which Dan argued that “There is No China Crisis.” Greer says that libertarians need “to take the [China] problem with the seriousness it deserves.”
Not that it matters much, but if he wants to make “a libertarian case against China,” is Greer even a libertarian? Kind of, sort of, maybe, but not really. He says:
I like libertarians and libertarianism. I can’t bring myself to identify as one, but someone recently described me as “libertarian adjacent,” and I will not dispute the label.
But regardless of whether Greer identifies as a libertarian, the issue of how to deal with a rising power that is authoritarian and looking to expand its influence in world affairs is certainly one of the biggest foreign policy challenges the U.S. government faces. We do need to take it seriously. (And if you read Dan’s piece, I think it’s clear that he does take it seriously, in the sense of offering thoughtful and nuanced analysis). How people in the United States (including, but not limited to, libertarians) think about this issue is extremely important. Having gotten so many of our foreign policy challenges wrong in recent decades, it would be nice to get this one right.
But in order to think about it clearly and rationally, we need to understand exactly what China’s goals are, in particular in the global arena. This post won’t answer that question fully, because it would take much longer than a blog post to do so. But we do want to push back on some of Greer’s characterizations, which reflect the overheated rhetoric of many China hawks. Greer says this about President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party:
What [Liza] Tobin describes as “a new path to peace, prosperity, and modernity” … Xi has variously described as “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese answer to solving the problems of the mankind,” “a new [achievement] … in the history of the development of human society,” a “new and greater contribution to mankind,” and “new advance in political civilization.” Notice the scope of what the Party hopes to reshape. They hope not to remake China, nor even Asia, but “human society,” “civilization,” and “mankind.” As Politburo member Yang Jiechi exhorted in 2018, the time has come for the Party to “energetically control the new direction of the common progress of China and the world.” 
Clearly, then, based on this language, China is out to dominate the world, right? Not so fast. First of all, relying too much on official government statements (of any government!) may be a mistake, in part because governments have many audiences in mind when they speak (importantly, their own citizens). But if you are going to use them, you need the full context. In the first sentence that Greer quotes, Xi does, in fact, use the quoted words. But when you read them in context, you don’t get the impression that the Communist Party hopes to “remake,” as Greer puts it, “human society,” “civilization,” and “mankind.” For example, the speech by Xi says this: “The Communist Party of China strives for both the wellbeing of the Chinese people and human progress. To make new and greater contributions for mankind is our Party’s abiding mission.” That sounds like the usual generalities of a government’s public relations campaign rather than an objective of remaking the world.
And with regard to the phrase “energetically control the new direction of the common progress of China and the world,” translations are difficult, and word choices between languages are not always clear, but we offer this translation of the broader passage at issue:
We (China) should have a profound insight into the new developments in China and the world, fully understand the new connotations of China’s relations with the world, accurately grasp the new law of interaction between China and the world, and proactively drive the new direction that China and the world are heading together.
Again, this seems like somewhat normal and expected government‐speak.
So what are the actual goals of the Chinese government in world affairs? That’s an area where we need more analysis from unbiased experts. For security hawks, it’s very convenient to have found a new “existential threat” that can justify a confrontational foreign policy and more military spending. But in order to craft the appropriate policy here, we need to get past the self‐serving assumptions of certain members of the foreign policy establishment, and sort out exactly what we are dealing with in terms of the Chinese government’s global ambitions. The “case against China” needs examining, but an over‐excited rush in one direction could be very damaging (and has been before).
Editor’s note: In 2014, Cato released A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security an edited volume of papers originally presented at a Cato conference the previous year. In each chapter, experts on international security assessed, and put in context, the supposed dangers to American security, from nuclear proliferation and a rising China, to terrorism and climate change.
As part of our Project on Threat Inflation, Cato will be republishing each chapter in an easily readable online format. Even six years after its publication, much of the book remains relevant. Policymakers and influencers continue to tout a dizzying range of threats, and Americans are still afraid. We invited each author to revisit their arguments and offer a few new observations in light of recent events.
The first response comes from Brendan Rittenhouse Green, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, and a recently named Cato adjunct scholar.
Many world leaders today could tell you, earnestly and genuinely, that their country faces major security threats. Historically, such threats have been endemic to the international system, and they have tended to consume most of the time, attention, and social resources of national policymakers. Moreover, statesmen from the past and present alike could probably adopt a common definition of what a “security threat” is: the possibility of outside actors using large scale violence to menace a state’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, or the physical safety of a substantial portion of its populace; or the emergence of a state that could obtain enough material power to do these things.
But the modern United States does not have this kind of problem. To be sure, its foreign policy discourse has been suffused with the language of security threats for a hundred years. The regnant American grand strategy, which I term primacy, is justified largely—though not exclusively—on security grounds. Yet no state with enough military power to reach inside the Western Hemisphere is likely to emerge any time soon. In short, there is a major disjunction between the language sometimes used to explain and justify American foreign policy commitments and the actual purpose of its strategy.
This, at any rate, was the premise of my essay “Security Threats in Contemporary World Politics.” In it, I made three basic arguments. First, I tried to show that America’s most powerful rival, China, looks nothing like the most plausible past security threats faced by the United States—the Nazi and Soviet empires. Indeed, China would have to jump over a series enormous hurdles before it even came within shouting distance of such dangerous states. Second, I claimed that the political commitments entailed by primacy had only a small prospect of reducing competition in China’s backyard below what it otherwise might be. That is, primacy has a “goldilocks problem”: the highly revisionist states that would propel any East Asian competition are likely to be either absent, or too highly motivated for American power to discourage them from risky behavior. Third, I argued that American political commitments were themselves the most plausible sources of threats to national security. Though unlikely to successfully depress regional competition, primacy’s political connections provide several mechanisms by which America could become involved in a major war.
Looking back on this essay from nearly a decade’s distance, I continue to endorse its major claims. Though I might make a few marginal changes here and there, my views are still roughly the same. But national security discourse, recent history, and my own intellectual temperament have all been altered in important ways. These changes would make for a very different essay, were it written today.
For one thing, the essay’s overwhelming focus on security issues seems less necessary today. Over the past decade, national security discourse has increasingly centered on the defense of the “liberal (or rules‐based) international order” as the key object of American foreign policy. I think the idea of the “order” borders on conceptually incoherent. But it does have a key virtue: it has enabled more and more analysts to admit that American grand strategy is concerned with something other than traditional security problems. It has therefore made the trade‐off at the heart of American grand strategy more obvious: American leaders are risking major war, and thereby making the American people less secure, for the purpose of shaping the international environment in ways they consider favorable. Was I re‐writing this essay today, I would devote more attention to examining the supposed benefits of the international order. Essays by Daniel Drezner and Eugene Gholz from A Dangerous World? provide excellent examples of this kind of analysis.
Another idea I would emphasize more is the idea of “tail risk.” The world today is living through a global pandemic, which will probably kill hundreds of thousands of people and induce the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. This turn of events was unexpected, even though the potential for a devastating global pandemic has been well‐known for decades. Nevertheless, most countries were underprepared.
Many rare phenomena pose a similar problem. Society lacks the data that would justify the assumption that certain kinds of apparently rare events are in fact extreme outliers on a bell‐shaped curve of event frequencies, rather than merely uncommon results of some other kind of frequency distribution.. In fact, it turns out that many rare events—for example, earthquakes, rogue waves, and importantly, war—do not follow a normal distribution. In many cases, the statistical likelihood of such events is far greater than the traditional bell‐shaped curve would imply—the tail ends of the actual distribution of events are “fat.”
Societies are therefore likely to underestimate the risk associated with rare events. I suspect that the probability that America’s primacy strategy will produce a major war is similarly underestimated. The probability may be relatively low, but the scale of disaster would be very large. Over the long‐term I worry that the chances of such a war would exceed the tolerance threshold of even the most aggressive strategist. Considering and analyzing this possibility seems like an especially salient task in light of recent events.
Finally, if I wrote the essay today, I would focus more attention on the idea of “second best” strategies. Early in the last decade, I still had something of the zeal of youth about me. I retained hopes that normal politics might produce non‐trivial change in American grand strategy. After all, the country had been somewhat chastened by its exhausting wars in Southwest Asia. The Tea Party, whatever its faults, was a live political force that had managed to achieve temporary restraint in the defense budget, a feat whose last occurrence had required the collapse of the Soviet Union. Obama was pursuing a second‐term foreign policy that, if not exactly worth defending, at least challenged the elite consensus on grand strategy in a couple of respects.
Well, there is nothing that the world likes better than nice, tasty hopes. The forces enumerated at the end of Christopher Preble and John Glaser’s lead essay turned out to be significantly stronger than I estimated. American power has proven so extensive that a grand strategy explicitly justified in terms of many varied goals like the liberal order is now plausible to the foreign policy establishment. The material and ideological consensus in favor of primacy among the national security elite has proven so robust that American commitments have been able to resist the election of a president like Donald Trump, who is no one’s idea of an internationalist. The American people turned out to give even less of a damn about foreign policy than I expected.
Today I believe that the probability of normal politics producing a genuinely restrained grand strategy is exceedingly slight. The best hope for a major change is probably a crisis that exposes the unexpected risks and costs of primacy. For this reason alone, the task of making the case for restraint remains vital: policymakers will need to have good ideas lying around if and when the bankruptcy of primacy is revealed.
However, I increasingly believe that more effort should be devoted among partisans of restraint to “second‐best” policies, in case my pessimistic political assessment proves out. And I am not confident that the standard answer—that the second‐best policy is “less of whatever primacy is proposing”—is always true.
For instance, if we are not going to abandon American alliances, I am not certain that loosening those ties is worthwhile, as it may encourage bad behavior among allies and adversaries alike. If we are going to retain American political commitments, then I suspect that will require more robust military capabilities than I would like as a matter of first preference. I worry that grand strategies may best be plotted on a U‐shaped curve, where the tail strategies of primacy and restraint both produce reasonably coherent and stable outcomes, but where the strategies in the middle—“off-shore balancing,” “selective engagement,” and “liberal internationalism”—turn out to be ineffective and destabilizing to world politics.
But working out whether there is anything to these concerns would be the subject of a completely different essay. And the present essay, I believe, retains real value. Its fundamental conclusion is still true: “the United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year—and risks war—largely to stop other people from fighting among themselves. The common story that reducing regional competition abroad makes America more secure at home is close to being backwards.”
My essay is not the most original or brilliant exposition of this basic point — but as bottom line conclusions go, I think one could do a lot worse.
–Brendan Rittenhouse Green
Will the COVID-19 pandemic instigate real changes in U.S. foreign policy? If so, what kind of changes? Determining the impact of this unprecedented emergency is difficult in the midst of it all, so reliable predictions on this front will be elusive for some time.
At War on the Rocks, however, Lt. Gen. David W. Barno (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel take a whack at peering into the future at how COVID-19 will change the U.S. military. The pandemic, they write, “has now suddenly and vividly demonstrated that a large, forward deployed military cannot effectively protect Americans from nontraditional threats to their personal security and the American way of life. In a deeply interconnected world, geography matters far less, and the security afforded by America’s far‐flung military forces has been entirely irrelevant in this disastrous crisis.” Therefore, policymakers may develop alternative conceptions of national security that emphasize the cyber domain over the the more traditional land, sea, and air. The Pentagon’s budget will be squeezed by other priorities, meaning expensive weapons programs long targeted by budget hawks may be cut.
Barno and Bensahel also predict a possible change in force posture. Maintaining big expensive U.S. military bases and forward‐deployed forces overseas, they argue, may get a second look.
Reliance on Forward Defense Will Diminish
Forward defense has long been the cornerstone of U.S. defense strategy, but it will become less important as the focus grows on countering catastrophic threats against the homeland. In a post‐pandemic world characterized by huge deficits, massive debt, and economic recession, the United States will continue to defend its most vital interests overseas: keeping NATO alive, protecting Eastern Europe from Russia, supporting Israel, and deterring conflict in Asia. But U.S. forces across the Middle East, Afghanistan, Africa, and even in some parts of the Pacific are likely to be drawn down if not withdrawn completely.
The economic crisis may also require changes to U.S. force posture in the places where military forces remain, since the sprawling network of overseas bases remains expensive. The United States spends about $10 billion a year to operate these bases, a figure that would be far higher without the very substantial amount of host nation support (which includes cash payments as well as various forms of in‐kind support). Yet the global recession and rising debt levels spawned by the pandemic may make it harder for allies and partners hosting U.S. troops to continue providing such high levels of support. And here at home, the economic crisis will make members of Congress even more likely to support shuttering overseas bases in order to forestall any discussion of domestic base closures, since preserving jobs in their districts becomes even more critical at a time of such staggering unemployment levels.
There is very little that is “defensive” about our forward‐deployed posture, but leaving that semantic quibble aside, this should be a welcome prospect. My Cato Policy Analysis from 2017 addresses the cost and strategic value (or lack thereof) of forward basing and recommends large‐scale withdrawal. The “$10 billion a year” figure that Barno and Bensahel cite is a scandalous underestimate, though, as I explain in the paper, it very much depends on how one counts (the range I cite is about $60 billion to $120 billion annually). More importantly, overseas bases often do not achieve the geopolitical objectives they are intended to achieve, they tend to prime policymakers for interventions that should not happen, and they frequently backfire by creating new enemies or exacerbating regional rivalries.
Overseas bases are intended to be an insurance policy on stability abroad and to enable rapid U.S. deployment in a given situation. They do not protect the homeland, per se. They are supposed to protect other nations and deter adversaries that do not pose a direct military threat to the United States. As many of my colleagues and other commentators have explained, the ongoing pandemic crystallizes Washington’s failure to properly assess threats and allocate resources accordingly. Many Americans would surely be flummoxed by the enormous investments we have made in an empire of overseas bases to protect against minor (or even implausible) threats in the traditional military realm while non‐traditional threats that actually harm Americans go under‐funded. The legislative response so far suggests that Congress is inclined to borrow its way out of the crisis, but revenue is finite. Instead of keeping the federal budget the way it is and simply adding new funds for pandemic responses, at some point trade‐offs have to be made.