Saturday, November 19, 2011

Security: Idealized Versus Practical Future Forecasting: The Case of the US National Security Strategy

Source: ISN

Are a nation-state’s defense and national security policies free from the perceived problems associated with future forecasting? The ISN’s Peter Faber analyzes the United States’ 2010 National Security Strategy to demonstrate that practical futurology can be instrumentalized to reflect distinct political preferences.

By Peter Faber for the ISN

This past week we have been looking at some of the broader issues surrounding future forecasting. Our working assumption has been that the way we have traditionally structured international political and economic relations are undergoing a massive and enduring paradigm shift. The changes, in other words, are fundamental rather than at the margins. They have made future forecasting, or chance-dominated divination as critics such as Joe Keohane would have it, even more treacherous than before. Even if you believe that futurology provides you much needed “tilts” in anticipating events (see Monday’s discussion), you still have a host of political, risk-centered and basic methodological problems to contend with, as we have discussed over the last four days. However, despite the seeming sins associated with this discipline, forecast we must. It is, for example, critical to a nation-state’s near- and mid-term security planning. But are the security-centered strategies and planning documents produced by states free of the problems I just alluded to? Indeed, how does futurology as an ideal actually match up with futurology in practice?

Since next week’s focus will be on “real” examples of future forecasting, we have today an opportunity to stop and look back at some of the basic issues raised this week and to point towards specific analyses yet to come. Now, since national security strategies and/or defense white papers are often perfect illustrations of how abstract and practical futurology collide with each other, there is value in broadly looking at the 2010 version of the United States’ National Security Strategy (NSS). The document is typical of officially produced near- to mid-term futurology. It self-consciously blends desired and anticipated futures together, and it deliberately skews its representations of future risk to serve predetermined ends. The document, in short, presents a politically filtered future instead of a Bueno de Mesquita-like “scientific” one (see yesterday’s ISN podcast), and by doing so it represents what practical futurology often really looks like.

To be fair, national security strategies and defense white papers are a tricky business. Many states avoid producing them. Others classify them or ensure they are hopelessly anodyne, either to prevent providing convenient rebuttal points for their political opponents or to be intelligible to their different ministries. Once in a while, however, some national security strategies or defense white papers are shockingly honest and to-the-point. The Bush Administration’s infamous 2002 NSS is a case in point. Considered by many to be the most revolutionary and two-fisted US security strategy since the unveiling of the Truman Doctrine, it dismayed many of America’s allies, who basically said, “If you want to thwart the rise of a near-peer competitor and misrepresent preventive war as preemptive war, why don’t you merely think these thoughts rather than actually put them down on paper?” As different as this Great Sheriff-emphasizing document is to the 2010 NSS, which advocates an America dedicated to being a Great Facilitator or Great Coordinator rather than a Great Hegemon, both documents actually point toward a desired future as much as they do an anticipated one. They also selectively tout, as we shall see, preferred risks over others.

The US’s 2010 NSS has assumptions buried within its futurology and these assumptions serve a seemingly contradictory belief – e.g., the US now needs to pursue a liberal internationalist foreign policy that is thoroughly realistic in its expectations. Some of the key tenets of this tricky philosophical balancing act, as expressed in the NSS, are as follows.

1. Structural changes in the international system are not occurring solely at the margins. They are now accelerated, comprehensive and fundamental .

2. We need a new international order that is multilateral and interdependent if we are to respond to these structural changes properly.

Yes, but just what does the NSS mean by a new international order? Does it represent a belief in a formalized United Nations-like world? Not really. The desired future order seems to tout, according to Richard Kugler, “a functioning, flexible cluster of likeminded nations that choose to act together in pursuit of their common interests.” (See his New Directions in U.S. National Security Strategy, Defense Plans, and Diplomacy.) This “new” order, in other words, seems to tout an updated, more flexible version of the current status quo. It would rely upon the cooperation of likeminded states, and they would act collectively in dealing with specific problems.

3. If the new multilateral order is going to function properly, the United States, as mentioned earlier, should now function as a Great Facilitator or Great Coordinator rather than a residual Great Hegemon in international security affairs.

Very well, but what does this say about US attitudes about future risk? The social science literature, after all, is rather clear about this. You may embrace or tisk-tisk one particular type of hegemony over another, but from a historical standpoint hegemony is good. It feeds and sustains system-level peace. To embrace the concept of a multilateral world (e.g., an NSS-defined world of fluid political clusters) and to now define your preferred (but still-central) role in that world as a facilitator/coordinator is to acknowledge that you are prepared to accept greater risk in the international system. But is “leading from behind” or pursuing “principled”, “aggressive” or “complex” engagement with others actually wise as a desired prediction for the future? Prince Metternich’s multilateral post-Napoleonic system, after all, succeeded for forty or so years only because its members were roughly equal in power and a weak, confederated Germany provided them with the strategic space they needed to avoid unduly jostling each other. Does our current system enjoy these advantages? Does it even need to enjoy them or are any concerns we might have about eventual political bandwagoning or power balancing now moot (see #6 below)?

4. Regardless of how the US sees its international role, it needs to see its security problems in transnational terms .

The assumption here, of course, is that no one government can cope with new-era challenges such as climate change, pandemics, transnational terrorism and crime, nuclear proliferation, etc. These problems require the transnational cooperation identified in the previous two items. While this argument is irrefutable, there is an underbelly to it that does not get acknowledged enough. Are we, once again, merely anticipating a future we expect or a future we prefer? One does not have to be conspiracy-minded to raise the following argument.

The Westphalian State has gone through at least six incarnations, or so Phillip Bobbitt argues in The Sword of Achilles. The services-providing nation-state we are all familiar with is presently under siege. Critics such as Bobbitt claim it is being supplanted by market states, which are economically driven and therefore upend the services-centric functions of the nation-state. The market state, in other words, is there to facilitate individual entrepreneurial success. It is not there to function as an indulgent, all-protecting parent. Assuming this aspect of the structural changes we’ve been talking about is true, even with the ongoing sovereign debt crisis staring us in the face, the question then becomes what do you do with professional politicians? Not as service providers, mind you, but as a very self-conscious, very self-interested class? Would these guild members willingly watch their power and influence wane, or might they – in an attempt to preserve their relevancy and centrality in modern life – eagerly expand and redefine the problems they confront? Do we not have problems with inflation in today’s world? Are politicians, unlike their more parochial ancestors, not only dealing with more complex problems, but also deliberately defining them in that way? Isn’t there an element of sociological self-interest at play here and doesn’t it exist in the 2010 NSS? These questions may certainly appear conspiratorial and hostile to a particular type of state, but the final two desired (and therefore politicized) futures listed here should at least give us pause before we dismiss the questions out of hand.

5. If the structure of the international system is undergoing paradigm-level change, and if we need a more multilateral and consensually-based international order to deal with these changes, and if we need to face our transnational problems in transnational ways, then individual governments such as the US need to do two things – 1) try and shape the international environment rather than merely react to it, and 2) adopt whole-of-government approaches to solving problems, including security.

Yes, according to the 2010 NSS, governments have a responsibility not merely to anticipate the future but also to predetermine it as much as possible. We just don’t want to be victimized by the poorly anticipated or the undesired. No one ministry can do this alone, of course, so a government’s full range of resources must be orchestrated and directed by political leaders, or so the logic goes. This is how, to speak metaphorically, you stop a small campfire (a political crisis) from turning into a raging forest fire. It is also how you work towards a stable future international security order (as created by you). It is how you can best rehabilitate failed or failing states, minimize your stabilization and reconstruction burdens, and ensure long-term development. It is, in short, how you either limit or prevent the emergence of unwanted conflicts while inching towards a just and sustainable international order that can resolve 21st century challenges.

There are, of course, huge assumptions at play here, not the least of which is the Enlightenment Era belief in history as the unfolding of human progress. To socially engineer the future, however, requires peace, which the 2010 NSS obligingly provides. It appears to believe that today’s absence of deep major power rivalries is a permanent condition. It also assumes, bad economic tidings from 2008 onward notwithstanding, that America will have the resources to engage the world as comprehensively as it would like. It foresees a future, in short, where it will have the capacity to address its six top security concerns.

  • Strengthen security and resilience at home.
  • Disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its violent extremist affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and around the world. (By preventing safe havens and attacking them “there” rather than “here”.)
  • Reverse the spread of nuclear and biological weapons and secure nuclear materials.
  • Advance peace, security, and opportunity in the Greater Middle East.
  • Invest in the capacity of strong and capable partners. Secure cyberspace.

That shaping environments smacks of hubris, if not outright meddlesomeness, goes without saying here. (Further, is it really a top-down affair or actually a bottom-up one based on mutual self-interest? The NSS seems wrongly to side with the former option.) That ‘comprehensive engagement’ with the world may not necessarily coincide with being a Great Coordinator also goes understated here, as does the actual capacity to fulfill that role. But what’s also interesting, once again, is how the document sees risk. Not only does it seem to shift tentatively away from America’s historically very low tolerance of risk, but notice what is not on the list of top security concerns. Have we permanently vanquished Great Power competition, especially if future power centers will be clustered rather than single-states? Does the NSS’s template for advancing peace, security, and opportunity in the Greater Middle East factor in – with any seriousness – a nuclear Iran? Investing in the capacity of strong and capable partners may be compatible with promoting multilateralism, but does multilateralism mean comity and cooperation, or can it mean fragmentation and competition? In short, does pluralism ipso facto mean harmony? Finally, where in this preferred list is Asia, the putative center of geopolitical activities in the future?

Selectivity of emphasis and promoting a progressive world view are to be expected in polemical documents, but the NSS proudly assumes the mantle of strategy, and part of that mantel includes articulating the context you expect to be in. When you blend polemics with your expectation of the future and your characterization of risk, you end up having instrumentalized forecasting. My point here is not necessarily to deplore this tendency, which can be fairly “reality inclusive”, but merely to emphasize that it is utterly normal. But underneath this normal is a final assumption that shapes the 2010 NSS’s view of the future in a profound way.

6. Norman Angell and economic security.

Depending on your political beliefs, parts of the preferred (and assumed) future laid out by the NSS may have raised your hackles. The sentimentalization of multilateralism may have annoyed you, as might have the idea that pluralism is an automatic synonym for harmony. On the other hand, you may believe that the international politics of the old is indeed being supplanted by a politics of the new. Realists might cite history and its inevitable return, but progressive internationalists may argue that we are not doomed to experience a series of political perpetual returns. Harmony is possible, comity is possible. Effective multilateralism is possible too, as is a new international order based on collective responses to collective problems. The international system and its structures, in other words, are human creations. They are not blind, eternal forces of nature. They are changeable, and according to the NSS, they are changeable because of two major reasons, among others. First, over the last 200 years progressive norms have grown in power. So much so that a state’s legitimacy now lies in collective versus unilateral action and its sovereignty derives from its people, who today are the true sovereigns and who have the right to take it away if the state fails in its obligations to them. Norms indeed march on, which means a bright shiny penny world is possible, or so the NSS ultimately argues. The other reason it’s possible is because Norman Angell was right.

Beginning with the 18th century, we have had a slew of thinkers who recurrently make “economic interdependence” arguments against war. One prominent example of this type of analyst was Sir Norman Angell, who later received the Noble Peace Prize for his anti-war work early in the 20th century. Prior to World War I, Angell published "The Great Illusion," which basically argued that the best way to discourage states from attacking each other was to so entangle their financial fates together that an attack by one against the other would constitute nothing less than economic suicide. More specifically, here's how Angell put it in the 1913 version of his famous text:

“Wealth in the economically civilized world is founded upon credit and commercial contract (these being the outgrowth of an economic interdependence due to the increasing division of labor and greatly developed communication). If credit and commercial contract are tampered with in an attempt at confiscation, the credit-dependent wealth is undermined, and its collapse involves that of the conqueror; so that if conquest is not to be self-injurious it must respect the enemy’s property, in which case it becomes economically futile.”

The point, convoluted prose aside, is that the more commercial activity (i.e., economic interpenetration) you have between states, the less logical and more obsolete hard power solutions become. Within such a context, to plunder another's resources is merely to diminish your own.

Obviously, Angell's message was premature. The rational calculation behind it got overwhelmed by the irrational hyper-nationalism of 1914. But being ahead of your time doesn't make you necessarily wrong, or so argued the founding fathers of the European Union. As a result of their beliefs, the European community's post-1945 economic policies have been first and foremost political policies, and they’ve embraced the basic premises of Norman Angellism. Domestic business interests may permit the militarization of one’s foreign policy, but international trade inexorably has the reverse effect, or so many progressives have argued since the 18th century. And so have believers in the concept of the Democratic Peace over the last twenty-five years. And so semi-implicitly does the US 2010 NSS.

By putting economic renewal at the center of its national security strategy, the Obama Administration does instrumentalize the future and its attendant risks. It blends a future it prefers with a future it sees. It selectively stresses risks that point to challenges ahead, but also to opportunities. For by embracing domestic economic renewal and the six beliefs discussed in this article, the 2010 NSS attempts to “think the unthinkable, prepare for the inevitable and control the controllable,” as discussed in last Monday’s article. And in doing all these things, the NSS is highly illustrative of how practical futurology is done – always if not imperfectly.