Writing amid the early tensions of the Cold War, J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of nuclear weapons, asserted in 1956 that "the world cannot endure half-darkness and half-light." Yet endure it did for another three decades -- catastrophe was averted at the end of the Cold War. Today we are in the early stages of a "cool war" era, a time of conflict between nations and networks. Some networks harness the darkness of terrorism; others mobilize civil society to overthrow dictators. All the while, nations keep wary watch over each other, for this is an age replete with threat, an era when older weapons of mass destruction coexist with newer ones capable of mass disruption. Oppenheimer's imagery of the deadly interplay between dark and light forces still applies.
Will the world find its way through current and coming perils as it has before? And what role can the United States play in mastering them? The 71 participants in the third annual Foreign Policy Survey on the future of war (myself included) make clear that the task ahead is going to be complex, confusing, and rife with hard-to-control elements. The survey's list of the most serious threats to U.S. national security speaks clearly to this problem, with experts pinpointing economic crisis and regional instability as the top two dangers. This is not the Cold War, with one overarching enemy to be "contained" wherever the need might arise. This is a world afire with more than two dozen serious armed conflicts -- and many areas not yet ablaze but at great risk of catching fire. It is a world that lies far, far beyond containment.
To the extent that American foreign policy and security strategy can affect global events, survey respondents suggest that the current U.S. approach may not be addressing the most urgent problems. For example, the individual countries of greatest concern to half of the respondents are Pakistan and Iran, yet U.S. President Barack Obama seeks a "pivot" to the Pacific that clearly puts China in the cross-hairs. Respondents do not concur with the administration's priorities; roughly half of them view the "pivot" negatively, whether because it's overemphasized or poorly implemented.
Besides, as recent events have shown, it's clear the United States is in no position to take its eye off the Middle East. More than two years after the beginning of the Arab Spring in the Maghreb and Middle East, opinion is almost evenly divided between those who see the countries affected by the movement as threats to the United States and those who observe something more benign, perhaps even beneficial. A similar split arises in assessing the conflict in Syria. Asked to describe the U.S. response to the two-year-old civil war in a single word, survey participants came up with more than 40 different ones -- about half critical and the other half positive or neutral. When it comes to what is perhaps America's strongest ally in the region, about 50 percent of the experts assert that the American relationship with Israel now hurts U.S. national security more than it helps.
These divided opinions about the arc of unrest that stretches from North Africa through the broader Middle East are real warning flares for U.S. foreign policy, particularly with regard to the need to keep an eye on al Qaeda. Nearly two-thirds of respondents think the terrorist network is categorically weakening, but I believe the ground truth suggests just the opposite. The American-aided toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, along with support for the rebellion in Syria, has opened new fronts for al Qaeda. U.S. troops have left Iraq; al Qaeda is back there too, trying to foment civil war. The fact that the U.S. regime-change strategy in Libya and Syria coincides with the preferences of the world's premier terrorist network should give us all pause.