State of War

FP surveyed more than 70 experts on today's global conflicts, with John Arquilla guiding us through the results.

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.

Al Qaeda's continued influence also calls into question Obama's handling of the U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, in favor of a "lighter" American footprint abroad. In the FP Survey, Afghanistan's long-running problems are clearly attributed more heavily to the Afghans, with half of the 71 respondents naming weak governance, corruption, and ethnic and religious divisions as the biggest obstacles to stability. (About a third of respondents blame Pakistan.) Yet there is also a strong belief among the experts that ginning up the whole nation-building enterprise was the biggest mistake the United States made in Afghanistan. Perhaps the implication is that something less grand is called for -- and may allow for ultimate success. Three-quarters of respondents think the United States should continue with its plan to withdraw combat forces by 2014 -- if not get them out sooner. Yet nearly three-fourths want the U.S. military to stay on indefinitely, and two-thirds want NATO to do so but primarily in small numbers and in training, advisory, and counterterrorism roles.

The foreign-policy debates apparent in the survey's many divided opinions are a sign of larger questions about internal U.S. political dysfunction. Indeed, respondents listed the United States itself as the fourth most threatening country to American security, whether because of the country's penchant for overreaching or the parlous state of its finances. It seems that an enduring division persists between Americans who want to lead the world and those who prefer not to go abroad in search of monsters. The intensity of this division can spark hyperpartisanship in Washington, the renewal of which several respondents listed as the most significant lesson from the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Opinions about drone warfare come into play here as well. These unmanned devices seem to offer a middle ground in the debate, allowing intervention but at low cost and risk, yet there is sharp, confusing division here too. Forty-one experts think attacking suspected terrorists with drones is legal, while 25 think America's use of drones is illegal or at least possibly so. But by a 57 to 43 percent margin they also see drones as overused by the Obama administration.

The FP Survey also speaks to important issues where I have some skin in the game. Twenty years ago, my colleague David Ronfeldt and I said that cyberwar was coming, but respondents, by a margin of 57 to 43 percent, believe that these warnings have been overstated. Yet these same experts say that cyber is the top area where they think the U.S. Defense Department should devote more resources. The only reasonable explanation is that even those who think the threat has not yet matured see value in preparing for cyberwar now. As to whether the world is becoming less violent, Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker's argument that the world today is more peaceful than ever before has gotten more traction, by a margin of 63 to 37 percent, than my oft-expressed concerns about the rising number of wars and the increasing targeting of innocents.

Despite their generally divided views on the world's great threats -- new and old, to the American homeland and abroad -- the experts, on a hopeful note, showed convincing, broad agreement on three policies that, if pursued, could see peace restored to Afghanistan, the strain on the American economy eased, and the world made less nuclear. Three-quarters of respondents want the United States to pursue active negotiations with the Taliban. A plurality of about 40 percent wants the U.S. defense budget cut by more than $500 billion over the next decade. And two-thirds of the experts want the U.S. nuclear arsenal cut by at least 40 percent from the current inventory of more than 5,000 warheads. Good news, and all doable without imperiling the republic -- if America's politicians can ever agree on how to get there.



Mad Libs: War Edition

FP asked more than 70 top military thinkers to fill in the blanks on the world's global conflicts -- from the drone wars to the budget wars.


Iran. —Graham Allison, David Barno, Gian Gentile, Seth G. Jones, Peter Mansoor, Barry Pavel, Dov Zakheim • China. —Douglas Birkey, Kenneth Gause, Paul Kapur, Thomas Keaney, Edward Luttwak, Thomas Mahnken, Merrill McPeak, Paul Pillar, Danielle Pletka, Christopher Twomey • China's air, naval, and missile buildup presents the largest and most consequential military challenge since the U.S. and Europe faced the Soviet Army during the Cold War. —Robert Haddick • Pakistan. —Thomas H. Johnson • North Korea. —Tad Oelstrom • Leadership vacuum in the Middle East. —Jeffrey Dressler • Weakening of central authority and the rise of ungoverned spaces in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. —Richard Kohn • Authoritarianism. —Frederic Wehrey • The implosion of Mexico is the most serious near-term threat. —James A. Russell • Russia, whose resources, large military, nuclear arsenal, geostrategic position, and intentions make it the most powerful counterweight in the world to the United States. —John Arquilla • We haven't had one since the USSR fell apart. —William Rosenau • We don't have a "top geopolitical foe." The most serious threats the U.S. -- and the global community -- face are currently collective in nature (climate change, disease, economic crisis). —Rosa BrooksChangeable.  The world just isn't that simple anymore. —John Nagl • Rising anti-Americanism in parts of the developing world, much of it the result of U.S. policies. —Donald Snow • It's own unrestrained tendency to meddle. —Gordon Adams • Ourselves, because we are so internally conflicted and confused. —Henry Rowen • Our Congress, which does not have the seriousness of purpose needed to do its job. —Rachel Kleinfeld • Our collapsing political system. More briefly, us. —Heather Hurlburt


Reducing collateral damage, timely, well controlled, and effective. —Abraham Karem • Politically seductive but insufficient and possibly even counterproductive for combating terrorism in the long run. —Amy Zegart • The most pragmatic solution for the problem, and it saves lives. —Robert D. Kaplan • Effective in targeting some terrorists, though it needs to be complemented with other security, economic, and political instruments that help address the causes of terrorism. —Seth G. Jones • Commendable. —Edward Luttwak • Questionable and may set a dangerous international precedent. —Gordon Adams • Sensible. —Graham Allison • Ludicrously secretive. —William Rosenau • Controversial, but effective. —Richard Burt • Tactically and operationally effective, but risks -- at the strategic and political levels -- establishing norms we won't want to live with. —Nathaniel Fick • Overrelying on this one lethal tool and also is in need of a stronger and more transparent legal framework. —Paul Pillar • Meeting a key security need in a dangerous world. —David Barno • A tactic in search of a strategy. Current overreliance on drones is likely doing more strategic harm than good. Rosa Brooks • Quite apart from its lack of oversight and constitutional ambiguities, an attempted response to a symptom. By focusing on drones, we ignore the underlying causes of extremism and often actually exacerbate it. —Sarah Chayes • Something the U.S. Congress should debate and authorize (or not) country by country. —Benjamin H. Friedman • Prudent because it focuses on projecting precise power without projecting undue liability and vulnerability. —Douglas Birkey • Legal, but too central to our counterterrorism policy, and problematic. —Eliot Cohen • Legal, but an evasion of responsibility and likely to have diminishing returns once the U.S. retreats from Afghanistan. —Danielle Pletka • Effective but should not be overplayed if it contributes to the instability of Pakistan or other countries. —Thomas Henriksen • Reasonable, but could be strengthened with judicial oversight. —John Nagl • Difficult to comprehend given the limited and recently decreasing transparency provided by the White House. —Micah Zenko • The beginning of a brave new world of conflict. Since World War II, American presidents have been balanced in their use of force by having to weigh congressional support and the cost of American lives. Now presidents will be less constrained. —Kevin Ryan • Narcissistic. It lures us into a belief that war is too easy and painless. —Donald Snow • Due for a speech outlining America's vision on where the technology and the policy should evolve to next. Who better than a commander in chief/law professor/Nobel Prize winner to give that speech? —Peter Singer


Somewhere in the $300-$400 billion range. —Donald Snow • $450B. —Kori Schake • About $450 billion (wild guess), simply to maintain our splendid military institutions. —Henry Gaffney • Somewhere around $450 billion in constant FY 2013 dollars. —Gordon Adams • Determined by strategy and below $500 billion. —Heather Hurlburt • On the order of $500 billion. —Merrill McPeak • At least $550 billion, plus overseas contingency operations. —Dov Zakheim • $500-$600 billion, depending on operational contingency spending. —Jeffrey Dressler • About $575 billion, adjusted for inflation and not including overseas contingency ops. —David Barno • $600B. —John Deni • 3 percent of GDP; we need economical expansion and also need to win the "defense-per-dollar" competition with China! —Abraham Karem • At most, 3.5 percent of GDP when no major threat exists, as is the case today. —Christopher Twomey • Approximately 3.9 percent of GDP. —Thomas Henriksen • 4 percent of GDP. —Eliot Cohen • Dependent upon changing strategic needs, but probably not too different from the FY 2013 level. —Richard Aboulafia • Roughly what we are spending now, with a greater emphasis over time on recapitalizing the Navy and Air Force. —Thomas Mahnken • Less than it is now. There's a lot of waste in the current system. —Rosa Brooks • Much less than the last 11 years. —Robert Cassidy • What we spent in the 1990s at most -- 30 percent plus reduction in real terms. —Benjamin H. Friedman • More akin to the 2001 level than today's. —Barry Pavel • It depends on the U.S. grand strategy it is intended to support. —Micah Zenko • Dramatically less if capabilities were better suited to what our military is actually called upon to do. —Russell Rumbaugh • That which can accomplish the nation's security strategy and priorities with minimum risk. —David Deptula • Ideally somehow linked to our national strategic and economic security situation (to dream the impossible dream). —Peter Singer • Unlikely to be reached given the sausage-making appropriations process. —Richard Fontaine • Inherently elusive. —Frederic Wehrey • Unknown. —Richard Kohn


Troubling and opaque. —David Barno • Worrying. —Kori Schake • Destabilizing, especially in Northeast and Southeast Asia. —Dov Zakheim • Worrisome, but its sustainability is uncertain. —Paul Kapur • A challenge to its neighbors that the U.S. needs to be involved in managing, without slipping into "active" as if it were all targeted at us. —Heather HurlburtOverblown. They still have less than half the major naval combatant ships that the U.S. has (even including the rather small amphibious ships they have) and are hardly adding to their numbers. Henry Gaffney • Normal for a country of its size and the size of its economy. —Robert D. Kaplan • Following the historical pattern of great-power emergence. —Mark Hagerott • Inexorable. —Robert Cassidy • Inevitable, but not necessarily threatening if handled with careful diplomacy. —Richard Aboulafia • Just what we would do in their shoes. —Erik Dahl • Predictable, understandable, but concerning for the U.S. and Asia. —Graham Allison • Complicates U.S. power projection in the Asian littoral, but is of limited effect beyond. —Christopher Twomey • Not a threat to the United States. There are many regional states neighboring China, large and small, that can balance against it quite well. —John Arquilla • Real, and a potential threat to its neighborhood, requiring America to ensure freedom of navigation and diplomatic rather than military decision-making in the Asian region. —Rachel Kleinfeld • Insignificant. They are a land power, incapable of any real power projection. —James A. Russell • America's greatest geopolitical challenge (see No. 1 above). —Robert Haddick • Something the United States needs to address in a balanced and thoughtful manner. —Kenneth Gause • Medium-term, not long-term, threat. —Edward Luttwak • Consistent with its increasing status in the world, its security needs, and its growing population. —Tad Oelstrom • Cautious and predictable. —Henry Rowen • Its military modernization is still pitiful compared to U.S. capability, or to achieve Chinese geopolitical aims. —Russell Rumbaugh • Unfortunate but expected. One result, however, is that it will make the U.S. an even more valuable ally to have. —Jim Walsh • Intended to degrade American influence in the Asia-Pacific and give the Chinese decisive coercive advantage. —Amy Zegart • Likely to continue. —Jack Riley


The human destruction. —Richard Fontaine • The slaughter of innocents. —Henry Gaffney • The many casualties. —Henry Rowen • Child casualties. —William Rosenau • Thousands of civilian deaths for what appears to be the inevitable fall of Assad. —John Deni • Other than the significant loss of life, the uncertainty surrounding the disposition of its chemical munitions. —David Deptula • The length of time it has continued, causing untold misery within the country and destroying hope for establishing long-term stability post-Assad. —Thomas Keaney • It has the potential to set off regional and sectarian conflict whose costs dwarf the already terrible toll in Syria and hold back the entire region from realizing the dreams we saw during the Arab Spring. —Heather Hurlburt • Al Qaeda's growing involvement in the insurgency. —Seth G. Jones • The growing likelihood that it will end up enhancing the influence of extremists in Syria and the region. —John McLaughlin • That a victory by the rebels, which is probably inevitable at this point, will provide al Qaeda a base in the heart of the Middle East and will stoke the simmering sectarian conflict in Iraq -- with no U.S. forces to bail the Iraqis out of the quagmire this time around. —Peter Mansoor • It has the potential to draw the U.S. military into it, and as both Iraq and Afghanistan showed, it is really easy to get into wars but quite difficult to get out of them. —Gian Gentile • How it reveals that so many American "experts" have learned so little from the past decade of war. —Nathaniel Fick • That President Obama has said that Bashar al-Assad "must go" but has done precious little to make that happen. —John Arquilla • That the U.S. has stood by and done nothing to try and affect the outcome. —James A. Russell • The geostrategic factors that prevent a more assertive Western involvement (chemical weapons, Russian opposition). —Christopher Twomey • The missed opportunities in strategic and humanitarian terms if the U.S. had played a leadership role. —Barry Pavel • It would be so easy, and relatively risk-free, to take a military role in determining the outcome. —Merrill McPeak • The pressure by liberal interventionists to engage without having thought out the serious military/operational aspects of ideas such as no-kill zones. —Sean Kay • The unfair criticism of Obama's wise restraint. —Edward Luttwak • There is no good solution. Assad's departure won't solve the unrest anymore. —Juliette Kayyem • The fact that the most likely outcomes are continued dictatorship and anarchy. —Benjamin H. Friedman • That it's difficult to imagine a happy outcome. —Richard Aboulafia • What will come after. —Kevin Ryan