The Bend of Power

How the U.S. military can overcome the challenges of complexity in a rapidly changing world.

When my father was drafted into the Army during World War II, the challenges were immense, but the military end states were clear. Germany had invaded its neighbors and Japan had attacked the United States. Diplomacy and sanctions had failed. Force was the only option left. Together with our allies, the U.S. armed forces did what militaries have done for generations: used lethal force to compel an enemy to surrender.

After 1945, the U.S. military became smaller, but the burdens of global leadership caused our obligations to grow. We increased our capabilities and reorganized our national-security apparatus to contain the communist powers. The United States led the way in replacing the old system of European colonies with a more stable order of shared norms, multilateral institutions, and interdependent markets.

This new order did not sustain itself on its own. It required constant care, attention, and defense, much of which was done by the U.S. military. In its new role as guarantor of the international order, the U.S. armed forces became the hard-power foundation of global security -- which protected and promoted our interests, our friends, and the norms that bound us together. 

In the past half-century, we've enjoyed some notable successes. Our European partners grew into a strong and capable alliance and many former colonies evolved into stable, democratic states. East Asia embraced free markets and emerged more prosperous than ever before. The Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. The values we fought for in World War II and the Cold War began to coalesce into widely shared norms.

But a new century brought new dangers. In each region of the world, we face serious -- but very different -- security challenges, from rising state-to-state tensions in Asia and Europe to escalating sub-state violence in the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, technologies and capabilities once confined to states are moving beyond their control. The result is an international order under duress with as many things working to pull the world apart as to pull it together.

Just like after 1945, we now confront a situation in which the U.S. military is shrinking as calls for our leadership around the globe are expanding. With the opportunity cost of each of our actions increasing, we must be judicious in the application of military force and seize innovative ways to use it to best effect.

The U.S. military is up to this challenge. We are becoming more agile in how we manage our forces, employing our assets around the globe in dynamic and purposeful ways. We are updating our efforts to build the capacity of our partners, emphasizing regional and multilateral approaches. We are better integrating military efforts with those of the other instruments of national power, including diplomacy and economics. Ultimately, the United States must continue to underwrite the international order.

Shifting Power

The scholar and former Foreign Policy editor Moisés Naím argues in The End of Power that technology and demographics are changing the ways people interact and compete around the world. I agree. Traditional power structures are losing their monopolies on authority in many areas of human affairs. In politics, disparate protest movements are challenging governments by coordinating their efforts over the Internet and through social media. In business, blue-chip corporations are losing ground to start-ups, hedge funds, and independent innovators. Everywhere, individuals have more access to power than ever before -- large hierarchical organizations are losing out to newer, better-networked actors.

Some aspects of this diffusion of power are certainly good. But in the realm of security, it raises serious concerns. There are some tools that only responsible governments should possess -- no one wants a world in which rogue regimes and nonstate actors field nuclear weapons, for example. There are also some tools that only responsible governments do possess; when major crises occur, whether natural or man-made, it is only these states that have the infrastructure and resources to respond effectively. In short, more participation and more competition are not necessarily desirable in the security realm. Strong states and institutions bring stability. Weak ones breed confrontation and chaos.

It would be difficult enough if all we had to grapple with was what Naím calls the "decay of power." But the way power relationships are changing varies greatly from region to region across the globe.

In Asia, states are rapidly expanding their militaries while territorial disputes heighten the risk of miscalculation. The U.S. security umbrella and decades of diplomatic and military efforts have helped facilitate Asia's historic rise, but renewed rivalries threaten to reverse the region's progress. Traditional power-on-power relationships will shape Asia's future and ultimately determine whether it becomes the economic engine of the 21st century or a zone of interstate conflict.

In the Middle East and North Africa, centuries-old religious, ethnic, and tribal tensions challenge state authority and fuel violence. As the region wobbles along a fault line extending from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad, there are no easy solutions for steadying it. In this environment, the traditional use of military power rarely yields expected results.

In Europe, threats from Russia on the eastern flank and extremist groups on the southern flank are growing as countries trend toward parochialism at home. Russia's activities in Ukraine are giving the world a disturbing image of the hybrid nature of military aggression in the 21st century. Europe is approaching an inflection point at which decisions to favor narrow interests or greater unity will transform the region.

Even in our own hemisphere, organized criminal networks to our south pose a looming security threat close to home.

The United States -- and those partners with whom we share common values -- confronts a dizzying assortment of challenges. There's certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution. But there are some common best practices that we should follow. First, wherever possible, we should view problems through a regional lens -- not one country, one group, and one crisis at a time. Second, we should carefully integrate all our instruments of power, making sure that our policies leverage each instrument to its best use.

Played out in real time in the media, the myriad challenges we face can be paralyzing -- unless we have a set of guideposts against which to measure our choices and their consequences.

Historians have argued since the dawn of the written word about whether it is possible for a nation to craft grand strategy. Some suggest that grand strategy is too difficult -- that the grand strategies of the past were only discernible in hindsight, not the result of careful forethought and planning.

Despite cynics' arguments that grand strategy is a thing of the past, it is critical today -- when calls for U.S. leadership and military power shift from crisis to crisis. We need a well-articulated grand strategy that clearly prioritizes what is most important -- one that leverages traditional and new regional partnerships and fully integrates all of the instruments of national power.

Striking the Right Balance

To deal with our most pressing security challenges, the U.S. military will not be the only tool we use, nor should it be the principal one in most circumstances. Often the military is best used in a supporting role -- especially if we want to achieve meaningful and enduring results. And we should "go it alone" only in the rarest of circumstances.

The problems of the Middle East, for example, require much more than hard power. Our experiences there have demonstrated that good governance, economic development, and strong and equitable institutions are prerequisites for sustainable peace. The challenges confronting the Middle East will take a generation or more to resolve, and the people and leaders of the region must lead the way. In such circumstances, patience and perseverance will be necessary -- the changes will not come overnight.

Most problems around the world today do not have quick military fixes. The key is to be selective in how we use military power and to combine it more effectively with diplomatic and economic levers. In the rough-and-tumble world of international politics, force and diplomacy must work hand in hand -- it is the credible threat of violence that gives nonviolent alternatives their strongest appeal. The same is true of economic levers: Sanctions, for example, are most effective when coordinated with other lines of effort. These tools do not operate independently; their full potential is realized through integration.

Over the past 13 years, the U.S. military has rightly revamped our practices to confront the challenges we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as we look ahead to the emerging security environment, it is time for us to bring our military instrument of power back into balance.

As the U.S. military rebalances, our first consideration is our most traditional role -- the direct application of force in defense of the nation and its interests. America's armed forces keep the United States immune from coercion. This is our foremost charge and it will always be the primary driver of how we structure, train, and equip the force.

To this end, the U.S. military is adapting the way we distribute the force and manage readiness -- a process we call Global Force Management -- to become more predictable for our allies and more confusing to our potential adversaries. We are adjusting our processes so that we can aggregate and disaggregate forces rapidly to shape, deter, and, if necessary, strike. Our force will be smaller, so it must be more agile, more lethal, and postured to project power wherever needed.

Of course, agility has its limits. The size of the military matters. Our nation's elected leaders must ensure the armed forces have the resources they need to protect and promote the nation's security interests.  

The emerging security environment also demands that we update our approach to building partner capacity. Armored divisions and bomber wings can blunt our enemies, but they cannot single-handedly preserve the peace. To do that, we need to construct stronger security partnerships with like-minded nations, so that all can contribute to the collective defense.

Building partner capacity has long been a hallmark of America's defense policy. It begins with small-scale efforts: student exchanges, technical training, and conferences. With more established partners, capacity building includes attendance at U.S. service academies and war colleges, multilateral exercises, and foreign military sales. All of these things make our partners more effective and improve our collective ability to respond to real-world crises. They also help build professional military forces that respect civilian control and the rule of law. They yield the benefits of security while sharing the burdens of providing it.

We will continue to focus on building partner capacity, but we must reform our approach to account for the realities of the current security environment. We need to move beyond bilateral capacity building and adopt regional and multilateral approaches. Regional players almost always understand their neighborhood's security challenges better than we do. To make capacity building more effective, we must leverage these countries' unique skills and knowledge to our collective advantage. At the same time, an important lesson of our recent wars is that successful capacity building requires time -- often decades -- and credible partners.

Committing to Leadership

The U.S. military today is one of the most flexible and adaptable tools in America's toolbox. We shape behavior simply by our presence. We strengthen our friends' capabilities in peacetime and enable their operations in combat. We protect the sea-lanes that facilitate global commerce. We defend the norms and institutions that make up the international order.

Our responsibility now is to sharpen that tool and deploy it more effectively -- in a world in which the international order is strained but still intact.

After World War II, the United States accounted for half of global GDP and stood at the apex of its power. Instead of leveraging this power to serve narrow national interests, we helped rebuild the world and laid the foundations of the international order we all enjoy today.

Everyone has a stake in keeping this system functioning. We must continue to lead -- and that requires an agile, modern, and smartly postured force. We cannot continue to put off much-needed maintenance and modernization.

The security environment today is more complex than it has been at any other time in my 40-year Army career. But the U.S. military remains as committed as ever to underwriting peace and stability around the world. We will not shrink from the challenges of complexity. We will adapt ourselves to overcome them.



Justice for MH17

The world wants to hold someone accountable for the 298 people killed. But determining whom to go after -- and how to hold them responsible -- won’t be easy.

When a catastrophic event like the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 occurs, there is an understandable demand for accountability. "We will not rest until we are certain that justice is done," President Barack Obama wrote on Tuesday in a Dutch condolence book for the victims of the crash. In the immediate aftermath of the shoot-down, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko similarly vowed, "We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible."

But the question stands: Where can justice be found?

Popular sentiment points to the International Criminal Court (ICC) as the obvious venue for any crisis that makes world headlines. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who resigned on Thursday, had called for an investigation by the ICC. And even Richard Clarke, counterterrorism aide to former U.S. President Bill Clinton and both Bush administrations, wants those responsible handed over to the Hague-based court. The ICC, however, turns out to be a pretty unlikely place for achieving the accountability that people are clamoring for.

Although journalists sometimes refer to it as the "world court," the ICC doesn't actually have the authority to prosecute international crimes wherever they occur. The court has the authority to prosecute crimes that took place in a state that has joined its founding treaty, known as the Rome Statute, or that were committed by a national of a state that has joined. Like the United States, neither Russia nor Ukraine has ratified the treaty, so the ICC can't go after those countries' nationals or look into crimes that occurred on their territory.

There are, however, two exceptions to this general rule.

First, the U.N. Security Council can refer a situation to the ICC. This is how the court got jurisdiction over crimes committed in Sudan and Libya, even though neither of those countries has signed on to the ICC. A Security Council referral of the MH17 situation, however, seems like a non-starter: No one with a shred of political acumen can imagine Russia, a veto-wielding member of the council, agreeing.

The second possibility is for a state that has not joined the ICC to agree nonetheless to give it jurisdiction for a particular period of time. In fact, Ukraine has done this before: In April, it granted the court the right to investigate crimes committed on its territory between November 2013 and February 2014.

This kind of self-referral may be the most probable way for the ICC to get jurisdiction over MH17, but it would not be without complications. Although it is undoubtedly in Kiev's interests to see pro-Russian rebels investigated by the court, the grant of jurisdiction comes with a catch: A state that gives the court jurisdiction cannot then dictate which actors, or which crimes, the ICC chooses to investigate. So if the ICC found that Ukrainian actors committed crimes in the same time period, unrelated to MH17, it could prosecute those, too. Given the state of conflict on the ground, Kiev cannot be sure that it won't be on the hook for wrongdoing.

Even if all these jurisdictional hurdles could be overcome and the ICC gets the chance to conduct an investigation, a successful prosecution is still far from inevitable. A prosecution would likely involve war crimes charges of murder and attacking civilians, says Alex Whiting, a professor of practice in international criminal law at Harvard. He adds, however, that this would require the prosecutor to prove the rebels "actually knew that they were targeting civilians." Comments by a U.S. intelligence official reported in the Guardian on Tuesday suggest that the rebels who shot down the plane were surprised to discover it was a civilian airliner.

If those who shot down the plane did know it was a civilian aircraft, intercepted communications might demonstrate evidence of their intent. But governments are often reluctant to share that kind of information with the ICC. Without such evidence, proving intent would be "extremely challenging," Whiting says.

"Phrases like 'war crimes' and 'crimes against humanity' get thrown around pretty casually," says international prosecutor and war crimes expert Ken Scott. "But these crimes have certain legal elements." And meeting the requirements set by those elements could prove difficult.

Given these obstacles, justice for an event that has garnered such global attention may, perhaps counterintuitively, require a turn to the local level. "There are long-standing legal grounds for relatives of the victims to look for redress in national courts," says Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch.

States that have an interest in the case -- Ukraine, Malaysia, the Netherlands, or Australia, for instance -- either because it occurred on their territory, or because they had nationals onboard, could prosecute. And manslaughter charges available under domestic law would not face the same intent problems that beset war crimes charges. But though the legal hurdles can be more easily overcome at the domestic level, the practical challenges would remain. "Getting unfettered access to the site ... and ultimately getting custody of any persons charged -- none of these things can be taken for granted," Scott says.


Looking beyond those who actually fired on the plane, what can be made of the Obama administration's claims that the provision of weaponry, as well as the training and support needed to use the kind of Buk missile that can reach a civilian airliner, are attributable to the Russian state? Could some measure of justice be gleaned by pinning a degree of responsibility on Moscow?

To answer this question, another Hague-based court becomes relevant. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) adjudicates disputes between states, and it has had to grapple with a similar case in the past. In 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 passengers and crew. Iran claimed that, in shooting down the plane, the United States had violated treaties that both countries had signed. Unhappy with the decision of the aviation authority that adjudicated the treaty violation claims, Iran took the dispute to the ICJ.

The two treaties involved in the USS Vincennes incident are in play with MH17 as well. The Convention on International Civil Aviation prohibits states from using weaponry against civilian aircraft. The Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civilian Aviation requires states to prosecute or extradite anyone who destroys a civilian aircraft. But alongside the similarities, there are also important differences in the two cases.

In the USS Vincennes case, attribution to the United States was clear-cut because the missiles came from a U.S. warship. "Attribution will be more difficult in the MH17 case, with complicated factual and legal questions about whether those responsible were agents of Russia or somehow under its 'effective control,'" says Philippa Webb, an ICJ expert at King's College London. 

In the USS Vincennes case, the ICJ never reached a ruling because, in 1996, the United States settled the case by paying $61.8 million in compensation to the victims' families. This situation is typical, Webb explains: "The ICJ does not have an encouraging track record for resolving aerial incidents. No case has ever reached the merits."

So while the ICJ remains a potential venue to eventually bring a claim against Russia, the net result, if the precedent is any indication, may well be an out-of-court settlement. And if monetary compensation was the central issue, a quicker route for the victims' families would be through the Montreal Convention, which obligates airlines to pay damages for the injury or death of passengers. Justice for the MH17 tragedy, however, demands more than that.

The families of the victims deserve to learn the truth about how 298 people lost their lives, and the questions of exactly what happened and who is responsible are still a long way from being answered. The events of July 17 are unquestionably of international concern. But for those looking for accountability in the downing of MH17, it may be the national avenues for justice, not the global ones, that are best suited to give it to them.