Amy Zegart: Not all drones are created equal
When battlegrounds are growing invisible and leaders can be killed by airplanes without pilots, it’s fair to say that conflict is not what it used to be. The rise of cyberaggression, information warfare, autonomous weapons, and other technologies all require a thorough reevaluation of the coming era, what geopolitics will look like, and the kinds of capabilities that will give nations a strategic advantage against their competitors. Yet the United States still lacks the sort of dominant explanatory framework that can guide American policy regardless of who the president is.
It’s not for lack of trying. Many people have been grappling with how to strengthen America’s national security in an uncertain era. The far-flung outposts of these efforts range from conference rooms on Capitol Hill and offices in suburban-Virginia strip malls to hotel ballrooms and slick boardrooms in Silicon Valley. There are new Pentagon units to harness technological innovation and bipartisan national commissions on cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. (I am an expert adviser for the AI commission.) There are intelligence studies to identify baseline trends and megatrends driving the future of international-security challenges, and think-tank reports and academic workshops on the future of just about everything.
All of these initiatives are seeking to look beyond the anxieties of today to understand the threats of tomorrow. And nearly all of them start with two insights: The first is that we face a “hinge of history” moment. Emerging technologies are poised to transform societies, economies, and politics in dramatic and unprecedented ways. The second is that we need better ideas to make sense of this new world so that American interests and values can prevail.
When one of the big ideas involves calling for more big ideas, you know it’s tough out there. The technological race is challenging, but it is likely to be the easy part. It’s the ideas race—who best understands the levers and opportunities presented by technological disruption and shifts in the world’s political geography—that will determine geopolitical winners and losers. Some strategic insights provide competitive advantage; Russia recognized well before the United States did, for instance, that the rise of social media magnified the impact of information warfare.
Other strategic insights, if widely shared, become invaluable guides to democratic policy making and cooperation, enabling like-minded states to thwart repression and aggression of authoritarian regimes. How are military strategists and average American voters alike supposed to understand the world now confronting them—and decide which conflicts to undertake and how?
In unsettled moments like the current one, the cost of a conceptual mistake is high. At the end of World War II, the U.S. found itself locked in confrontation with the Soviet Union, a former ally that sought to export its own revolutionary ideology, communist economic system, and repressive governance around the world. American strategists built a foreign policy for the next half century around the strategy of containment developed by George Kennan in his famous 1947 “X” article. A career diplomat and Russia expert, Kennan believed that winning the superpower conflict required, above all, patience. The United States, he argued, should use every element of national power—including economics, diplomacy, and military force—to contain the spread of communism. Eventually, he predicted, the Soviet Union would collapse from its own weaknesses. Every president from Harry Truman to George H. W. Bush pursued containment in various ways. Not every policy worked, and some, like the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Vietnam War, failed disastrously. But Kennan was fundamentally right, and his ideas provided the North Star for Republican and Democratic presidents alike.
But when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, policy makers were suddenly left without a conceptual blueprint for navigating global politics. In place of containment, a gauzy optimism took hold. Major threats were considered passé: The end of history had arrived, and democracy had won. Declaring a “peace dividend,” policy makers slashed defense spending and cut the CIA’s workforce by 25 percent, hollowing out a generation just as a terrorist threat was emerging. In the post–Cold War decade, the United States focused its foreign policy on nation building, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. The Pentagon even created a new acronym for its operations: MOOTW, or “Military Operations Other Than War.” Nothing says strategic drift like focusing America’s warfighters on jobs other than the one they were hired and trained to do.