Every week, Wikistrat’s Facebook followers engage in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A drill with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts. This week, we featured Wikistrat’s Chief Analyst, Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett.
Q: Timothy Kelly- Dr. Barnett, how do you think nuclear proliferation will play out in the Middle East?
A: I think the Obama Administration’s oil-focused sanctions will put immense pressure on the Iranian regime to cave in on the nuke question, possibly to the point of striking out in some manner that Israel – and perhaps the U.S. – can use as a pretext for launching substantial strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. But if I had to bet, I would lay money on Israel striking first for its own reasons versus Tehran providing the excuse. Iran has always struck me as incredibly aware of which line-crossing activities will elicit direct military responses, and, much in the vein of WS’s recent simulation on this subject, I think Tehran knows well that it needs to avoid any genuine threat to global oil markets – lest it trigger an “all-in” military response from the United States.
So I think Iran’s really stuck, as it were, and will likely have to suffer a beat-down from Israel sometime in the next 24 months. I think it can take that “licking” and keep on “ticking” in terms of its nuclear weaponization goals, which I think are real and – in structural terms – completely justified by the region’s current correlation of forces. So I’m still betting on Iran having the Bomb before Obama leaves office in 2017 (yes, I see him winning again in November), and when that happens, I do expect the Saudis to cash in their long-held promise from Pakistan to supply them with their own devices.
At that point, as I’ve maintained for close to a decade now, the region will need to be quickly progressed an environment ripe for brinksmanship (mostly Riyadh v. Tehran) to one defined by strategic arms negotiations that, by necessarily including Israel, will grant it de facto diplomatic recognition by the bulk of the Arab world. Yes, I see plenty of scary moments along that journey, but it’s one in which the world’s great powers are well experienced, so I don’t live in any great fear concerning its logical outcomes – especially since it will be easy to get Asia’s rising powers involved due to their growing dependence on energy from the Gulf.
As for Iran in particular, once that “revolutionary” regime gets its piece of paper that says, in so many words, the U.S. won’t launch a regime-changing military invasion (thanks to its nukes), then I think we’ll see Iran quickly fade as a regional power, much as we saw the USSR rot from within once its great enemy was denied to its leadership as a justification for its internal repression. Accepting the inevitability of Iran’s achievement of nuclear weaponization will allow us to engineer the same soft kill we managed with the Soviet empire – just on a far smaller scale. Iran is doomed as a tilting-at-windmills disruptive player within globalization. The regime has lost the majority of the people already, something that can be measured in myriad ways. We’re just talking pathways at this point, and getting nukes won’t stop that any more than Moscow having lots of nukes kept the Soviet Union together.
Nukes are vastly overrated as the “ultimate trump card.” They are a 20th century weapon whose primary historical value came in their killing of great-power warfare.
Q: Graham O’Brien – Dr. Barnett, how far off do you think we are from conflicts where the use of ground troops are irrelevant and use drones as active weaponry is used rather than passive reconnaissance aircraft?
A: I don’t ever see ground troops being irrelevant. If you want to control the landscape, you will always need bodies. Drones can monitor and punish, but area denial is not the same as area control, just like sea control is a far cry from seabed control.
There is a community within the Pentagon that imagines almost completely unmanned warfare in the future where two great powers (guess which “rising” power the other one is) duke it out feverishly in a “no man’s land” that will most certainly cover sea versus actual land (because shooting it out over land will inevitably trigger casualties – desired or collateral). There, I do think it could get quite spectacular in terms of fireworks, but I don’t think all that much will get settled in terms of territorial control, even as I think both sides will able to prevent the other from achieving anything substantive.
So, what I’m saying is, unless somebody is willing to rule the ground – from the ground, all this high-tech future unmanned-on-unmanned warfare that we’re imagining today will be fairly limited in its application (i.e., not all that many scenarios and virtually none where conclusive results are achieved).
Having said that, I think the development and employment of drones and robots will continue to expand dramatically, with – as always – the U.S. leading the way. I think they’ll be useful in every scenario, but especially in dealing with dispersed opponents in both remote and urban environments. So I guess I’m arguing that drones will be incredibly useful primarily in a security-spreading sense, rather than in a force-on-force medium where great powers engage in anything other than internal balancing efforts (i.e., arms racing to stay ahead of the other guy). I think that all great powers that move in this direction will find unmanned vehicles useful primarily in controlling people and environments. I don’t think they’ll resurrect some territory-conquering aspect to traditional warfare – just the opposite. I think all this technology will be the death knell of traditional warfare. To me, drones are the “gun that won the Gap.”
Q: Greg R. Lawson - Dr. Barnett, I have always been struck by your immense optimism at the general direction of global affairs and that the imperatives of economics will lead to increasingly greater cooperation among already established as well as rising powers. Yet, the “Jacksonian” instinct (as referred to by Prof. Walter Russell Mead) is still prevalent in the US. Do you fear that political leaders may manipulate latent bellicosity within the American body politic in order to keep China, relative to the US, “down.” Obviously, this is already inherent in things like the AirSea Battle concept, but I am thinking beyond only the confines of the Pentagon.
A: I don’t doubt that if Mitt Romney got elected – what with all the Bush neocons advising him – that we’d see some attempt at re-establishing a sense of US “primacy.” But Obama’s turn here is more than a swing to the other impulse (“leading from behind”), it’s a right-sizing effort that presupposes – correctly, I believe – that the U.S. has entered a period of globalization’s maturation in which America’s ability to lead by fiat has been significantly diminished. So Romney’s advisers can dream all they want of putting America back in the driver’s seat, but it ain’t gonna happen to any degree they’ll happily recognize as successful. Those days are gone, with the “unilateral moment” (Krauthammer’s term) of the 1990s having been as artificial – in structural terms – as that of the 1950s (that caused by the flattening effect of World War II).
I don’t note such things with an eye toward declinist arguments. I have argued at length in my books that America’s nearly seven-decade-long grand strategy of encouraging the spread of a globalization based on the “American system” (states uniting, economies integrating, collective security, network building, etc.) has succeeded beyond – what should be defined – as our wildest dreams (think back to 1945 and realize what a world we’ve created). It has enabled a spreading of the global wealth that, in turn, is in the process of effectively erasing the Great Divergence (1800-2000) in wealth accumulation between the West and the Rest. That’s arguably the greatest single foreign policy achievement in U.S. history – and world history to boot.
But that success has created challenges. Demographic aging among our traditional allies means we need new allies – to put it bluntly – if we’re going to manage the messy and long-term job of settling globalization’s remaining economic frontiers (or what some have myopically reduced to only the “war on terror” or a “struggle against radical Islam”). Successor allies are obvious enough: rising economic powers with expanding global interests and growing defense budgets. Problem is, that’s basically China and India, two natural future allies that our current generation of foreign policy leaders have a hard time imagining – except in a two-versus-one manner (namely, India + America versus China).
And that’s actually where you locate the surviving impulse of the neocon “primacists”: we imagine India can be made to help keep China “down,” lest this world of our creating be hopelessly warped by Chinese authoritarianism. [That and Obama’s cynical downsizing of primacy to mean that America can summarily execute any individual on the planet that it so chooses to define as its mortal enemy.]
On this score, I suggest Conrad Black’s brilliant biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In it, Black offers the argument that Roosevelt didn’t “cave in” to the Soviets (Yalta) or get duped by Stalin, but rather he maintained a supreme confidence that the U.S. system would simply outperform the Soviet one – thus he could not conceive of the Russians ever winning any future global struggle.
Well, it turns out FDR was right, and I’m arguing today (see my January 2011 Esquire article, “When China Ruled the World”) that we should exhibit the same calm confidence regarding “rising” China. China’s economic rise was achieved through completely unremarkable means: Beijing got rid of babies for four-plus decades and reduced the country’s non-working population from 80% (1965) to 40% (2010). Now, due to that success and others, China ages demographically at three times the rate of the United States: we’re both roughly 36 years “old” (mean age) now, but by 2050 America will just be reaching 40 while China will be 47-48 years “old.”
We may, in our current fears, imagine China will get rich and nasty before it gets old, but it ain’t gonna happen. Healthcare and environmental costs, not to mention stupendously rising dependence on foreign energy and food, will slow Chinese growth down dramatically, making it far harder to keep both the military (guns) and increasingly restive public (butter) happy.
So I not only reject the residual “primacy” impulse because it’s structurally untenable (What? Are we to somehow stop all these rising powers that we purposefully encouraged over the past decades?) but because it’s pointless. China is the only great power package we can imagine in classic expansionistic terms (even as a grade-school reading of Chinese history says otherwise), and so we dream up as our next great challenge a quasi-containment strategy for East Asia (Obama’s cynical “strategic pivot”), when what we should be doing is moving toward an understanding achieved with China of how our global security interests overlap quite nicely in every other region in the world.
But as I’ve noted with Obama on this score: I see internal motives primarily at work here. Obama must justify his strategic withdrawal from Southwest Asia and so requires a scarier tale that “commands” him in this way. The “big war” crowd in the Pentagon greedily embraces this because it fits the self-serving needs of the Air Force and Navy in their counter-revolution against COIN and all that it has cost them in lost procurement (when, in truth, it has set them on the correct path of “the many and the cheap” versus “the few and the absurdly expensive”).
Why must Obama surrender to these base impulses? First, he must be re-elected. Second, whatever strategic vision he possesses does subscribe to the general notion that – per his right-wing critics – it is a better world with a less powerful America. So sending us off on the fool’s errand of containing China in East Asia will spare us the temptations of “empire” across what I call the Gap.
Of course, my counter to this logic is that, if we can recognize our natural allies in this era of maturing globalization (China, India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia, etc.) then “shrinking the Gap” (as I once dubbed the settling of globalization’s remaining frontiers) requires nowhere near an “imperial” effort on the part of the United States. Between America and all these risers, there’s no question we have the resources and will to do what is required, which, by the way, looks more like China’s aggressive investment in Africa’s economies than Africom running around assassinating every radical Islamist it can.
But, of course, I am naïve for thinking such things. I’ve spent the last 7 years working primarily in international business and I’ve lost my stomach for arguing with ideologically rigid national security types who do not have a clue about how the world really works in this day and age. Honestly, the more time I spend in international business (I currently structure hydrocarbon deals globally), the less able I am to even hold a decent conversation with those who pass for “strategists” these days. I know I come off harsh here, but seriously, the lack of economic awareness among this crowd is simply stunning. In fact, I would describe it as the biggest security threat the world faces today – even bigger than the numbskulls running much of the PLA.
We are bereft of serious leadership in this day and age – both China and America. It is the only thing that truly scares me nowadays.
Q: Jesse Parent - There are a large number of potential conflict zones that are sea based – the South China Sea, the Arctic, the Caspian Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, to name a few. What are the most significant challenges these types situations present, and how much do you see future conflicts occurring based on aquatic- based territorial or resource claiming disputes?
A: After centuries of rising naval warfare, the last six-and-a-half decades has witnessed virtually nothing of note. The global commons are now more safe than they ever have been, which is why we’ve seen navies decline so radically – save among those with thickening wallets. But even there we’ve seen a strong preference for Coast Guard-like navies versus “big war” platforms. Clearly, the China-America-India trio represents its own dynamics (addressed in my answer to Lawson’s question), but outside that rather self-defeating arms race, the global trends are clear.
But yes, now we have this seeming rise in territorial questions over seabeds (the fishing rights stuff is – by comparison – miniscule) that reflects everybody’s scramble for energy amidst this tremendous and ongoing expansion of globalization (70 million added to the global middle class each year). And yes, we are going to see quite a few “fishermen” arrested in coming years, along with various other “shots across the bow.” But honestly, I don’t imagine this turns into anything historically significant.
As I keep saying, sea control doesn’t equate to effective seabed control. If you want the latter, you need to be on decent terms with your neighbors, meaning it’s better – over the long haul – to compromise versus fight.
So no, I don’t see some emerging “golden age” of sea control warfare. Outside of the Pentagon’s China cabal and its dreams of “no man’s land” high-tech warfare with the PLA (and yes, the PLA have their own America cabal that’s equally excited), there’s not really a whole lot to get jacked up about. Piracy is a tiny threat, and could easily be gotten rid of, by and large, if the world decided to do something about Somalia (or if every vulnerable ship had two retired SOF snipers).
As for the rest? Those “wars” will be fought – almost exclusively – by diplomats and lawyers and bureaucrats. The Arctic Council shows you how to do it, as does UNCLOS (which America needs to finally ratify).
But yes, we’ll be treated to these scary visions for quite some time by national security types looking to fire up new “markets” adjacent to those historically in decline (warfare as we’ve long known it in the Westphalian System is disappearing). We’re seeing this in the enduring hype on cyber warfare. This naval sub-genre simply belongs to the wider genre of “resource wars.”