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.

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