A new military paradigm

A near-decade of global war since 9/11 highlights the urgent need for revision of Washington’s military-led global strategy. A fresh analysis offers the ingredients for change.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
6 January 2011

The interlocking relationship between the United States's military-led strategy in its global conflict and the violent opposition to it from al-Qaida and related groups is a persistent theme of this series. This is again evident in a number of incidents at the start of 2011, in ways that reinforce the need for fresh ways of thinking about the endless war.

The bombers who killed twenty-one worshippers and injured scores more at a Coptic church in Alexandria early on 1 January 2011 may not be directly connected to the al-Qaida movement. But there is evidence that they, like individuals and small groups responsible for comparable attacks elsewhere, do justify their actions by invoking the enduring narrative - strongly articulated by al-Qaida - that Islam is under siege from the west.

The most potent reference-point and driver of support today for actions such as the assault in Egypt are the United States-led wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The reverberations of those wars (as with the one in Iraq) are felt across the Muslim world, and decisions taken in Washington about the way they are conducted also become part of the calculations of those in other regions of “greater west Asia” and beyond.

It is becoming ever clearer that the US military is intent on intensifying the “AfPak” wars. It is less obvious whether the core purpose is to negotiate a withdrawal from a position of strength or to demonstrate the military's capacity to defeat the Taliban outright - but the effect is the same, a more violent campaign in which night-raids and drone-attacks are increasing (see Tom Engelhardt, “The Urge to Surge”, TomDispatch, 4 January 2011).

In Pakistan itself, the assassination on 4 January of the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, by one of his own security guards highlights the deep tensions in that country (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Voice of Moderation Silenced in Pakistan”, Asia Times, 5 January 2011). In northern Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel, the authorities are struggling to contain al-Qaida's influence. Somalia and Yemen are riven by deep insecurities, and the intelligence agencies in western states are in overdrive to counter threatened attacks (see "A rage unquenched: Iraq, AfPak, and the west", 16 December 2010).

These incidents and trends suggest that - as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches - the focus on military solutions to the global conflict is exhausted, and the need for different ways forward is urgent (see "The road to endless war", 25 November 2010).

A different mindset

A most significant contribution in this respect is a joint study by the LSE professor (and openDemocracy's human-security consultant) Mary Kaldor and the United States army colonel Shannon D Beebe: The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon: Human Security and the New Rules of War and Peace (Public Affairs, 2010).

The authors cite a remark made by Condoleezza Rice (then George W Bush's advisor on national security) a year before 9/11 which emphasised the need for the military to concentrate on winning wars in the traditional manner, rather than engage in peacebuilding. That the latter is not “proper soldiering” was encapsulated in Rice’s memorable phrase: “We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten”.

Shannon D Beebe and Mary Kaldor use multiple experiences drawn from the two post-war decades to argue that this kind of neo-realist attitude to security is obsolete and must be replaced by a more human-centred approach. In building a strong case for conflict-prevention, they argue that military structures and mindsets have to change radically; this will entail being prepared to engage fully in human security - and, yes, that could well mean “escorting kids to kindergarten”.

A graphic illustration of their approach relates to the cost of the latest US strike-aircraft, the F-22 Raptor.The cost of developing this, the world's most advanced warplane, and of manufacturing just 183 models, is nearly $70 billion. By contrast, expenditure on global peacekeeping amounts to barely 0.55% of the US defence budget - and a fraction of what this single weapon-system costs. Yet almost all the emphasis in current approaches to international security, especially within Nato in general and the US in particular, is on military power.

What makes the Beebe-Kaldor analysis of particular interest is that it moves beyond the familiar (civilian-orientated) soft-power vs (military-focused) hard-power division. Instead, they make the case that modern-day conflicts rarely conform to traditional state-on-state models but tend to be variable and complex. Thus the military has to transform itself to cope with this reality by developing a mindset concentrated less on “winning” against an opponent and much more on human security. In turn this requires necessary adjustments in civilian engagement in peacebuilding, and integration of these elements into altogether different approaches.

A text for the times

A possible reaction is to see this analysis as a recipe for western military intervention to secure hegemonic policy objectives. The authors acknowledge the risk, but insist that the dominant security paradigm remains so stuck in the cold-war era that a radical reappraisal of current attitudes is essential.

Shannon D Beebe and Mary Kaldor conclude:

“The strategic Cold War algebra of counting planes and tanks and ascertaining military budgets must be swapped for a discrete calculus based on the conditions underlying instability, in which there is no smart bomb or bomber that will offer a solution, and no room to squabble over traditional roles. There is no ultimate weapon of war in twentieth-century terms that will defeat the hybrid threats of the future. The ultimate weapons of the twenty-first century are, in fact, not weapons in the military sense at all.”

A near-certain prospect for the still-young century is that a dangerous conflation of socio-economic divisions and environmental constraints will trigger fragility, instability and conflict. To understand what is happening and to provide solutions, there is an urgent need for the kind of analysis that The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon provides. If prophecy is indeed “suggesting the possible” then this book is a much-needed example.

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