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US security analysts tackle shape-shifting threats with… more of the same

Military responses to varied societal crises are a proven failure, yet a key report fails to offer any new ideas or recognise the underlying cause

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
18 April 2021, 8.00am
An increasingly divided world needs a radical solution
Lausanne, CC by 2.0

In 1993, President Clinton’s newly appointed CIA director, James Woolsey, described the post-Cold War security environment and the collapse of the Soviet bloc as the United States slaying the dragon and being left in a jungle inhabited by poisonous snakes.

Throughout the 1990s, the United States duly reconfigured its huge military power away from heavy armour, anti-submarine forces and other Cold War elements and towards expeditionary warfare, special forces, stand-off weapons and rapid deployment, all useful for fighting small wars in far-off places. What was not expected was that those “snakes” could hit both the metropolis and the centre of military power, which partly explains the rush to large-scale war after 9/11.

From his own perspective, Woolsey may have been right in seeing a radically changed world but he, as well as many throughout the West, were decidedly wrong in thinking that those they considered jungle adversaries would easily succumb to Western military power. After all, as the US and NATO prepare to exit Afghanistan, this is only one of four recent failed wars – along with Libya, Iraq and the more recent four-year air war against Isis.

Now, nearly 30 years later, there is the risk of the wheel being reinvented. The US Directorate of National Intelligence recently published a detailed analysis of the state of international insecurity as it is now and as it will evolve in the coming decades.

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The report’s authors present a picture of a more volatile and uncertain world emerging, but have little to offer in the way of new answers

In one sense, much of it will likely strike a chord with openDemocracy readers, as it presents a picture of a divided, environmentally constrained and volatile world, but what is unclear is whether the US has any new solutions. Will it just be business as usual, with yet more failures to come?

The report, ‘Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World’, is one of a four-yearly series from the Strategic Futures Group, which is part of the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence. This edition of the forecasting report looks ahead to the next two decades. It is certainly far superior to the UK’s ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’, that was published last month. However, sadly that is not saying much.

The Washington Post summarised the gloomy nature of the ‘Global Trends 2040’ report’s findings: “Looking over the time horizon, it finds a world unsettled by the coronavirus pandemic, the ravages of climate change – which will propel mass migration – and a widening gap between what people demand from their leaders and what they can actually deliver.”

John Mecklin, editor-in-chief of the non-profit media organisation, ‘The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’, compared it with the Bulletin’s annual ‘Doomsday Clock’, currently as close to midnight as it’s ever been, even at the height of the Cold War.

He makes the valid point that: “The authors of the report, which does not represent official US policy, describe the pandemic as a preview of crises to come. It has been a globally destabilising event – the council called it ‘the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II’ – that ‘has reminded the world of its fragility’ and ‘shaken long-held assumptions’ about how well governments and institutions could respond to a catastrophe.”

Fragmented economics

The 156-page report covers a wide range of issues, including demographic trends, increases in migratory pressures and technology changes, as well as emphasising the risks of climate breakdown. On economic trends, it points to a more fragmented trading environment, rising governmental debt, employment challenges and increasing corporate power. At the state level, it focuses particularly on more strained relationships between societies and their governments, as if accentuating the recent rise of many populist trends in politics.

Overall, a picture emerges of a more volatile and uncertain world, but the authors have little to offer in the way of new answers. The chances, therefore, are that the responses will be all too similar to the post-9/11 world, with military capabilities to the fore. This is made even more likely as the report fails to get to grips with two basic elements of the global predicament.

One is that there is no recognition of the fact that the dominant, neoliberal economic culture is not fit for purpose and is hastening the fracturing of an increasingly divided and marginalised society. The idea of marginalisation is certainly there in the analysis, but the intelligence culture simply does not recognise the neoliberal failure at the root of so much of it.

The other, related not only to the intelligence culture but to the much wider security culture embedded in the military-industrial complex, is that responses to security challenges are almost always of the military kind.

In reality, preventing the instability and conflicts implicit in the report requires early action that rarely has anything to do with the military, being concerned much more with the need for a progressive economic system that incorporates accelerated moves towards zero-carbon economies.

This is not to decry much of the analysis in the report, which does provide food for thought on many relevant issues. The trouble is that it only goes halfway, and so it appears that readers, and society at large, have to be prepared to do the rest.

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