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Vision for a Next Generation Security Approach

The Challenges

The next generation of practitioners in geopolitics and global security is set to inherit some serious challenges from the current one. Major power relations have significantly deteriorated over the past decade with attendant reinvigoration of competitive tendencies. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review bluntly proclaims the “return of great power competition,” but this time in a security environment which the 2018 National Security Strategy (NSS) describes as “more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.”

China now prominently features in the mix, displacing the simplicity of Cold War bipolarity, as do new military capabilities, which the NSS notes are “changing [the] character of war” – not to mention, frustrating outdated and unravelling arms control infrastructures. Together with renewed competition in the traditional nuclear domain, an accelerating race in the militarization of a range of emerging technologies threatens to destabilize already tenuous major power strategic stability. While some of these technologies, like hypersonic missiles, might be encompassed by existing nonproliferation agreements (which only constrain technology transfers and not development or use), many, like weaponized artificial intelligence and cyber capabilities, remain outside any arms control framework.

Furthermore, current American, Russian and Chinese policy planners, hungry for novel military advantages, have little appetite for curbing competition. In the U.S., the Third Offset Strategy and NSS make clear that the quest for high tech capability-facilitated “overmatch” is the name of the game – the acquisition and maintenance of advanced “capabilities in sufficient scale to prevent enemy success and to ensure that America’s sons and daughters will never be in a fair fight.” Russian and Chinese doctrines similarly attribute paramount importance to securing a technological edge.

Unbridled competitiveness in the now opened Pandora’s Box of high tech weapons applications – from growingly autonomous robotics to the militarization of cyber and outer space – evinces the most recent manifestation of one dimensional thought that has dominated elite security policy circles for too long. Professor Rajan Menon perceptively describes this thinking as a “narrow, militarized definition of national security” deeply entrenched in reigning defense and intelligence establishments, uncritically supported by expert and think tank communities and disproportionately influenced by arms industry incentives.

Relying on realist apologetics, this view perpetuates old logic that military superiority and the ability to forcefully coerce others is the optimal route to security and that this translates into a need for the latest and greatest military capabilities, “price tag be damned” (to quote Menon). It is narrow in its egoistic preoccupation with the attainment of unilateral advantage over positive-sum gain (astonishingly short-sided in its neglect of broader implications) and its arbitrary concentration of “national” security on remote foreign military risks over immediate domestic economic and health threats impacting much of the population. In keeping with the perpetual implementation of this conception, the next generation of policy practitioners (and the human species) have an uncertain future of indefinite and potentially perilous competition to which to look forward.

Some Important Recognitions

The few who question this status quo orthodoxy meet reflexively with the response – if you don’t keep exploiting the next military breakthrough, your neighbor will and you’ll suffer as a result; the world of security is a Prisoner’s Dilemma, get used to it! Over the generations, most have “gotten used to it” and accepted this proposition, enabling the cycle to continue.

Continuation of this cycle, however, has led us, and continues to lead us, to some pretty unattractive places – the development and use of chemical weapons, the development and use of nuclear weapons, the ongoing threat of nuclear catastrophe, and now the development and threat of high tech weapons jeopardizing pivotal civilian infrastructures, weaponizing space and replacing humans with killer robots and drones. Has this mode of thinking really enhanced security? Have its costs and risks conferred commensurate benefits to everyday people making up the vast majority of the world’s population (and not just to elites and arms manufacturers)? Has this “narrow, militarized” security paradigm run its course?

The current generation of policy leaders plunging full steam ahead into the high tech arms race say “no.” It is nevertheless high time to note that their claimed Prisoner’s Dilemma is only inescapable insofar as their underlying preference structures – narrow unilateral gain over broad positive-sum gain – remain unchallenged and unchanged. It is my sincere hope that this next generation might be more inclined to take account of the following recognitions:

War in the traditional sense between major power rivals is not fightable today. Professor Michael Klare observes that the three major powers “perceive themselves to be engaged in a competitive struggle for military advantage at a time when war among them is deemed entirely possible” and that they are actively enhancing their military capabilities for potential “high end” warfare – “all-out combat among the modern, well-equipped forces of their adversaries.” This notion of a “high end” war under contemporary circumstances, however, is nothing shy of fantastical and absurd.

Indeed, the days of all-out war ended seven decades ago with the dawn of the nuclear age. Since then, any war in the traditional sense between major powers has grown increasingly less feasible. Once mutually assured destruction took hold, the quest for unilateral advantage shifted from the nuclear to the conventional domain where war was still seen as feasible (e.g., the Kennedy Administration’s flexible response policy). This led to the cultivation of impressive capabilities showcased in the First Gulf War. Nonetheless, post-Soviet Russia and ascendent China began to catch up with sophisticated conventional capabilities of their own, enabling them to carry out devastating attacks on U.S. interests and casting doubt on escalation management and the prevention of conventional conflicts from going nuclear. As such, it is far from clear that even low-level, carefully-managed great power conflict is feasible – let alone all-out, “high end” war. Any serious talk of the latter is simply and unavoidably misguided.

Competitive military buildups have repeatedly failed to yield durable advantages. If war is growingly unfightable, can out-arms racing one’s adversaries confer strategic advantages? Even a cursory glance at the historical record renders this supposition dubious. The U.S. serves as an ideal case study in this regard. Despite unparalleled investiture in competitive arms development, its enormous efforts have consistently failed to produce lasting advantages. From its short-lived nuclear edges, to its actively eroding conventional and technological leadership, the U.S. now finds itself vulnerable to a variety of attacks with war game simulations predicting less than favorable outcomes in potential conflicts with Russia and China.

The new arms race in high tech capabilities offers little reason to suspect that the prospect of securing durable competitive advantages is anything but chimeric. Particularly in today’s era of modern advanced computing and accelerating additive manufacturing capacities, the first mover rolling out a “game-changing” capability will only be providing proof of feasibility and general design information (however carefully this is guarded) which will allow for expeditious adversary development of comparable capabilities or asymmetric counters. Furthermore, unlike in the Cold War context, major power rivals – particularly the U.S. and China – are better economically matched such that the strategy of outspending rivals is not realistic. As such, arms racing seems only to add gratuitously to already high risk in a fragile global security environment without clear off-setting benefits.

Unilateral economic coercion is not an acceptable alternative to military coercion. As the effectiveness of traditional means of military coercion have diminished with the rise of credible competitors, a troubling trend has developed in the U.S. – increasing recourse to economic coercion. Casting economic “sanctions” as a peaceful, soft power alternative to military force employment, the U.S. has carried out largescale and devastating attacks on target states, disproportionately impacting poorer sectors of their civilian populations (inter alia, Cuba, Venezuela and Iran).

Despite efforts of apologists to claim unilateral coercive economic measures constitute a gray area in international law rendering U.S. sanctions quasi-legitimate, the United Nations Charter clearly provides that it is the responsibility of the Security Council to maintain international peace and security and, in the event of a breach, orchestrate a possible “interruption of economic relations” with the violating state until it remedies its breach. Taking indefinite unilateral measures, particularly where there has been no clear precipitating “breach of the peace” (as with Cuba, Venezuela and Iran), seems unequivocally inconsistent with the UN Charter and, where such measures involve secondary sanctions (sanctions against states or third-party entities who fail to comply with the sanctions on the target), violates established principles of extraterritorial jurisdiction.

The overwhelming majority of UN member states have openly condemned harsh unilateral sanctions regimes, such as the one in place against Cuba, and should request an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice querying their incompatibility with the UN Charter and customary international law. Furthermore, the International Criminal Court should take seriously the Venezuelan referral seeking investigation into whether U.S. sanctions regimes can constitute crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute.

The Vision for a Next Generation Security Approach

On the basis of these key recognitions – the infeasibility of modern major power war, the inefficacy and insecurity of continued arms racing and the inhumanity of unilateral economic coercion – a next generation approach to security might broaden the focus from “narrow, militarized” national security (guided by the largely zero-sum interests of political and industrial elites) to encompass more robustly human security (characterized by the interests of everyday domestic populations and the positive-sum well-being of the human species and planet). Viewing security through this lens, it would be apparent to a new generation of practitioners that continuation of the status quo through a new high tech arms race will make the world a more dangerous place for everyone, while failing to advance the basic interests of the vast majority of the global population or to sufficiently address that which makes them most insecure (astounding global wealth inequality, poor economic prospects and inaccessibility of decent healthcare).

Pressuring status quo elites has only proven effective in bringing about minimal, incremental change, susceptible to relapse (usually only after protracted, laborious efforts). If lasting fundamental changes are to be realized – the kinds needed to alleviate nuclear dangers, close the Pandora’s Box of high tech and futuristic weapons capabilities and remedy the insecurities affecting most of humanity – perhaps the best course of action is to replace these elites with a new generation of human security-oriented successors. If enough young, aspiring security practitioners embrace this vision, it may well be possible one day and the “inescapable” Prisoner’s Dilemma may actually evolve into a more cooperative game.

A first item of business will be reversing intractable military competition. In the emerging technologies context, this will require new and carefully constructed arms control frameworks that restrict the possibility of strategic surprise and reduce competitive incentives. This would necessitate measures at the national level to substantially mitigate private sector influence over security-related decision-making and appreciably increase public transparency. At the level of international negotiation, the technical and practical challenges of constraining emerging technologies will need to be approached from the starting point that their control is possible and universally desirable – not insurmountable and only selectively desirable to the extent the major powers are strategically benefited. German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, has introduced initial fora for preliminary deliberations on grappling with emerging technologies with the so-called German Initiative and Missile Dialogue Initiative. As a point of departure, initiatives along these lines should be taken up!

Ryan R. Swan serves as California Representative on the Peace Action Committee of the Green Party of the United States. He holds a J.D. from the UCLA School of Law and an M.Phil. in international relations and politics from Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He is an incoming researcher in arms control and emerging technologies at the Bonn International Center for Conversion in Germany.  

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