Can the Biden Administration Lead Us to a New Post-Post-Cold War Order? If Only…

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The Biden administration is, strategically speaking, in much the same position today as the Clinton administration was when it entered office in January 1993. That was the end of the Cold War, and with it, the attendant opportunity to define and shape the post-Cold War world. Today is the end of the post-Cold War interlude and the opportunity to define and shape the post-post-Cold War order.

Clinton failed, due to his preoccupation with his own personal shortcomings, to offer anything appreciably new in the conduct of statecraft. That has had much to do with the enduring difficulty of identifying the defining characteristics of the post-Cold War era. Which is where the Biden administration must start in determining where the United States is today and where the country must go from here.

To its decided credit, the White House has taken a salutary first step by recently issuing its 7,000-word Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which recognizes the panoply of threats the United States faces; offers a comprehensive conception of security that transcends defense; commits the United States anew to international cooperation and collective action over unilateralism; opts for relegating the military to a force of last resort after diplomacy, development, and economic measures; and calls for more closely integrating domestic and international affairs, and taking a whole-of-government approach to the affairs of state. Perhaps most importantly, it offers the tacit promise – the emphasis being on tacit – to disengage from “forever wars.”

These are all hopeful signs of what may lie ahead. Hope, of course, isn’t a strategy, but it is the essential aspirational basis for taking us to a future that isn’t simply a routinized repetition of the past. If the Biden administration is to take us to a future demonstrably different from a past that has passed and, in the process, to give the post-post-Cold War era a lasting identity worthy of the ages, it must come to grips with where we are, where we ought to be going, and how we should go about getting there.

Where are we today? For one very important thing, we are on the cusp of a grand evolution of warfare. Past bureaucratically self-serving claims of a “revolution in military affairs” or “defense transformation” are bunk. Plodding incrementalism in such matters has always been our lot. First there was the extended historical period of “Hot War,” dating to antiquity, in which the actual conduct of war was the centerpiece of statecraft. There followed the highly compressed post-World War II period of “Cold War,” in which statecraft was defined by the accretion of military capabilities and tacit threatmaking to avoid major war against what today we call a peer competitor. Now, and for the entirety of the post-Cold War period, we have been in a period of “New War” that, despite our protestations and resistance, calls for the use of non-military power and alternative uses of the military in the conduct of statecraft. Ahead lies a heretofore unimagined, much less realized, prospect of an eventual end-state of “No War,” in which militaries as we have traditionally known them arguably become irrelevant. Whether and how fast progress is made toward this end-state will depend first on our willingness to embrace it as a worthy normative aim.

Second, rhetoric to the contrary, the wars of today are entirely wars of choice, not necessity, occupying a middle ground of limited war or violent peace, far removed from backward-looking total war on the one hand and forward-looking stable peace on the other. It is a place defined by asymmetrical wars that are inherently unwinnable, especially for an old-war military such as ours that persists in trying to impose its preferred approach to war – killing people and breaking things as lethally and destructively as possible – on the situations it faces rather than on terms demanded by the situations at hand.

Third, in contrast to the Cold War, where the accretion of capabilities for purposes of tacit threatmaking against a mirror-image adversary was the name of the game, today the name of the game is actual performance – successful performance in a diverse array of contingencies – for purposes of enhancing our credibility, while galvanizing and sustaining national will and national unity. Those who embrace the continued expansion of an already gluttonous arsenal of military capabilities in the presumed interest of deterrence, even as the employment of these capabilities consigns us to repeated operational failure, are totally wrong-headed. Moreover, considering the shrinkage of the planet that has been wrought by telecommunications and transportation technologies, we are confronted by the pronounced convergence of the tactical and strategic domains of action. Virtually no circumstance today, however seemingly obscure, however seemingly remote, is without almost instantaneous strategic consequence at many spatial and temporal removes from its point of occurrence. Thus are violence – the promiscuous use of force – and failure – born of employing capabilities ill-suited to the circumstances they face – accentuated and magnified, with the attendant negative consequences for credibility and legitimacy.

Fourth, as coda to the present and stimulus to the future, lasting universal peace is the ultimate normative strategic end-state toward which America’s strategic posture ought to be oriented. Getting there, common sense suggests, must be preceded by demilitarization, which in turn must be preceded by the seemingly alien preconditions of denuclearization and delethalization. This, rather than the little-picture aims typically enumerated in bureaucratic strategy documents, represents the overarching strategic aim toward which our strategic posture ought to be directed.

If lasting universal peace were to be embraced as the overarching normative aim of our strategic posture, four principles suggest themselves as necessary pillars for such an approach:

Global Integration: Seeking unity – a more perfect international union – enriched by diversity born of mutual respect and trust – E pluribus unum – through regularized collaboration and collective decisionmaking as an end in itself; committing unreservedly to international institutions, both established and new (in the form of institutional leapfrogging); and displacing Westphalian, power-based anarchy by forging a non-American-dominated globalization of reciprocity where we mirror others every bit as much as we expect them to mirror us.

Global Democratization: Facilitating and accelerating the natural (spontaneous, self-generated) diffusion of sovereignty both up – collective – and down – individual – to achieve equality and natural human rights for all, large and small, weak and strong: “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”

Global Standards of Conduct. Accentuating recognition, adoption, and application of universal values and the rule of law through the example we set at home and abroad and a renewed commitment to established international legal agreements. Where rule of law and morality prevail, rule by force is exposed for its intrinsic weakness as an instrument of contemporary statecraft.

Global Demilitarization. With a reoriented, restructured military – one dedicated to peacekeeping, nation building, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response, rather than warfighting – necessarily leading the way, demonstrating an unqualified preference for nonviolent, justice-based dispute resolution. The predicates for this are two: “They that take the sword shall perish with the sword”; and when “They . . . beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Successfully implementing such principles will involve the enactment of at least four associated operational imperatives. The first, what we might call Targeted Causation Management, will necessitate focusing on the underlying causes of the unwanted situations we face – environmental degradation, endemic racial and ethnic hatreds, institutionalized injustice, and systemic inequalities – rather than on the more-palpable symptoms of the moment – outbreaks of violence and state failure – that invariably typify crisis management.

A second imperative, Institutionalized Anticipatory Response, will dictate proactively acting on situations before they mutate out of control and act on us in our normal stance of reactivity, thereby almost invariably demanding a dilatory response by force.

A third imperative, Appropriate Situational Tailoring, will require dealing with situations on their own terms, rather than on our preferred terms, thereby eschewing situation-insensitive general-purpose capabilities that play to our self-deluding “strengths” in favor of culturally, geographically, and technologically attuned capabilities that test our adaptability and agility.

A fourth imperative, Comprehensive Operational Integration, will call for enhanced interagency-intergovernmental-international harmonization of protocols, procedures, and practices to break down the impenetrable organizational and institutional barriers – “stove piping,” so-called – that impede unity of purpose, unity of effort, and unity of action.

Lest experienced hands in the games of nations be too quick to write off such ideas as the naïve mutterings of fevered minds totally divorced from reality, let us not forsake the beauty of dreams, the hope for dreams come true, and the dangers of rejected prophecy if we hope to achieve internationally what America’s founders sought domestically: a Novus ordo seclorum – a new order of the ages. Let us recall the words famously uttered by Robert Kennedy as an eternal challenge for practitioners of statecraft today: “Some men see things as they are, and say why. I dream of things that never were, and say why not.”

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views he expresses are his own.