A Modernist Superpower Emeritus Belatedly Faces the Postmodern World

As we await the first Biden administration national security strategy (NSS), presuming it to be a roadmap of sorts from the present to the future, let us remember the opening words of wisdom from The Sound of Music’s “Do-Re-Mi”: “Let’s start at the very beginning\A very good place to start.” Whatever strategic end-state the Biden NSS aspires to – be it prevailing as the world’s only superpower or an equal among other responsible equals; be it enduring global peace or the perpetuation of the anarchic, power-based international order – we first need to know where we’re starting from in embarking on this proposed journey.

Perhaps the best that can be said of the United States today is that we are on the cusp of being little more than a superpower emeritus – dangerously close, that is, to becoming a has-been-in-waiting in the game of great-power politics. While humanity as a whole – recognizably or not, willingly or not – inhabits a postmodern universe, the United States persists in adhering to a modernist past that has passed; and its national security establishment, with a military largely devoid of new ideas at the forefront, has essentially blinded itself to a future that demands being dealt with on its own terms. Instead, we have chosen a national security posture that yearns for a return to the self-deluding, self-serving simplicity of the Cold War; accordingly, we have left ourselves mindlessly dependent on a traditional, conventional “warfighting” military that is the opposite in virtually every respect from the strategically oriented postmodern military we actually need. The old adage about generals (and the militaries they command) being forever wedded to the past has never been truer than it is today.

To speak of postmodern anything is, of course, to risk sounding pretentious and pedantic, not least since the theorists and disciples who bequeathed us such terminology have successfully obscured its meaning. For the sake of argument, though, let us admit to the proposition that there are defining features of the era we now live in that lie beyond the world of modernism that has defined our lives to date. The Cold War – along with its industrial-age total-war antecedents – is behind us (though we persist in trying to recapture the comforting simplicity it represented). The industrial age – technology as the ultima ratio of human endeavor – was pronounced dead long ago (though, again, we persist). Grand ideology as secular religion, universalism, statism, even realism and rationalism: all of these canonical ways of thinking and acting have, arguably or inarguably, been displaced or are in jeopardy.

In the final analysis, the ironies of the moment and the accompanying need for redefining traditional terms and reformulating traditional concepts are the most salient enduring features of postmodernism. The ironies of today abound:

+ Previous American strengths (like our overwhelming military might) have now become weaknesses (as others strive to emulate us militarily, while the long-recognized security dilemma – where the fetishization of security produces unintended insecurity – embraces us in a never-ending stranglehold).

+ Old advantages (like our nuclear arsenal) have become new disadvantages (as proliferation – and the anxiety that accompanies it – proceeds apace, the undesirable but expectable outgrowth of our unwillingness to denuclearize).

+ Old successes (like “winning” wars) have become new failures (as America’s persistent, congenital inability to win today’s wars has become an established, if unconfessed, constant).

+ Old peace (as the expected norm between infrequent wars) has become new war (as the emergent norm that now separates increasingly infrequent periods of peace).

+ Old enemies (like insurgents seeking to topple friendly regimes) have become new friends (like insurgents seeking to topple hostile regimes) – and vice versa.

+ And old plenty (like our national wealth) has become new scarcity (as disparities between haves and have-nots grow, at the expense of national unity, and maldistributions of national resources privilege defense at the expense of other strategic priorities).

Definitionally, terms and concepts that once seemed supernally clear no longer are. To cite just a few examples:

Security, commonly conflated with defense, has increasingly shown itself to be something much more encompassing, a subjective feeling rather than an objective condition, whose defining essence is now more individual human security than collective national security.

War, traditionally thought of as rational, human-directed organized violence for political purposes, has assumed new forms of destruction, death, and resource consumption that may even be non-rational, non-human “acts” of nature: viz., pandemics and natural disasters.

Peace, long viewed simplistically as merely the absence of war, has given way to the realization, in discerning quarters at least, that to endure and take root, it must embody not just the absence of collective violence, but also the presence of justice.

Aggression, typically considered hostile physical interposition into the “space” of another party against its will, now may take on any of a variety of non-military, non-physical forms (from cross-boundary pollution and migration, to boundary-less cyber and microwave attacks).

Sovereignty, historically accepted universally as the supreme authority vested in states, now increasingly is recognized as ultimately belonging to individuals within states.

Power, commonly equated with physical force, assumes innumerable contemporary military or non-military forms (from the ideas of ideational power to the exemplary leadership of inspirational power) to get one’s way or elicit deference from others.

Interests, matters of importance that are socially and intellectually constructed more than objectively apprehended, are used to rationalize acts after the fact more than to determine them before the fact, and are thought of parochially as uniquely national rather than normatively in supranational terms.

Let’s also face up to the grand evolution of war that has taken place over time – especially since so many in power have remained oblivious to the fact. It has extended from an extraordinarily long historical period dating to antiquity of what we might call “Hot War,” where the use of military force was the centerpiece of statecraft; to the compressed period of “Cold War” we lived with for four and a half decades after World War II, where the avoidance of big war as we had traditionally known it (interstate, totalistic collective violence) lay at the heart of statecraft; to today’s state of “New War,” where non-military forms and uses of power and non-traditional uses of the military ought to be (but frequently aren’t) the norm for the conduct of statecraft; to a future, normative state of “No War,” where militaries as we have traditionally known them show themselves to be counterproductive and essentially irrelevant. We may never get there, but that’s where we should be heading.

There is, of course, a highly preferred, regularly practiced American way of war – summed up in the pejorative, tongue-in-cheek characterization “killing people and breaking things” – invariably heavily, massively, lethally, destructively, disproportionately, indiscriminately, tactically, expensively, and wastefully; frequently impetuously and impatiently; wherever possible, remotely and antiseptically. Our undeviating approach is to impose what we want – organizationally, doctrinally, and technologically – on what we face – situationally, geographically, and culturally – rather than confronting situations and circumstances on their own terms. We talk the language of necessity and urgency, but practice choice, convenience, and expediency. We prefer beating up on disadvantaged little guys, while avoiding like-minded and -equipped big guys. We profess self-defense, but practice aggression. We claim to be strategic, but act politically and tactically. We rely on executive prerogative wherever possible, while countenancing congressional and popular involvement only as necessary. With few exceptions, we adhere religiously to unilateral prerogative and action (notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary), defaulting to multilateralism only when necessary (and then only as a convenient means, not as an essential end).

The conceptual space we now occupy – and for some time have occupied – in the landscape of contemporary warfare is defined by two intersecting continua: wars of necessity vs. wars of choice on the one hand; total war vs. stable peace on the other. The space we occupy is defined solely by wars of choice and the nebulous middle ground we might characterize as somewhere between limited war and “violent peace.” It is a space defined by two overriding distinguishing characteristics: asymmetry and unwinnability. The adversaries we face, wisely and without exception employ asymmetric aims and means – strategic jujitsu – to turn their weaknesses into strengths and our presumed strengths into weaknesses, knowing all the while that we will arrogantly and uncreatively persist in relying on our preferred methods – the mindless hammer looking always for nails to drive into submission, never the scalpel appropriate to the surgery at hand. On top of that, the situations we face are inherently unwinnable – in the traditional terms of “unconditional surrender” and its historical concomitant overwhelming victory. Those conditions no longer exist, other than as unilateral proclamations by politicians.

In the cosmic pecking order of state actors, we are constantly judging others, and others us, to determine who stands where. One of the defining characteristics that will distinguish superpowers from great powers, great powers from major powers, major powers from minor powers in the years ahead, will be a strategically effective military (as distinct from the more quotidian militarily effective military). The military we have – a warfighting military in search of military effectiveness – is opposite in virtually every respect from the strategically effective military we need: heavy rather than light, lethal rather than nonlethal, destructive rather than constructive, provocative and escalatory rather than reassuring and de-escalatory, general purpose rather than tailored, expensive rather than affordable.

The debate that lies ahead of us, yet to take place or even seriously entertained, is that between the parochial Old School Orthodoxians, who can envision no military other than the one we have and have always had, and visionary New Wave Heterodoxians, who think the path to strategic effectiveness lies in a military that jettisons its warfighting posture in favor of peacekeeping, nation-building, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response. Numbers favor the former; ideas the latter. Let’s see if such a debate ever comes to fruition – during the Biden years or beyond. Stay tuned.

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