Anybody who pays attention to the global security scene knows we are in a whole new world — one variously called the “post-post Cold War era,” the “return of great-power conflict” and the “struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism.”
But what does any of this really mean? The end of the U.S.-led global order? A hegemonic China? The rise of so-called illiberal democracy? That we can no longer rely on McDonald’s to bring world peace? (Actually, that one didn’t work out so well.)
On this topic, as with so many others, I decided to gain insight from somebody who actually knows what he or she is talking about: Richard Danzig, a former secretary of the Navy who is now a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab 1 in Laurel, Maryland. (Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg Opinion, is a major donor to Johns Hopkins.) A giant in the military affairs/foreign policy/national security establishment, Danzig, along with 10 other fellows at the Hopkins lab — including Bloomberg Opinion columnist Admiral James Stavridis — has written a far-reaching paper entitled “A Preface to Strategy: The Foundations of American National Security.” (PDF available here.) We spoke about its points and more. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion:
Tobin Harshaw: So let’s start with the Applied Physics Lab report’s title, “Preface to Strategy.” What does that term mean to you?
Richard Danzig: A number of us were skeptical about the classic model of a strategy document, which attempts to be comprehensive and predictive about evolving interests, potential opponents, technologies, economic conditions, etc. We wanted to focus on certain basic propositions but go into them in considerably more depth than is generally the case. We focused predominantly on U.S. strengths and opportunities. We also wanted to show how present thinking is shaped by the past and how we might liberate ourselves — at least to some degree — in thinking about the future.
TH: You note that many of your predecessors in the national security establishment had articulated objectives and methods very clearly, and that’s been lost today. Is there a historical example that serves as sort of a model?
An even more striking example is so evident we don’t even pause to think about it — the way in which Franklin Roosevelt rallied the nation to fight the Axis powers in World War II.
Today we face a much more complicated world. We haven’t been physically attacked in the way that we were at Pearl Harbor. But that makes it only more important for a strategic document to speak to the public. Our paper is intended to be read broadly by the American public.
TH: But before Pearl Harbor, of course, FDR had a great deal of trouble generating support for entering the war. He did what he could, for example, with lend-lease for the U.K. Now we have a president who’s kind of the opposite, who disparages alliances and commitments. Do you think that the American people are still engaged with the world? Or do you think that Trump’s election showed the isolationist mind-set of the populace?
RD: We think today’s position is quite different from the World War II situation or the Cold War competition. We think the general population is committed to the idea of U.S. primacy; that the U.S. should be the leader of the free world; that it should be engaged with the world. We don’t see strong trends toward isolationism.
But there’s less clarity about why we’re committed to that role. It’s pretty obvious if you’re being attacked or if you think, as in the Cold War, that there’s a risk that our opponents will come and take over America and impose totalitarian rule. Nobody really thinks that China or Russia will take over the U.S.
TH: We’ve been at war now for 17 years. My children have never really known peacetime. Do you think that the war on terrorism just becomes kind of a background noise? How does that affect the younger generations that are going to replace us?
RD: I think it creates public fatigue. The military forces get both stronger and more worn from use. But for us a less noticed but central concern is the way in which it affects the strategies and priorities of our military and civilian decision-makers. We believe they become too present-tense oriented.
The present tense involves certain kinds of transient conflicts. The long-term issues are larger. One of those is what happens if you get involved in a more fundamental struggle with an opponent like China. The risk is that we lose track of the fact that our military must, in all circumstances, attend to that basic, most fundamental challenge as well as deal with the present. Also, there are significant risks to the environment and global health that demand international cooperation. We must manage both long-term competition and long-term cooperation. That wasn’t so central a problem in the Cold War, and it can’t be addressed if America’s leaders are overly absorbed by the present.
TH: In terms of Pentagon acquisitions and readiness policy, what changes are called for?
RD: Everybody preaches “innovation,” and has a great deal more difficulty practicing it. We try to breathe life into our precepts. For example, we emphasize the need for investment in technological skills and then specify changes to the existing military manpower system that are required to attract, sustain and empower those with the relevant skills. At present, as we see it, people with particular technical skills have a great deal of difficulty entering the senior ranks. You’re not going to wind up as chief of your service if you have a deep technical specialty. You’re not going to wind up controlling the budget or policy. If you are an enlisted man or woman, you are not going to rise above the middle ranks. We think that needs to change. Or, as another example, we want to encourage innovation, dissent and debate, and we make some specific suggestions as to how civilian leaders can promote that.
TH: You mention that the private sector has taken on a great deal of the innovation responsibility that the government used to do. Is there a chance that the Pentagon can actually move toward the Silicon Valley metabolism?
RD: Yes. The software revolution is very helpful because it pushes away from the acquisition of hardware and its long lead time. It also reflects another very important concept which is that you don’t acquire a fixed good, as for example, you historically might have acquired a tank. You’re acquiring something that’s constantly changing and evolving. The challenge is for the bureaucracy to keep pace with that speed of adaptation.
TH: On the flip side, some of the technology companies are antagonistic toward the military and intelligence side of government — we have the big example of Google dropping out of its Pentagon drone-project contract. Do you think they’ll wake up to the threats we face?
RD: I’d like to see that and expect that we will. There are a number of companies that continue to work with the Pentagon and that are quite committed to it. Amazon is an example; Microsoft continues to be at the forefront of companies working with Pentagon; the same is true of IBM and others.
The Google objections to Project Maven are not persuasive to me. I think that you can rightly insist that your contributions be used ethically and be concerned about the consequences, both intended and unintended. But I don’t think it’s the right response to quickly walk away from that relationship. I think you want to inject as much responsibility into it as is required.
TH: Let’s jump to our new age of great power competition. One thing that I found really interesting in the report was noting that when we talk about threats to sovereignty, we tend to think of it in terms of geography. Putin grabbing Crimea is what we think of. But you say not only is that changed, it changed a long time ago.
RD: After World War II, American leaders created institutions that continue to dominate the international security framework. They created the strategies that shape the thinking of all of the present senior decision-makers. This thinking rested on premises, some of which were evident at the time, some of which we can see more clearly now, and some of which are probably still not evident to us.
One of these premises was that the main threat to American national security was from other militaries crossing borders. Now cyber poses a different kind of problem, one that doesn’t recognize a border and doesn’t manifest itself even as a military action, much less as an action involving an attack that crosses a physical boundary. And so we have difficulty dealing with it.
TH: A lot of people, without wanting to be in China or Russia, feel that there are great advantages to an authoritarian system in terms of consistency and policy, in terms of control over dissent, etc. But you and your co-authors also feel that democracy has a lot of strengths that are unique to it, correct?
RD: Yes. You lead into it nicely when you comment as a sort of subordinate clause, “without wanting to live there.” One of the striking things is how many members of the elites within those countries don’t want to live there. That’s a reflection of a whole lot of things. Among them, fundamentally, it’s a reflection of lack of freedom in their own societies.
Authoritarian systems have advantages in the short term. A directed economy and a directed political system force rapid consensus. But we also know that these systems have a great deal of difficulty correcting their errors. They have difficulties with latent dissent that tends to manifest itself in subtle ways that drag on the political system and the economy. In the long-term, we think the American system is likely to be more successful, whatever the challenges in the short term.
TH: Speaking of China, it’s estimated that its economy will surpass ours in the next decade and perhaps double ours later in the century. But I’m old enough to remember when this was supposed to be the Japanese Century. That didn’t happen, obviously. How could the Chinese stumble on this path to global dominance?
RD: A lot could happen. You’re right in pointing out that the Japanese likely success was, in retrospect, exaggerated. Like you, we wouldn’t assert too much precision about this. Nobody knows what it will be like in 2050 or whatever. But it does seem highly likely that Chinese GDP will grow to exceed ours. And our basic point about that is that we haven’t, in our lives, experienced an opponent with a GDP anything like equal to ours.
China could stumble. We note, for example, that this could happen because of its environmental problems; because of its very large population — so that its GDP per capita is considerably less than ours; because of its problems of corruption; because of its problems dealing with dissent and so forth. GDP is not, by any means, some talismanic measure of national power. It’s a rather outmoded, 20th century way of calculating well-being in wealth. And it doesn’t necessarily correlate, by any means, with military power.
But while acknowledging these diverse considerations, as national security analysts we need to plan for challenging cases. The dominant very plausible one is one in which China’s economic power exceeds ours. We think strategic planning needs to proceed from that premise.
TH: The paper points out that another advantage is that America has a vast network of allies and partners. China and Russia don’t have friends, and you say that’s not coincidental.
RD: This is another manifestation of the failures of an autocratic regime as distinguished from one that prizes freedom and is based on that range of values. It gives us exceptional power. And one of the concerns many of us have, about the present administration, is the undervaluing of alliances.
TH: We have a president whose rhetoric is, well, poisonous to our allies. Does this do permanent damage to these alliances?
RD: This paper is not about President Trump, pro or con. It is about where, we think, from a national security perspective, we ought to be investing. And one of those things we ought to be investing in is alliances.
I think we can come back from any interruption in that investment. But the interruptions make it harder to come back. And they sow seeds of doubt that risk enduring.
TH: We throw around the term “soft power” a lot. You also call it “sharp power” in the paper. We know how that’s worked in the past. But it’s been devalued, even before Trump. What is soft power for this next era of great power competition?
RD: One example is provided by what the Chinese are doing with their so-called Belt and Road Initiative, trying to reach out both overland and by sea, which is the fabled Silk Road.
So the Chinese are investing an estimated $90 billion a year in aid, infrastructure projects and the like. Chinese access and Chinese values tend to go with those investments. China’s vision of the internet or of surveillance or of control through systems of facial recognition and the like become more accessible to the rulers of those countries. That’s an example of something that is very distant from military power but very relevant to influence. Of course, more direct hard power can also flow from these investments as bases are established and data is collected.
TH: So what is our Belt and Road then?
RD: Presently, we might invest on the order of $30 billion a year, a third as much. In our view, we ought to be encouraging more aid and trade in those contexts. We place a lot of emphasis on business relationships as a useful mechanism for spreading values and rules of law. When Americans are abroad selling their goods, they carry with them American values.
A different example is in the spread of information and our efforts to present our point of view. We think there are rich opportunities in those arenas. To the extent we withdraw from the world and don’t invest that way, we undervalue that aspect.
TH: Last question: There are, I think, 11 names on this paper. That’s a lot of chefs in the kitchen. How do you all work together to not just get your individual opinions in but to make sure that you have sort of common agreement?
RD: That’s another unusual aspect of this paper. It’s not uncommon for strategy documents to be written by committee. But I think anybody who reads this will feel that this is not a committee product. We didn’t dumb down the language, make the views lowest common denominator and the like. I was delighted that, in the end, we all felt we could sign this paper.