The Future Hiding in Plain Sight
Carl Jung used to argue that meaningful coincidences—in his jargon, synchronicity—were as important as cause and effect in shaping the details of human life. Whether that’s true in the broadest sense, I’ll certainly vouch for the fact that they’re a constant presence in The Archdruid Report. Time and again, just as I sit down to write a post on some theme, somebody sends me a bit of data that casts unexpected light on that very theme.
Last week was a case in point. Regular readers will recall that the theme of last week’s post was the way that pop-culture depictions of deep time implicitly erase the future by presenting accounts of Earth’s long history that begin billions of years ago and end right now. I was brooding over that theme a little more than a week ago, chasing down details of the prehistoric past and the posthistoric future, when one of my readers forwarded me a copy of the latest Joint Operating Environment report by the Pentagon—JOE-35, to use the standard jargon—which attempts to predict the shape of the international environment in which US military operations will take place in 2035, and mostly succeeds in providing a world-class example of the same blindness to the future I discussed in my post.
The report can be downloaded in PDF form here and is worth reading in full. It covers quite a bit of ground, and a thorough response to it would be more the size of a short book than a weekly blog post. The point I want to discuss this week is its identification of six primary “contexts for conflict” that will shape the military environment of the 2030s:
“1. Violent Ideological Competition. Irreconcilable ideas communicated and promoted by identity networks through violence.” That is, states and non-state actors alike will pursue their goals by spreading ideologies hostile to US interests and encouraging violent acts to promote those ideologies.
“2. Threatened U.S. Territory and Sovereignty. Encroachment, erosion, or disregard of U.S. sovereignty and the freedom of its citizens from coercion.” That is, states and non-state actors will attempt to carry out violent acts against US citizens and territory.
“3. Antagonistic Geopolitical Balancing. Increasingly ambitious adversaries maximizing their own influence while actively limiting U.S. influence.” That is, rival powers will pursue their own interests in conflict with those of the United States.
“4. Disrupted Global Commons. Denial or compulsion in spaces and places available to all but owned by none.” That is, the US will no longer be able to count on unimpeded access to the oceans, the air, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum in the pursuit of its interests.
“5. A Contest for Cyberspace. A struggle to define and credibly protect sovereignty in cyberspace.” That is, US cyberwarfare measures will increasingly face effective defenses and US cyberspace assets will increasingly face effective hostile incursions.
“6. Shattered and Reordered Regions. States unable to cope with internal political fractures, environmental stressors, or deliberate external interference.” That is, states will continue to be overwhelmed by the increasingly harsh pressures on national survival in today’s world, and the failed states and stateless zones that will spawn insurgencies and non-state actors hostile to the US.
Apparently nobody at the Pentagon noticed one distinctly odd thing about this outline of the future context of American military operations: it’s not an outline of the future at all. It’s an outline of the present. Every one of these trends is a major factor shaping political and military action around the world right now. JOE-35 therefore assumes, first, that each of these trends will remain locked in place without significant change for the next twenty years, and second, that no new trends of comparable importance will emerge to reshape the strategic landscape between now and 2035. History suggests that both of these are very, very risky assumptions for a great power to make.
It so happens that I have a fair number of readers who serve in the US armed forces just now, and a somewhat larger number who serve in the armed forces of other countries more or less allied with the United States. (I may have readers serving with the armed forces of Russia or China as well, but they haven’t announced themselves—and I suspect, for what it’s worth, that they’re already well acquainted with the points I intend to make.) With those readers in mind, I’d like to suggest a revision to JOE-35, which will take into account the fact that history can’t be expected to stop in its tracks for the next twenty years, just because we want it to. Once that’s included in the analysis, at least five contexts of conflict not mentioned by JOE-35 stand out from the background:
- A crisis of legitimacy in the United States. Half a century ago, most Americans assumed as a matter of course that the United States had the world’s best, fairest, and most democratic system of government; only a small minority questioned the basic legitimacy of the institutions of government or believed they would be better off under a different system. Since the late 1970s, however, federal policies that subsidized automation and the offshoring of industrial jobs, and tacitly permitted mass illegal immigration to force down wages, have plunged the once-proud American working class into impoverishment and immiseration. While the wealthiest 20% or so of Americans have prospered since then, the other 80% of the population has experienced ongoing declines in standards of living.
The political impact of these policies has been amplified by a culture of contempt toward working class Americans on the part of the affluent minority, and an insistence that any attempt to discuss economic and social impacts of automation, offshoring of jobs, and mass illegal immigration must be dismissed out of hand as mere Luddism, racism, and xenophobia. As a direct consequence, a great many working class Americans—in 1965, by and large, the sector of the public most loyal to American institutions—have lost faith in the US system of government. This shift in values has massive military as well as political implications, since working class Americans are much more likely than others to own guns, to have served in the military, and to see political violence as a potential option.
Thus a domestic insurgency in the United States is a real possibility at this point. Since, as already noted, working class Americans are disproportionately likely to serve in the military, planning for a domestic insurgency in the United States will have to face the possibility that such an insurgency will include veterans familiar with current counterinsurgency doctrine. It will also have to cope with the risk that National Guard and regular armed forces personnel sent to suppress such an insurgency will go over to the insurgent side, transforming the insurgency into a civil war.
As some wag has pointed out, the US military is very good at fighting insurgencies but not so good at defeating them, and the fate of Eastern Bloc nations after the fall of the Soviet Union shows just how fast a government can unravel once its military personnel turn against it. Furthermore, since the crisis of legitimacy is driven by policies backed by a bipartisan consensus, military planners can only deal with the symptoms of a challenge whose causes are beyond their control.
- The marginalization of the United States in the global arena. Twenty years ago the United States was the world’s sole superpower, having triumphed over the Soviet Union, established a rapprochement with China, and marginalized such hostile Islamic powers as Iran. Those advantages did not survive two decades of overbearing and unreliable US policy, which not only failed to cement the gains of previous decades but succeeded in driving Russia and China, despite their divergent interests and long history of conflict, into an alliance against the United States. Future scholars will likely consider this to be the worst foreign policy misstep in our nation’s history.
Iran’s alignment with the Sino-Russian alliance and, more recently, overtures from the Philippines and Egypt, track the continuation of this trend, as do the establishment of Chinese naval bases across the Indian Ocean from Myanmar to the Horn of Africa, and most recently, Russian moves to reestablish overseas bases in Syria, Egypt, Vietnam, and Cuba. Russia and China are able to approach foreign alliances on the basis of a rational calculus of mutual interest, rather than the dogmatic insistence on national exceptionalism that guides so much of US foreign policy today. This allows them to offer other nations, including putative US allies, better deals than the US is willing to concede.
As a direct result, barring a radical change in its foreign policy, the United States in 2035 will be marginalized by a new global order centered on Beijing and Moscow, denied access to markets and resources by trade agreements hostile to its interests, and will have to struggle to maintain influence even over its “near abroad.” It is unwise to assume, as some current strategists do, that China’s current economic problems will slow that process. Some European leaders in the 1930s, Adolf Hitler among them, assumed that the comparable boom-bust cycle the United States experienced in the 1920s and 1930s meant that the US would be a negligible factor in the European balance of power in the 1940s. I think we all know how that turned out.
Here again, barring a drastic change in US foreign policy, military planners will be forced to deal with the consequences of unwelcome shifts without being able to affect the causes of those shifts. Careful planning can, however, redirect resources away from global commitments that will not survive the process of marginalization, and toward securing the “near abroad” of the United States and withdrawing assets to the continental US to keep them from being compromised by former allies.
- The rise of “monkeywrenching” warfare. The United States has the most technologically complex military in the history of war. While this is normally considered an advantage, it brings with it no shortage of liabilities. The most important of these is the vulnerability of complex technological systems to “monkeywrenching”—that is, strategies and tactics targeting technological weak points in order to degrade the capacities of a technologically superior force. The more complex a technology is, as a rule, the wider the range of monkeywrenching attacks that can interfere with it; the more integrated a technology is with other technologies, the more drastic the potential impacts of such attacks. The complexity and integration of US military technology make it a monkeywrencher’s dream target, and current plans for increased complexity and integration will only heighten the risks.
The risks created by the emergence of monkeywrenching warfare are heightened by an attitude that has deep roots in the culture of US military procurement: the unquestioned assumption that innovation is always improvement. This assumption has played a central role in producing weapons systems such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is so heavily burdened with assorted innovations that it has a much shorter effective range, a much smaller payload, and much higher maintenance costs than competing Russian and Chinese fighters. In effect, the designers of the F-35 were so busy making it innovative that they forgot to make it work. The same thing can be said about many other highly innovative but dubiously effective US military technologies.
Problems caused by excessive innovation can to some extent be anticipated and countered by US military planners. What makes monkeywrenching attacks by hostile states and non-state actors so serious a threat is that it may not be possible to predict them in advance. While US intelligence assets should certainly make every effort to identify monkeywrenching technologies and tactics before they are used, US forces must be aware that at any moment, critical technologies may be put out of operation or turned to the enemy’s advantage without warning. Rigorous training in responding to technological failure, and redundant systems that can operate independently of existing networks, may provide some protection against monkeywrenching, but the risk remains grave.
- The genesis of warband culture in failed states. While JOE-35 rightly identifies the collapse of weak states into failed-state conditions as a significant military threat, a lack of attention to the lessons of history leads its authors to neglect the most serious risk posed by the collapse of states in a time of general economic retrenchment and cultural crisis. That risk is the emergence of warband culture—a set of cultural norms that dominate the terminal periods of most recorded civilizations and the dark ages that follow them, and play a central role in the historical transformation to dark age conditions.
Historians use the term “warband” to describe a force of young men whose only trade is violence, gathered around a charismatic leader and supporting itself by pillage. While warbands tend to come into being whenever public order collapses or has not yet been imposed, the rise of a self-sustaining warband culture requires a prolonged period of disorder in which governments either do not exist or cannot establish their legitimacy in the eyes of the governed, and warbands become accepted as the de facto governments of territories of various size. Once this happens, the warbands inevitably begin to move outward; the ethos and the economics of the warband alike require access to plunder, and this can best be obtained by invading regions not yet reduced to failed-state conditions, thus spreading the state of affairs that fosters warband culture in the first place.
Most civilizations have had to contend with warbands in their last years, and the record of attempts to quell them by military force is not good. At best, a given massing of warbands can be defeated and driven back into whatever stateless area provides them with their home base; a decade or two later, they can be counted on to return in force. Systematic attempts to depopulate their home base simply drive them into other areas, causing the collapse of public order there. Once warband culture establishes itself solidly on the fringes of a civilization, history suggests, the entire civilized area will eventually be reduced to failed-state conditions by warband incursions, leading to a dark age. Nothing guarantees that the modern industrial world is immune from this same process.
The spread of failed states around the periphery of the industrial world is thus an existential thread not only to the United States but to the entire project of modern civilization. What makes this a critical issue is that US foreign policy and military actions have repeatedly created failed states in which warband culture can flourish: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Ukraine are only the most visible examples. Elements of US policy toward Mexico—for example, the “Fast and Furious” gunrunning scheme—show worrisome movement in the same direction. Unless these policies are reversed, the world of 2035 may face conditions like those that have ended civilization more than once in the past.
- The end of the Holocene environmental optimum. All things considered, the period since the final melting of the great ice sheets some six millennia ago has been extremely propitious for the project of human civilization. Compared to previous epochs, the global climate has been relatively stable, and sea levels have changed only slowly. Furthermore, the globe six thousand years ago was stocked with an impressive array of natural resources, and the capacity of its natural systems to absorb sudden shocks had not been challenged on a global level for some sixty-five million years.
None of those conditions remains the case today. Ongoing dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is rapidly destabilizing the global climate, and triggering ice sheet melting in Greenland and Antarctica that promises to send sea levels up sharply in the decades and centuries ahead. Many other modes of pollution are disrupting natural systems in a galaxy of ways, triggering dramatic environmental changes. Meanwhile breakneck extraction is rapidly depleting the accessible stocks of hundreds of different nonrenewable resources, each of them essential to some aspect of contemporary industrial society, and the capacity of natural systems to cope with the cascading burdens placed upon them by human action has already reached the breaking point in many areas.
The end of the Holocene environmental optimum—the era of relative ecological stability in which human civilization has flourished—is likely to be a prolonged process. By 2035, however, current estimates suggest that the initial round of impacts will be well under way. Shifting climate belts causing agricultural failure, rising sea levels imposing drastic economic burdens on coastal communities and the nations to which they belong, rising real costs for resource extraction driving price spikes and demand destruction, and increasingly intractable conflicts pitting states, non-state actors, and refugee populations against one another for remaining supplies of fuel, raw materials, topsoil, food, and water.
US military planners will need to take increasingly hostile environmental conditions into account. They will also need to prepare for mass movements of refugees out of areas of flooding, famine, and other forms of environmental disruption, on a scale exceeding current refugee flows by orders of magnitude. Finally, since the economic impact of these shifts on the United States will affect the nation’s ability to provide necessary resources for its military, plans for coping with cascading environmental crises will have to take into account the likelihood that the resources needed to do so may be in short supply.
Those are the five contexts for conflict I foresee. What makes them even more challenging than they would otherwise be, of course, is that none of them occur in a vacuum, and each potentially feeds into the others. Thus, for example, it would be in the national interest of Russia and/or China to help fund and supply a domestic insurgency in the United States (contexts 1 and 2); emergent warbands may well be able to equip themselves with the necessary gear to engage in monkeywrenching attacks against US forces sent to contain them (contexts 4 and 3); disruptions driven by environmental change will likely help foster the process of warband formation (contexts 5 and 4), and so on.
That’s the future hiding in plain sight: the implications of US policies in the present and recent past, taken to their logical conclusions. The fact that current Pentagon assessments of the future remain so tightly fixed on the phenomena of the present, with no sense of where those phenomena lead, gives me little hope that any of these bitter outcomes will be avoided.
There will be no regularly scheduled Archdruid Report next week. Blogger’s latest security upgrade has made it impossible for me to access this blog while I’m out of town, and I’ll be on the road (and my backup moderator unavailable) for a good part of what would be next week’s comment cycle. I’ve begun the process of looking for a new platform for my blogs, and I’d encourage any of my readers who rely on Blogger or any other Google product to look for alternatives before you, too, get hit by an “upgrade” that makes it more trouble to use than it’s worth.