You may have sensed it for a while. A significant group of American voters certainly did, since they elected a declinist president in 2016. Still, here’s the news of the month: the Pentagon has finally acknowledged it, too, as the title of a report from the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute makes clear: At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World. The “study team” at that institute which focused on global risk and the U.S. military doesn’t actually use the phrase “American decline,” but their stand-in, a “post-primacy world,” will do. They offer a vision of a planet where the unique power of the United States, that once-upon-a-time “lone superpower,” that architect of the post-Cold-War global order, is slipping fast.
And believe me, if you listen to those researchers, the future couldn’t be more perilous. Unfortunately, to grasp their assessment of the global situation, you have to run a gauntlet of daunting Pentagonese (in effect, a pidgin version of English). Still, from the weaponization of planetary “hyper-connectivity” to the rejectionism of jihadists to the maneuvering of would-be great and not-so-great powers — you know the lineup: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea — it’s a landscape of increasing “risk” that they believe the U.S. high command should wrap its head around fast.
You might not imagine that there could be dark humor in such a grim subject, but in that you would be wrong. The study team’s recommendations are so unexpectedly expectable — from a military that’s carried out the disastrous war on terror — that they should bring a sardonic smile of recognition to anyone’s face. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that the study’s authors don’t expect that never-ending war to end anytime soon. In fact, they refer to this moment and the years to come ominously as the era of “Persistent Conflict 2.0.” And yet, to confront such a world, they firmly believe that what’s needed is… well, more. You know, just what the U.S. military and the national security state have been demanding from America’s politicians since 9/11 (and what Donald Trump has sworn to deliver): more of everything. More funding, more surveillance capabilities, and an expanded, upgraded military ready to take advantage of every new risk on the block, a force that must self-evidently be granted “maximum freedom of action” or what’s the point of giving it more of everything?
Here’s the crucial paragraph in their study:
“While as a rule, U.S. leaders of both political parties have consistently committed to the maintenance of U.S. military superiority over all potential state rivals, the post-primacy reality demands a wider and more flexible military force that can generate advantage and options across the broadest possible range of military demands. To U.S. political leadership, maintenance of military advantage preserves maximum freedom of action… Finally, it allows U.S. decision-makers the opportunity to dictate or hold significant sway over outcomes in international disputes in the shadow of significant U.S. military capability and the implied promise of unacceptable consequences in the event that capability is unleashed.”
And here’s a question that this crew of researchers miraculously don’t seem to have thought to ask: How has “more” worked out so far in the twenty-first century when it comes to the U.S. military’s “freedom” to act on an increasingly post-primacy planet? Hmm… you might want to check in with Afghans or Iraqis or Yemenis or Libyans or Syrians or, more recently, Filipinos, many living in the rubble of our wars, about just how “more” from the U.S. military has worked out for them. Or you might want to consider the findings of another study altogether, one TomDispatch’s Nick Turse considers today. It’s a study of what “success” looks like when you fund the U.S. military fulsomely and give it the maximum freedom to do just what it pleases.