“At Our Own Peril”

General Martin Dempsey speaking at the US Army War College

At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World.”

That is the title of a study published by the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. It is an update of the present world situation and an attempt to map out the main “risks” – meaning dangers – over the next ten years. The workers’ movement and every socialist should become familiar with this study, which shows the thinking of some of the most important strategists for the US capitalist class.

Three post-Cold War periods
The study maps out three main periods since the Cold War:

  1. First was the period of unchallenged US domination world wide;
  2. Second was the Post-9/11 period. It explains the “disruptive” nature of that “strategic shock”, and it criticizes the “national security bias and convention” that was and remains unable to deal with such shocks.
  3. We are now in the “post primacy period which is “even more uncertain and faces a wave of fundamental change.

They see five main characteristics of this present period:

  • Hyper-connectivity and weaponization of information, disinformation, and

    Islamic State on the march in Raqqa, Syria.
    They represent one of the main destabilizing forces for US capitalism in the world today.


  • A rapidly fracturing post-Cold War status quo;
  • Proliferation, diversification, and atomization of effective counter-U.S. resistance;
  • Resurgent but transformed great power competition; and finally,
  • Violent or disruptive dissolution of political cohesion and identity

“Hyper-connectivity” means the ability to mobilize world wide through the internet as well as hacking with the result that data can be destroyed and state secrets revealed. They also complain about this meaning the “unfettered manipulation of perceptions”, meaning that the capitalist media no longer rules without challenge as in “the ability of purposeful actors at and below the state level to communicate, plan, agitate, and execute profoundly disruptive acts”. This would apply to everything from the ability of the Islamic State to recruit internationally to the ability of protesters to organize through the internet. As they say, “the strategic significance of hyper-connectivity cannot be overstated.”

Thanks to the internet,” they write, “the public can identify people with the same values and fears, exchange ideas, and build relationships faster than ever before. Our governments are simply not part of that conversation: we have 19th century institutions with 20th century mindsets, attempting to communicate with 21st century citizens. Our governments are elected, dissolved and re-elected only to pursue short-term agendas, yet the cycles that innovate and build trust with voters require long-term investment.”

“Fact free, fact perilous and fact toxic” information
Yes, falsehoods (“fact free” information such as that the US is trying to institute regime change in Syria) are a problem, but there is also “fact-perilous” information – that information that was never supposed to have been revealed. (Think Snowden and Assange.) Worst of all is “fact toxic” information which “poisons important political discourse and fatally weakens foundational security” at all levels from the international to the local. In other words, from revelations of US use of torture to videos of local police beating and murdering people. As they write, “fact-toxic exposures are those likeliest to trigger viral or contagious insecurity across or within borders.”

State Rivals
They refer to their main rivals – Chinese and Russian capitalism, but also see secondary threats to US control, mainly North Korea and Iran. The US is no longer in an “unassailable” position in relation to “state competitors” they point out. Also there are “the varied forces of disintegrating or fracturing political authority (of different bourgeois states). This is a reference to, stems from, the weakening of the working class as a coherent force, as an alternative to the capitalist class.

They stress the danger of a mind set still stuck in Cold War era vs. present era where “the one certainty

US troops in Iraq in 2003.
The main strategists for US capitalism recognize that the period that gave rise to such invasions is over.

is in fact uncertainty.” This fact of life means the end of US ability to control events, or, as they put it, the necessity of “accepting identified risk”, meaning they cannot eliminate it. Once again, this is a reminder of why Obama was installed vs. his Republican rival, McCain. The neoconservative strategy, which was based on the post Cold War period of US primacy, was no longer viable. However, under Bush, any consideration of problems that might arise in a US military invasion was seen as a sign of weakness. As the study writes, “Recognition of post-primacy is not a defeatist perspective. It is a wakeup call…. the United States can no longer rely on unsophisticated combinations of raw political, economic, and military power as well as the latent attraction of example to force outcomes in its favor. Brute force won’t get it.”

From the 1960s movie, “Dr. Strangelove”
Has Trump empowered the Dr. Strangeloves of today?

Is this a reminder for the Trump administration, especially that wing of Dr. Strangeloves that Trump has gathered round himself? (“Dr. Strangelove was a 1960s era film about a mad scientist who believed that the US could engage in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and come out ahead. There always has been that crazed wing of the US military.)

They point out that assessment of present situation and development

General Martin E. Dempsey.
He is quoted as saying: “[I]n the next 10 years, I expect the risk of interstate conflict in East Asia to rise, the vulnerability of our platforms and basing to increase, our technology edge to erode, instability to persist in the Middle East, and threats posed by violent extremist organizations to endure. Nearly any future conflict will occur on a much faster pace and on a more technically challenging battlefield.”

of longer term strategies must be based on “enduring objectives.” They identify six “enduring defense objectives”:

  • Secure U.S. territory, people, infrastructure, and property against significant harm. This means defense against terrorist threats primarily, but will also come to mean defense against internal threats – riots, etc.
  • Secure access to the global commons and strategic regions, markets, and resources. This refers to, for example, the conflicts with China in the South China Sea, as well as maintaining access for US capital and resource extraction around the world
  • Meet foreign security obligations. This refers to maintaining allies’ confidence that US military will defend them. They also here take a swipe at those like Rand Paul (as well as Trump to an extent) who oppose US intervention overseas. As they put it, “the maintenance of the U.S. position as a dominant global power is untenable without both active maintenance and expansion of meaningful security partnerships worldwide.” They bemoan the fact that, in the words of General David Petraeus, while the threat to the world order have grown ever more apparent, “American resolve about its defense has become somewhat ambivalent.”
  • Underwrite a stable, resilient, rules-based international order. This refers to social disintegration as well as states that violate international rules, from those that threaten debt repayment refusal to those that threaten international order in other ways. Again, quoting Petraeus (and the Wall St. Journal), the world order “is not self-sustaining. [The United States has] sustained it. If [the United States} stops doing so, it will fray and, eventually, collapse.”
  • Build and maintain a favorable and adaptive global security architecture. As they explain, the US has several advantages over all other rivals. First and foremost is its wide network of “partners”, but state and non-state, but as they say, “these relationships are under increasing internal and external pressures.” Another advantage is that, partly due to theses relationships with these “partners”, “the United States possesses the largest and most sophisticated and integrated intelligence complex in the world. These factors – its system of alliances, its intelligence capacity and the fact that it can reach into any corner of the world make the US the “security partner of choice.” Again, though, they recognize a prevailing political mood here at home. “That strength, however, is only as durable as the United States’ willingness to see and employ it to its advantage.”
  • Create, preserve, and extend U.S. military advantage and options. This means exactly what it says, but there’s a recognition here of US weakness. They write that a “decisive or definitive defeat of adversaries may not always be realistic.” This is a recognition of the decline in power of US imperialism.

Threats/Forces at Work

There are several different forces at work, foremost among them the “status quo” forces, which are the US allies; and then the “revisionist forces”, like the Russian and the Chinese regimes. These “benefit from the same basic international order” but “seek a new distribution of power and authority”. In other

Arab Spring: US capitalist strategists specifically named this movement as a threat to their order. They foresee new movements along similar lines.

words, in a world of fragmenting societies, these “revisionist forces” can at times be seen as partial allies, as for example with the Putin regime in Syria. That is bad enough, but then there are the “revolutionary forces” which “are neither the products of, nor are they satisfied with, the contemporary order.” The report identifies the states of Iran and North Korea first and foremost among these. Worst of all are the “rejectionist forces” who “offer very little in the way of legitimate political alternative… (and reject) legitimate political authority.” They later specify two such forces: Islamic fundamentalism (ISIS and al Qaeda) and the Arab Spring. And as they explain, these rejectionist forces may emanate from the “Middle East”, but “they will mutate, metastasize… over time.” In other words, here is an explicit recognition of the role of a true revolt from below (the Arab Spring).

“The study team concluded that the status quo that virtually all U.S. strategy rests on is, in fact, an artifact of a prior era,” they write.

Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” (here supported by Tom Hanks) is an appeal to a return to a bygone era, the era of US “primacy”. This is part of the reason why the main strategists for US capitalism oppose Trump; he bases himself on the illusion of a possible return to that era and therefore his strategy cannot succeed.

Among other things, this study seems to be a swipe at Trump. This includes their reminder that the period of unchallenged US primacy is over. It also includes the stress on the need for allies. “If the United States remains prone to accommodate partners and reduce collective anxiety, the United States will regain some lost ground internationally and will do so with the wind of strong international partnerships at its back. Failure to do so, however, is likely to result in further erosion of American position and increased strategic-level risk,” they write.

While US capitalism needs allies to maintain capitalist world order, there is no substitute for US capitalism. ‘The greatest source of stress lies in an inherent dynamism in the character and velocity of consequential change in strategic conditions,’ they write. In other words, change happens, and it can happen very rapidly. ‘General Petraeus is instructive here as well. He recently observed: “Americans should not take the current international order for granted. It did not will itself into existence. [The United States] created it. Likewise, it is not self-sustaining. [The United States has] sustained it. If [the United States] stops doing so, it will fray and, eventually, collapse”.’

The study criticizes the present approach as being short term, focusing on immediate threats and focused on the “known knowns”, which are the threats of China, Russia, North Korea and Islamic extremist groups. We “should employ a wider, more imaginative perspective,” they write.

Their problem, though, is that capitalism, itself, cannot solve its problems, which include increasing fragmentation. So every step to resolve an immediate threat merely exacerbates another threat which may be less severe at present but will become the most severe in the future. They recognize this when they agree that there is a natural “tension” between “the various vertical (meaning present day) and horizontal (longer term) axes”. What they are trying to do is minimize this tension “remove unnecessary disharmony and tension” as they put it.

We should draw some conclusions from this study:

First of all, much of the socialist left is still stuck in a time warp, while these strategists for US capitalism have moved on. They recognize that not only is the Cold War over, but so is the period that followed of “US primacy.” The clear implication is that the neoconservative’s goal of  “regime change” is no longer on the agenda. But much of the left combines the Cold War view towards the now-dead Soviet Union with views held during the “US primacy” period. They completely fail to understand that the strategists for US capitalism have moved on, that the US intervention in Syria is a completely different animal from the US invasion of Iraq, for example.

Also, in a sense, it is true that US capitalism is the sole force that can hold the world capitalist order together. The problem for capitalism is that, as the study recognizes, US capitalism is a weakening force; it’s no longer unchallengeable. This means that increasing fragmentation and turmoil within and between different countries is inevitable.

The devastation of WW I.
A new and even more devastating world war will be the result of the increasing rivalries among imperialist powers… unless capitalism is overthrown.

The entire study is permeated with this recognition of weakening US domination vs. its rivals. There was a similar period in world history: The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. That was when the old dominant colonial powers such as Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire were weakening.  New powers were arising, such as US and German capitalism. The old order was dissolving, but a new order could only be worked out through one means: war. That was WW I, the most devastating war in history up to that time, only eclipsed by WW II, also fought to determine the imperialist pecking order.

And the perspectives for a new world war?

They also say “the United States might not necessarily resist as a static status quo power”. What does this mean? It seems to mean that they recognize that the US might become a disruptive force, rather than one that strives to maintain the status quo. In what way? Is this an implicit recognition that the US might initiate military conflict in the future – in other words take open steps towards WW III? As they note, there is “yet another bedrock principle of American defense policy – nuclear and conventional deterrence.” A chilling commentary on what a new world war could become.

That is where world capitalism is headed (if massive environmental disaster doesn’t hit first).

There is only one alternative: A mass working class revolution to bring down bring down the capitalist system and build genuine socialism under working class management and control. As Leon Trotsky put it: “History says to the working class ‘You must know that unless you cast down the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class), you will perish beneath the ruins of the capitalist civilization. Try, solve this task!”

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