Mara Karlin and John McLaughlin are scholars at the 2019 Aspen Security Forum. This article originally appeared in the 10th-anniversary issue of Canada’s Global Brief magazine.
Even the most fact-based thoughtful US administration will appear improvisational and inconsistent without an organizing ‘label’ for the times and America’s overall strategy
“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks Romeo, dismissively, in a Shakespeare dialogue. Yet in foreign affairs, and in American foreign policy specifically, names can be very useful. They can capture the essence of an era, be a label for a strategy, or describe how to think about victory, defeat, and legacy. And while names can be misconstrued, the ones that are used can convey to society, the military, allies, partners, and adversaries what is being experienced collectively—and why. Now, some 18 years after the 9/11 attacks, it is timely to consider whether it is yet possible to name this particular era—a period characterized, from the American perspective, by highly unusual threats and brimming with uncertainty.
Preserve the Union, Safe for Democracy, Defeat the Nazis, Contain the Soviets—these catchphrases helped to define the present and past of the US as it secured its territory, expanded its global influence, battled adversaries, and became a superpower. But as the US has barrelled through two of the key inflection points of the post-WW2 era—the fall of the USSR and the 9/11 attacks—no consensus phrase or concept has emerged to convey to all of the aforementioned audiences a sense of where the country finds itself and where it is heading. Should this be a cause for worry among American strategists? Our conclusion, after trying various monikers is: not yet. This era, however, historians ultimately label it, is simply too complex and still too fluid to capture in a single bumper sticker or sound bite. But assessing just why this is so can tell us a great deal about where the US finds itself in geopolitical terms—and about what awaits.
One reason for which labels elude us is that the era’s salient characteristics do not fit together neatly. Consider that, from an American perspective, the two most obvious trends of recent decades are, first, the rise or resurgence of major powers seeking to displace or diminish US influence; and, second, American engagement in near-continuous war largely on the territory of minor powers and against adversaries lacking conventional power.
Let us look at these one at a time.
Trend One: Tough and Growing Competition from Rising Powers
After WW2, the US faced a world in disarray—one that arguably had much in common with today’s world. However, back then, America had the relative luxury of facing only one serious competitor on the global stage: the Soviet Union. Although the USSR posed an existential threat, American policy-makers could give it laser-like focus and nearly always made it the prism through which Washington interpreted and subsequently responded to most other foreign developments.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it bequeathed another kind of luxury to the US—the freedom to act on the global stage for a limited period with no peer competitor. In this period—often called ‘the unipolar moment’—the US had the freedom to move (often unilaterally) nearly unimpeded in whichever direction it chose, pulling along its allies in the process. US leadership produced some important outcomes for Western democracies and for the idea of a broader, although circumscribed rules-based (liberal international) order—to wit, the Balkan settlements, the unification of Germany and NATO enlargement. Evidently, some of these efforts also went awry—most notably in Iraq and the considerable destabilizing consequences stemming from that war.
But the US ‘model’ suffered serious setbacks throughout the post-9/11 era. Washington’s outsized focus on fighting terrorists made it easier for countries like China and Russia to challenge security norms in Asia and Europe, respectively. The 2008 financial meltdown undermined global confidence in the American-led international economic system. And those trends have continued apace—accompanied, most recently, by severe strains in US alliances and international agreements as the current president has pushed ahead with his ‘America First’ agenda.
This era is therefore shaping up to be one of greater competition among great, near-great, and aspiring powers as China’s well-documented rise has accelerated, and Russia’s contrarian challenge to existing global order has seized center stage. It is an era that has some characteristics from earlier times, such as the 1920s and 1930s. However, it is different in at least one crucial respect: in those periods, the US did not have to worry about preserving its singular leadership position, given the clout—and privileges—that it acquired only after 1945.
Trend Two: The Never-Ending Story (of War)
Near the mid-point between the Soviet collapse and the international financial—at a moment when the US could have been constructing a balanced policy toward the post-Soviet world—America had to deal with an emergency, the 9/11 attacks, that before long would lead the country into seemingly endless war. The US has now been at war nearly as long as it takes to reach adulthood. This war has spanned the globe and shaped conflict in the first two decades of the 21st century more than virtually any other action or set of actions by any other state. This ‘war’ shows no sign of letting up, and yet, as with the broader geopolitical environment that surrounds it, it still enjoys no agreed name. In other words, we still do not know the name of this war, or these wars—much less the name of the era in which this war or these wars are occurring. Indeed, this absence of a name may be the clearest manifestation of national confusion in respect of the period—a confusion that compromises the ability of leading US decision-makers to think about and prepare for competition.
Unlike previous wars—the Civil War, WW1, WW2 or even the Cold War—this war has no easily visualized ending or telos that lends itself to articulation in a phrase or name. To be sure, the debate over how to talk about this conflict began immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Within days, President George W. Bush declared a ‘War on Terror,’ which quickly turned into the ‘Global War on Terrorism’ or GWOT. Two months after 9/11, the British military historian Michael Howard said that this should not even be called ‘war’ but rather an ‘emergency’—one best approached as an international ‘police operation.’ American military historian Eliot Cohen vehemently disagreed, declaring it “World War IV.”
Some names early on focused on specific conflicts like ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ or ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ – the military terms for combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively.
In subsequent years, various names popped up, increasingly subscribing to a dark perspective on the conflicts. In 2004, General John Abizaid, who commanded all US military forces in the Middle East and South Asia, coined the term ‘long war,’ which President Bush would go on to adopt in his 2006 State of the Union address. The New York Times journalist Dexter Filkins popularized the term ‘The Forever War’ with his book of the same title.
The Obama administration shifted its approach, and in 2009, American budget bureaucrats began using the term ‘overseas contingency operations’ to refer to the ongoing conflicts—perhaps the most sterile description of conflict to date. President Obama criticized the GWOT for being ‘boundless,’ while his administration increasingly referred to ‘countering violent extremists’ as the catchphrase du jour. Meanwhile, the Trump administration, focused on a still-evolving ‘America First’ agenda, has largely ignored the issue. Indeed, the names applied to these conflicts have become less precise as the objectives and conceivable endpoints of these wars have gradually become blurred. It is not yet clear how the Trump administration will deal with all of this, but Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria and to cut sharply the US troop commitment in Afghanistan suggests that his catchphrase for the era may simply be ‘We’re Done.’
Overall, these 18 years represent effectively the longest conflict in the history of the US. The costs are not yet known. One recent study pegged the figure at US $2.8 trillion, while another asserted $5.6 trillion. And the conflict shows no sign of letting up.
Romeo, Doff Thy Name
Hard as this era is to label, a few characteristics do stand out. The international security environment is increasingly characterized by experimentation, digitalization, populism, and controversy about what comprises ‘global order’ and who sets its rules. It may not be the most dangerous time that the US has experienced, but it may be the most complex. It certainly bears some resemblance to earlier periods, and yet it takes place amid global trends in domains like urbanization and technology diffusion that exceed in magnitude, speed, and consequence those which the world has experienced in earlier times. Of course, the temptation will be to fall back on older familiar conceptions like balance of power or multipolarity. And these may well be wise starting points, but we deceive ourselves if we conclude that these constructs are in any way sufficient in both explanatory and advisory power.
Among the many uncertainties shaping this era, there are four that, were they to crystallize, might in combination yield a name or overarching theme now missing. First, greater clarity could result if the US were to come to an unambiguous conclusion about the degree of threat or competition posed by China, and whether this can ever be outweighed by some kind of modus vivendi or even partnership. A snapshot of US specialist opinion today would probably show a growing but uneven consensus to the effect that China is committed to threatening American global preeminence. If the evidence hardens that consensus over time, a great deal of ambiguity would disappear in respect to the nature of this era.
From an American perspective, the two most obvious trends are, first, the rise or resurgence of major powers seeking to displace US influence; and, second, American engagement in near- continuous war largely on the territory of minor powers.
Meanwhile, Russia’s trajectory is having an outsized effect on the global and American security environment. However, in the American view, there is little doubt about the behavioral vector privileged by Moscow, given its moves in Europe, the Middle East and in the 2016 US presidential election.
Second, it is still not clear whether the threat to America, American interests, and American allies from terrorism is dwindling or merely in remission. Can this terrorism roar back at some point in an evolved form? At present, most specialists say that ISIS, in particular, has been dealt a mighty blow, even if many caution that the group, now largely denuded of its territorial ‘caliphate,’ is still intact organizationally, while Al Qaeda is quietly rebuilding off-camera, screened in part by the chaos in the Middle East—especially in Syria and Yemen. It seems a safe bet, then, that terrorists will for the foreseeable future still require a measure of American attention well above what they received before 9/11, therefore it is too soon to relax when it comes to the threat that they pose to American interests and the lives of American citizens.
Third, confusion plagues the cyber realm—the newest and least understood domain of contemporary conflict. There is widespread recognition of its import and inevitability, but we have still not experienced an event that, as 9/11 did with terrorism, pulls a huge number of players and forces into alignment on how to deal with it. US policy is still poorly coordinated among the many agencies with cyber expertise and capabilities. Moreover, the security and intelligence community still lacks clarity on elemental conflict dimensions such as deterrence and escalation. There is also scant progress on forging anything like the kind of international understandings that were developed on nuclear weapons over decades during the Cold War.
Finally, unresolved questions about the future priorities, policies, and direction of the US hang over all of this. Particularly during the Trump administration, the US has left the impression that it is pulling back from its traditional leadership role and alliances in favor of bilateral accords or going it alone. Some of Trump’s advisers have tried to reassure allies and strike postures consistent with traditional US commitments and style. But the foreign audience notes the disconnect with the President’s pronouncements and is left trying to infer in them a reliable logic. And for the first time since the Watergate scandal of 1974, the duration of the current administration, even after the release of the Mueller Report, remains open to speculation as it fends off multiple investigations and talk of possible presidential impeachment.
To be sure, a number of other issues preoccupy and worry Americans examining the national security landscape. These include North Korea’s increasingly capable nuclear weapons; the faltering international arms control and proliferation regimes; India and Pakistan’s cold and potentially fleeting détente; Iranian support for a variety of clients across the Middle East; the fragility and unrealized potential of many African states; and, among others, the destabilizing violence in Latin America, most prominently in Venezuela. It is difficult to imagine any of these looking brighter absent US leadership or sustained and capable international cooperation.
It was common to call the last century the American century. Can anyone confidently move that label forward into this new century? Until there is greater certainty on this matter, policy under even the most fact-based, cohesive, and thoughtful US administration seems bound to appear improvisational and often inconsistent as it is forced frequently to adjust goals, priorities, and responses. Therefore preserving America’s position and advancing its interests will require extraordinary agility and a recognition that the past may have only limited lessons to teach, that America lives in times as revolutionary as those confronting its forebears who stabilized the world after WW2, and that the national approach to this turbulent era must be similarly innovative and bold. In the fractured world introduced by the 9/11 attacks, then, we dare not look at the global landscape through binoculars when in fact it requires kaleidoscopic lenses to clearly grasp the dangers—and opportunities—for America in this new era with no name.
The views and opinions of the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.