Hearings on United States Security Interests in the Post-Cold War World
By John D. Steinbruner Director, Foreign Policy Studies The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.
June 6, 1996

I appreciate the opportunity to appear before the House National Security Committee, and I hope to make a constructive contribution to your deliberations. As is customary for members of the research community, the comments I will make are my own entirely. I am not attempting to represent the views of the Brookings Institution or any group of people.

The questions you are posing in these hearings are clearly of the most fundamental importance. The conduct of national security necessarily rests on judgments of interest and those judgments must be correctly made if the effort is to be successful. Some of our greatest historical difficulties can be traced to a misperception of interest.

Unfortunately these guiding judgments are also difficult to make at the moment, for reasons that are reviewed in the background statement you asked us to examine in preparation for these hearings. The clarity of purpose that we developed during the Cold War cannot be readily extended to the new situation, and there is no guarantee that a reformulation based on prevailing sentiment or a majority vote will be valid. National interests worthy of the name are embedded in real events, and the meaning of these events can definitely elude our understanding for quite some time, particularly under circumstances of massive change. Most of us probably share the intuitive suspicion that more insight is required to define our interests properly than we have yet been able to produce in our current political dialogue.

I acknowledge that many people in straining to produce a reformulation of security interest naturally seek to draw lessons from historical experience with great power interactions and are inclined to imagine the future as some variation of that experience. The past, of course, is the source of all our evidence and all of our evolved convictions. Nonetheless out of respect for the power of that inclination I want to suggest that it might prove to be profoundly misleading. There are reasons to believe that a fundamental transformation is occurring in the basic character of international relationships driven by the combined consequences of information technology and population dynamics. These two phenomena are historically unusual, indeed unprecedented. They are capable of producing problems and interests of a sort that we have never seen before.

In summarizing this situation and some of the major security implications that can be emerge from it I would like to cite relevant text from a recent publication1 as follows:

Over the past two decades the inherent costs of performing the basic functions of storing, processing and long range transmission of information have undergone precipitous declines. Though agreed measures of these cost declines have not been fully established, they clearly amount to several orders of magnitude -- factors of a thousand to a million or more. That appears to be the largest efficiency gain of any commodity in economic history, and the unfolding consequences are commensurately strong. Highly facilitated information flows are enabling the production of goods and services to be conducted on a global scale and the market forces derived from that fact are spontaneously inducing an integrated international economy. This process is also diffusing technology and is changing the basic circumstances of making military investments.

At the same time we are encountering an unprecedented surge of the world population -- the rapid rise associated with an exponential growth sequence before it reaches some natural or induced limit. Barring some cataclysm, the world population will increase by roughly a billion people per decade over the next three decades to reach a level of eight billion by 2025. The trend thereafter is not yet determined but a trajectory that reaches 10 billion by 2050 is a plausible possibility. More than ninety-five percent of whatever increase occurs will come in the poorest communities. The absolute magnitude and the distribution of this surge is a combination without precedent in human history and will clearly give tremendous impulse to the internationalizing economy.

As an obvious consequence of this impulse, economic performance is likely to become the principal determinant of national viability and therefore the central objective of policy. Moreover, performance will necessarily be defined not only in terms of overall growth but also in terms of distribution. Unless the globalizing economy successfully extends its reach to those people in the lower economic strata, where the population surge is occurring, the coherence of many, if not all political systems, is likely to be in question and some would almost certainly be torn apart.

The expansion of economic participation required to assure a favorable trend in economic equity -- at least an absolute improvement in the standards of living of the poorest population segments -- implies that the global economic product will have to increase by a factor of five or more, including a probable tripling of energy and agricultural production. That in turn implies that massive investment programs will have to be undertaken bringing about large structural and technical shifts within virtually all national economies. It also implies an increasing sensitivity to the balances of material flows and to their environmental effects, a development likely to be of decisive importance in the more burdened regions and potentially so on a global scale as well.

As these implications emerge, there will also undoubtedly be a diffusion of political power. National governments struggling to assure economic performance will not have autonomous means to do so. Information technology is enabling, probably in fact compelling the decentralization of many decision processes, thereby eroding the degree of control that national governments are able to exercise within their societies. It is simultaneously driving the global extension of basic economic activities thereby dispersing control into the international economy as a whole. The predictable longer term effect of this pattern is to drive national governments into more consequential collaboration. That in general will be the only realistic means of extending their effective authority.

As the specific implications of these fundamental developments unfold, the imperatives for collaboration are likely to be both particularly strong and particularly difficult to accept for the central problems of international security. The Cold War has left a rich residue of institutions and political attitudes organized around the principles of confrontation. There are good reasons to expect, however, at least five seminal changes to occur in the nature of basic security problems, all of which shift the logic of security interest toward explicit cooperation.

First, there is a particularly compelling series of adjustments that need to be made in the deployment pattern of nuclear weapons and in the handling of fissionable materials in order to achieve higher standards of operational safety. During the Cold War each of the opposing alliance systems imagined that the other might deliberately undertake a strategic attack with these weapons in pursuit of world domination. Accordingly each developed a widely dispersed, highly alert pattern of deployment to assure that large scale retaliation could be initiated within thirty minutes -- the intercontinental flight time of a ballistic missile. Elaborate precautions were established to prevent accidents and unauthorized actions, but the deployment pattern that evolved is inherently less safe than technically feasible alternatives which would accept a judicious delay in the capacity for retaliation in order to assure more reliable control. These alternatives involve separating all nuclear warheads from their delivery vehicles and instituting measures that guarantee continuous international verification of the fact of separation. Such a deployment pattern could preserve a basic deterrent effect virtually as powerful as the Cold War variant, but it requires systematic cooperation among all the countries that maintain active nuclear forces.

The degree and intimacy of cooperation necessary to remove all nuclear weapons from alert status was unimaginable to most people during the Cold War when deterrence appeared to be an endangered objective of overriding importance. Reflecting the new political climate, measures of this sort were considered in the course of the recently concluded official review of the United States nuclear weapons posture, but they were eventually rejected. That internal judgment will almost certainly be revisited, however, as the burdens on the Russian establishment and the possibility of very extensive proliferation come to be more widely appreciated. The risk of an unintended engagement that is inherent in high alert operations is a residual danger of such massive potential that even apparently subtle changes in the assessed probability create strong incentives. Moreover, the exact accounting and internationalized monitoring required to remove deployed weapons from alert status is almost certainly a necessary condition for their eventual elimination, and projecting their eventual elimination is very likely to be a necessary condition for exercising reliable control over the general process of weapons proliferation.

Second, the new conditions imply a major revision of the size and purpose of the large conventional military establishments that were created during the course of the Cold War, an adjustment that has tentatively begun but has not been systematically completed. The large establishments were developed in response to the perceived threat of large scale ground offensives designed to seize and hold territory. That threat has not entirely disappeared, but it is rapidly receding for the simple reason that in most important instances classic aggression of this sort is infeasibly expensive. With modern technology, large offensive operations can be detected and disrupted in their initial stages, and even an initial success could not be sustained. Basically in the new era, political jurisdiction cannot be maintained by coercive means since that method is ruinously inefficient in economic terms. Were these facts to be systematically accepted, then the major military establishments could relieve the financial burdens of defense preparations substantially by setting common deployment standards at lower force levels.

Third, the process of technical diffusion is propagating the capacity for long range destruction and is thereby creating an entirely new type of threat. The basic capacity presents itself in two forms -- the ability to attack precisely defined targets and the ability to cause mass casualties in human populations. The potential to develop both of these capabilities is being extended throughout the world as a consequence of information technology. This technology is itself inherently internationalized, and its use is internationalizing access to most other technologies as well. Many of the technologies that are relevant to advanced weapons applications are being developed in commercial markets for commercial application and general access to them cannot be denied as a practical matter. That means that advanced delivery system technology and most of the materials required to make weapons of mass destruction will be accessible to small states and substate organizations. That will not confer the ability to seize territory but it will propagate the potential for producing severe social and economic damage. Weapons of mass destruction and weapons of precision delivery share the characteristics that they are strategically meaningful in small numbers regardless of what the overall balance of military capability might be. The only serious hope of controlling this process is to shift the basis for regulation from the traditional strategy of denying access to one of inducing mutual restraint enforced by systematic rules of disclosure.

Fourth, it appears that the primary political source of threat will no longer be the impulse for imperial or irredentist expansion but rather the danger of internal disintegration. The globalizing economy is producing rapid structural shifts in patterns of production and is stripping away the protective devices used by national governments to buffer their populations from the effects of these shifts. This process has imposed endemic austerity on some regions seriously enough to undermine not only the authority of a particular political regime but also the entire legal structure on which it is based. In extreme instances of this process basic civil order can break down, and in those instances armed intimidation becomes the residual form of social organization.

It is apparent from the many recent instances in which radical disintegration has occurred -- Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda and Tajikistan, for example -- that national military organizations are poorly equipped to handle it. Controlling civil violence when civil order has broken down is a problem that has some of the properties of standard combat missions, but is fundamentally different in character from the field engagement of conventional armies. It is legitimacy that determines the outcome more than concentrated firepower and basically no national entity can expect to enjoy sufficient legitimacy in a civil intervention. That is a function that must be performed by the international community as a whole by means of operations specifically designed for the purpose. As yet, however, the international community has not developed the rationale, the forces or the operational doctrine appropriate for the circumstance.

Radical disintegration has recently occurred in a sufficient number of places to suggest that a general pattern may be emerging. Against the background of the impending population surge that constitutes a sharp warning, a suggestion that legal order generally might be threatened. It is difficult to imagine a successfully operating international economy of 10 billion people, six billion of which live under conditions of endemic austerity and another two billion which experience continuously declining standards of living. The amount of violence generated in an integrated economy of that sort would presumably be massive, more than the prosperous two billion could reasonably expect to contain by coercive means. That clearly suggests that systematic prevention will be of vital importance and that cooperation for that purpose will necessarily emerge as a prominent element of security policy.

Fifth, It is intuitively apparent that the impending surge of the global economy has some potential for triggering environmental effects not previously encountered and also for driving historically known effects beyond critical thresholds. Particularly prominent speculation has centered on the possibility of a global warming trend generated by carbon gas emissions, but there are analogous concerns involving ocean hydrodynamics, atmospheric composition, the preservation of species, the cycling rates of toxic molecules, and several other matters as well. At the moment the coupling between human society and the global environment is not well enough understood to enable any of this class of problems to become a truly compelling focus of international politics but several have that potential. Though nature is not a calculating adversary, it does generate cataclysmic events, and for some of these, the imaginable magnitude is substantially greater than nuclear war. It is a reasonable conjecture that conceptions of strategic risk will eventually concentrate very heavily on global environmental effects, and that moment may not be very far away.

It appears to me, then, that our most urgent immediate interest is to understand this impending transformation and to develop the mechanisms for international coordination that will evidently be necessary to manage it. When we do come to understand it better than we can currently claim, I expect we will recognize that the historical dynamics of great power confrontation have been dramatically altered and that one of the central imperatives of the new situation is to extend the procedures for economic and security collaboration that we have developed for culturally similar allies to the major societies who currently operate outside of these arrangements -- to Russia, China, and India, for example. And in the end I anticipate that our most fundamental substantive interest will prove to be the definition and defense of universal legal standards and principles of equity. These are the matters that will ultimately determine the coherence and viability of human societies that are being inexorable driven into direct, extensive, highly consequential interaction.

1John Steinbruner, "The Problems of Strategic Realignment," in Is the Atlantic Widening? Atlantic Area Nations After the Cold War, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, 1995. The footnote references that are included in the original text have been removed for the purpose of this statement.

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