Robert M Gates, who was both the United States’ Director of Central Intelligence (1991-93 under President George HW Bush) and Secretary of Defence for both Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama (2006-2011), writes in Foreign Affairs, that “Even before the virus struck, there was broad bipartisan agreement that Washington should reduce its commitments abroad and focus on problems at home. The economic and social toll of the pandemic will only reinforce that position. Many Americans – and not just the president’s supporters – believe that the United States’ allies have taken advantage of the country. They think that the costs associated with international leadership have been too high. They have lost patience with endless wars and foreign interventions.“
The United States, Secretary Gates says, “remains the most powerful country in the world, in both economic and military terms. Yet nearly three decades since its victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, it faces challenges on multiple fronts. China and Russia are strengthening their militaries and seeking to extend their influence globally. North Korea poses an increasingly sophisticated nuclear threat in East Asia, and Iran remains a determined adversary in the Middle East … [and] … After 19 years of war, thousands of U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Islamic State (or ISIS) continues to conduct terrorist attacks. Deep divisions have beset the United States’ strongest allies in Europe. And now, nearly every country on earth is grappling with the devastating consequences of the pandemic.“
Just as Americans have lost faith in the value of alliances, America’s allies have lost faith in the value of American leadership.
Robert Gates asserts that “Without a return of U.S. leadership, these challenges will only grow, moving us closer to a dog-eat-dog, might-makes-right world and further from one shaped by international cooperation and the peaceful resolution of differences. But such a return would depend on first addressing the fundamental flaws in U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.” But, he says that “Washington has become overly dependent on military tools and has seriously neglected its nonmilitary instruments of power, which have withered and weakened as a result. And it has attempted to develop and implement policy using a national security structure and bureaucracy that was designed for the Cold War and has changed remarkably little since the 1940s … [but he suggests that] … Without greater military restraint and far-reaching institutional restructuring and reform, U.S. politicians and policymakers will have an increasingly hard time persuading Americans to support the global leadership role so essential to protecting the security and economy of the United States. And without American leadership, there will be truly dark days ahead.“
America remains, as former Secretary of State (1997-2001) Madeleine Albright used to claim, the “indispensable nation.” The European Union may have a (marginally) larger economy, but it has no coherent foreign and defence policies. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are economic powerhouses, too, but none is ready to play any sort of global leadership role.
While wanting to restore the full range of America’s “nonmilitary instruments of power,” Secretary Gates reminds us that “A strong military underpins every other instrument of American power, and so every president must ensure that the U.S. military is the strongest and most technologically advanced in the world, capable of dealing with threats from both nonstate actors and great powers. Fulfilling that responsibility will become ever more difficult as the pandemic pushes the government toward curbing defense spending. ” There is an important lesson here for Canada, too. We might want to make more and better use of our “soft power,” (although I’m certain we have else than most people
think hope) but soft power only works when people are paying attention and, mostly, people only pay attention to those who have and are able and willing use hard power ~ military power.
Secretary Gates then makes a vital point: those planning to act ~ whether militarily, diplomatically, or economically and whether for selfish or humanitarian reasons ~ must understand what it is they plan to do (and, preferably, why). They must select the correct aim (and just because the aim is selfish, for example, doesn’t mean it’s not the right aim) and the they must maintain it. It, Selction and Maintenance of the Aim, is the first, the “master” principle of war. As one Canadian officer wrote, recently, the correct selection and maintenance of the aim “forms the basis of the commander’s vision and, when clearly and dramatically articulated, shines like a beacon through the fog and friction of war illuminating the way ahead for all to follow.” There is also a lesson there for Canadian politicians and military commanders: decide what is the “right” thing to do and then focus on doing that all-important right thing in the right way.
In the American context, but this is also applicable to all national leaders, Robert Gates says that national leaders, presidents and prime ministers “must be especially wary of mission creep, the gradual expansion of a military effort to achieve new and more ambitious objectives not originally intended. Often, once they have achieved the established objectives, leaders feel emboldened to pursue broader goals. Such overreach is what happened under Clinton after the United States sent troops into Somalia in 1993 to forestall humanitarian disaster and after it overthrew the military dictatorship in Haiti in 1994, and it is what happened under Bush after the United States toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and Saddam in Iraq in 2003.“
There is a very human desire to do “good” which (too often) is not quite the same as doing what is “right.” This is especially the case when humanitarian crises seem to call out for military action. Secretary Gates advises, in words that apply equally well to Australia, Britain, Canada and Denmark as they do to the USA, that “Before intervening militarily, leaders must assess whether core … [national] … interests are really threatened, how realistic the objectives are, the willingness of others to help, the potential human and financial costs of intervention, and what might go wrong when … [their] … troops hit the ground. These are hard questions, but they must be addressed with eyes wide open. The bar for the use of the … [the nation’s] … military for purposes short of protecting vital national interests should be very high.“
Secretary Gates uses the operations in Libya in 2011, in which Canada participated and in which a Canadian was the NATO commander, as an example of how things can go very, very wrong. Robert Gates says that while “There is no question … [ Libyan President Muammar al-Qaddafi] … was a loathsome and vicious dictator … the total collapse of his government allowed more than 20,000 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and countless other weapons from his arsenal to find their way across both Africa and the Middle East, sparked a civil war in 2014 that plunged Libya into years of turmoil, opened the door to the rise of ISIS in the country, and created the opportunity for Russia to claim a role in determining Libya’s future. The country remains in a shambles … [and, worse] … As happened in Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq, expanding the U.S. military mission in Libya beyond the original objective created nothing but trouble.“
But, worse, he says is that “The second strategic mistake was the Obama administration’s failure to plan in any way for an international role in reestablishing order and a working government post-Qaddafi. (This is ironic in light of Obama’s earlier criticism of Bush’s alleged failure to plan properly for a post-Saddam Iraq.) Drawing on nonmilitary tools, the government could have taken a number of useful steps, including sending a U.S. training mission to help restructure the Libyan army, increasing the advisory role of the UN Support Mission in Libya, helping design a better electoral system that would not have inflamed social and regional divisions, and restraining Egypt and the Gulf states from their meddling in the lead-up to and after the outbreak of the 2014 civil war.” In other words, toppling Qaddafi was not necessarily a bad thing, or it would not have been if there had been sensible plans for non-military actors to step in, quickly and effectively ~ which almost always means that they need robust military protection ~ to help rebuild the country in a way that was acceptable to Western intersts.
Robert Gates say that the US, specifically, but I think the US-led West in general, failed to learn the lesson of the allied victory in the Cold War. “One of the United States’ greatest victories of the twentieth century,” he says, “relied not on military might but on subtler tools of power. The Cold War took place against the backdrop of the greatest arms race in history, but there was never actually a significant direct military clash between the two superpowers—despite proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Indeed, most historians calculate that fewer than 200 U.S. troops died due to direct Soviet action. Because nuclear weapons would have made any war between the two countries catastrophic for both sides, the U.S.-Soviet contest was waged through surrogates and, crucially, through the use of nonmilitary instruments of power … [but] … Most of those instruments have withered or been abandoned since the end of the Cold War. But as the great powers today expand and modernize their militaries, if the United States is smart, and lucky, the long competition ahead with China, in particular, will play out in the nonmilitary arena. Those nonmilitary instruments must be revived and updated,” he says, if the US-led West is going to win Cold War 2.0.
Robert Gates singles out US diplomacy, including foreign aid and “soft power” tools, and America’s undeniable economic power as key tools for winning Cold War 2.0.
As an example, he says that “During the Cold War, the USIA established a global network of libraries and outposts stocked with books and magazines about democracy, history, American culture, and a broad array of other subjects. The agency’s Voice of America broadcast news and entertainment around the world, presenting an objective view of current events to millions who would otherwise have been dependent on government-controlled outlets. The USIA and its many outlets and programs reached every corner of the planet. It was a sophisticated instrument, and it worked.” It wan’t just the USA ~ a friend told me about listening, faithfully, to the BBC World Service‘s English language lessons and learning about the world from the very brief news bulletins that were interspersed in the broadcasts. The government in her country allowed the BBC to broadcast there because they valued the “free” education it provided. the “price” was allowing snippets of real news to be heard, too. “Nevertheless,” Robert Gates says, “the USIA was abolished in 1999, with its residual efforts folded into the State Department. That had real consequences. By 2001, U.S. public diplomacy was a pale shadow of its Cold War self. Unlike China and Russia, the United States now lacks an effective strategy for communicating its message and countering those of its competitors.” Canada’s diplomacy ~ including aid ~ is (like Australia’s and Britains too, I’ll wager) a pale imitation of its former (Cold War) self. And some Conservatives want to cut foreign aid even further. There is plenty of room for aid spending to be managed much more wisely, but further cuts need to be avoided.
Secretary Gates also says, and I agree wholeheartedly. that “Governments have always tried to interfere in other countries’ affairs. What is new today is the availability of technology that makes earlier tools seem prehistoric. Russia, for example, mounted sophisticated hacking and disinformation campaigns to interfere in the 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and the 2017 presidential election in France. The United States possesses the same the technologies; it just lacks a strategy for applying them … [and] … Cyberwarfare has become one of the most powerful weapons in a nation’s arsenal, giving countries’ the ability to penetrate an adversary’s military and civil infrastructure, interfere with democratic processes, and aggravate domestic divisions. The Russians are particularly skilled in this arena, having launched cyberattacks against Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, and others. The United States is developing the capability to defend itself against cyberattacks, but it also needs to take the offensive from time to time, especially against its primary adversaries. Authoritarian governments must get a taste of their own medicine.” This is a niche in which Canada could make a significant contribution.
Robert Gates outlines a fairly detailed plan for reivigorating America’s non-military tools. I can only hope that sometime in the future some government, one not led by Donald Trump, will listen.
He concludes his essay by saying that “Strengthening the nonmilitary tools of U.S. foreign policy would advance U.S. national interests and create new, more cost-effective, and less risky ways to exercise American power and leadership internationally … [I agree, once again wholeheartedly, and he adds that] … Americans want the strongest military in the world, but they want it used sparingly and only when vital national interests are at stake. Across the political spectrum, there is a belief that post–Cold War presidents have turned too often to the military to resolve challenges abroad. The United States must always be prepared to defend its interests, but in order to revive domestic support for the United States’ global leadership role, U.S. leaders must exercise greater restraint in sending the world’s finest military into combat. It should not be the mission of the U.S. military to try to shape the future of other countries. Not every outrage, every act of aggression, every oppression, or every crisis should elicit a U.S. military response … [and, finally, he says] … “most Americans want their country to stand for something beyond just military strength and economic success. They want it to be seen admiringly by others as the world’s strongest advocate for liberty. In formulating a foreign policy that the American public will support, U.S. leaders should recognize that it is important to use every nonmilitary instrument of power possible to encourage both friends and rivals to embrace freedom and reform, because those objectives serve the U.S. national interest. With restructuring and more resources, Washington’s nonmilitary instruments can contribute to a remarkable symphony of power. These tools will be essential as the United States faces the prospect of a long and multifaceted competition with China. But even if U.S. officials get all the right military and nonmilitary tools in place, it will still be up to American leaders, American legislators, and the broader American public to understand that the long-term self-interest of the United States demands that it accept the burden of global leadership.“