In his Long Telegram, George Kennan frames a strategy on five related understandings. He observes reality, gives context to his observations, projects these findings on official policy, acknowledges the role of unofficial policy, and offers practical deductions… or what I would call strategy.
I will follow the same organizational schema:
(1) Basic features of post-war Soviet outlook risks to the United States.
(2) Background of this outlook perspective on risk.
(3) Its projection in practical policy on official level.
(4) Its projection on unofficial level.
(5) Practical deductions from standpoint of US policy.
Kennan’s “basic features” urges readers to recognize a Soviet take on reality. This perceived reality – never fully accurate – is the reality that matters. Kennan’s argument aims to engage, manage, manipulate — choose your verb — the orientation of our adversary.
Sixty-plus years later, the most serious risks facing the United States are where a range of threats, some traditional and some novel, interact with several vulnerabilities Kennan did not face.
Where Kennan focuses intently on the Soviet threat — and mostly on the Soviet military threat — our threats are more numerous and nuanced. The recent National Intelligence Strategy (NIS) is helpful in scanning the horizon. Can we derive the same sort of logical policy premises that Kennan found?
Part 1: Basic Features of Post War Soviet Outlook, as Put Forward by Official Propaganda Machine the Principal Risks to the United States
Are as Follows:
a) According to the NIS there are four nation-states that present a “challenge to US interests.” These are Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia. None present the near-peer level of competition offered by the Soviet Union immediately after WWII. Individually or in concert these competitors can constrain the US. But even in unlikely combination these nation-states do not present the clear-and-present danger the Stalinist superpower could threaten in 1946. (But this shift, more a matter of human will than of fewer warheads, also demonstrates the importance of keeping the nuclear genie contained.)
b) Violent extremist groups, insurgents, and transnational criminal organizations “increasingly impact our national security” according to the NIS. But the capacity of these groups to threaten the US with catastrophic harm is modest. We should not discount the potential terrorist, or even criminal, use of WMD. But a reasonable and sustained application of the precautionary principle should suffice to manage this risk. (See Cass Sunstein). A debate regarding the specific meaning of reasonable and sustained could be entirely worthwhile.
c) The global economic crisis was early-on identified by Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, as the “primary near-term security concern” for the United States. The dependence of the Unites States on foreign holders of debt (especially China), efforts to replace the dollar as the principal international reserve currency, the prospect of US hyper-inflation, and a growing sense of financial limitations all increase the nation’s strategic vulnerability.
d) Failed states and ungoverned spaces nurture possibilities available to violent extremists, insurgents, and transnational criminal organizations, according to the NIS. Unconnectedness, ala Thomas P.M. Barnett, breeds all sorts of ugliness.
e) Climate change and energy competition will present new cassi belli and heart-wrenching humanitarian crises. I’m not clear on why the NIS combines the two-as-one, but dominant powers such as the US generally prefer stability. These two factors will likely be the source of significant instability.
f) “Rapid technological change and dissemination of information continue to alter social, economic, and political forces, providing new means for our adversaries and competitors to challenge us,” is how the NIS describes the threat. The report goes on to note, “while also providing the United States with new opportunities to preserve or gain competitive advantage.”
g) Pandemic disease is also listed by the NIS as, “a persistent challenge to global health, commerce, and economic well-being.”
(In a neat coincidence Kennan also listed his “basic features” as running from (a) to (g).)
Kennan could focus on threat analysis. Today the NIS outlines a much more complicated mix of threats and vulnerabilities. By any measure, the US is much stronger than it was in 1946. But we are also much more vulnerable. An insightful awareness of external threat is no longer sufficient. We also require a self-awareness of vulnerability. (Threat x Vulnerability) x Consequences = Risk.
In Friday’s post we will follow Kennan’s lead in seeking some meaningful deductions from these seven premises.