That logic should extend to today’s competitive relationships, especially in dealing with emerging and (re)emerging powers like China and Russia, as well as those (e.g., Iran) that have the potential for destabilizing an entire region. This does not in any way suggest that we become indifferent to behaviors that violate the foundational values of the international system—whether in Ukraine, the South China Sea, or in the Levant—but neither should we let those conflicts blind us to the existence of shared interests, which do exist. If we presume that others have no shared interests—even with those with whom we disagree—we are destined for conflict no less so than when the world stumbled into a cataclysmic war in 1914.
Finally, we need to find a new form of collaborative leadership in working with our allies, who—precisely because of the emergence of new and not-so-like-minded powers—are more important to us than ever. The alliance systems we created in the twentieth century were founded on common values as well as interests. As we seek to strike a balance of both values and interests in dealing with states that would contest the existing international order, we will be more effective if our allies participate in striking that balance. Our allies must see a continuing stake in the system, and then invest their fair share into preserving that system. For our part, we need to treat allies with the respect they are due and keep faith with our commitments. The alternative will be that we and our erstwhile allies decide to find security on our separate paths, an outcome that historically has proven more catastrophic than beneficial.
3. We don’t have the luxury of ignorance.
In an address at West Point in 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates noted, “when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right ... and we had no idea a year before ... that we would be so engaged.”
Because our own lives and livelihoods depend in large measure on what happens around the world, we cannot afford blind spots. We must therefore invest carefully and strategically in our nation’s intelligence capability, so we can anticipate, understand, and carefully weigh all the prospective issues, wherever they may arise. It may not be up to us to provide “solutions”—that is a policy choice—but we need to have a clear and holistic picture of a rapidly changing strategic environment for us even to have a meaningful choice.
To avoid blind spots, two key elements of communication need to exist within the policy process. First, the intelligence community must be able to produce good intelligence; second, those in key policy positions need to be intellectually prepared to listen and assess what the intelligence community says. To accomplish this, we need to remember five essential characteristics about the relationship between intelligence and policy making.
First, intelligence is inherently replete with uncertainties and ambiguities. Sources must be critically analyzed and corroborated. One can often ascertain trends and make strategic predictions, but precision in predicting specific events is generally elusive.
Second, intelligence cannot be politicized, by which we mean the intelligence community must be free to offer its candid assessments—with all their inherent uncertainties and ambiguities—without political pressure or being filtered through the prism of partisan politics.
Third, debate within the intelligence community should be encouraged, rather than discouraged. The intelligence community is necessarily fragmented, ensuring that multiple institutional perspectives on an intelligence problem can be brought to bear. The Director of National Intelligence and the President’s National Security Advisor have a responsibility to ensure that multiple perspectives are aired and understood, not filtered out to render a more simplistic or biased picture to the President.
Fourth, technical intelligence is critical, but there is no substitute for good human source intelligence. Only human intelligence can take us inside the minds of adversaries and give us a better sense of intentions. Such sources take years to cultivate. In this regard, as Mike Morrell has suggested in his recent book, The Great War of our Time, an increasing operational—indeed paramilitary—role for the CIA at the expense of intelligence gathering and analysis may prove counterproductive.
Fifth, the recipients of intelligence must be willing to listen, while suspending—at least temporarily—their own preconceived notions of reality. All policy makers have filters through which they receive intelligence, but they must be prepared to set those filters aside and consider fully the information brought to them. Those, for example, who insisted that 9.11 could only happen as a result of state-sponsored terrorism were effectively blind to the capabilities of an organization such as Al Qaeda operating out of remote areas of Afghanistan.
Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. operated in a relatively predictable bipolar competition, in which we tended to see most world events as a manifestation of that Cold War competition and ignored most anything that did not fit that paradigm. Today, there may be similar tendencies, whether viewing actions by Moscow and Beijing as reminiscent of a new Cold War, or to see all terrorist threats as emanating from a monolithic Islamic tradition. In doing so, we ignore—at our peril—the complexities of each issue.
4. Empathy is the most important strategic virtue, hubris the most dangerous strategic vice.
In a recent lecture to students at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Sir Lawrence Freedman, author of the landmark Strategy: A History, reinforced the importance of empathy as a strategic virtue. Security—whether of a state or of any other community—is always in the eye of the beholder. If we are to understand our own security environment, we need to be able to see that same environment through the cultural and political lens of those with whom we are dealing.
Conversely, it is easy to project on to others our own values, interests, priorities, and perspectives and assume that others view the world through the same set of lenses. Hubris forms the root of strategic miscalculation—assuming that others will do what we would do, respond the way we would respond, and for the reasons that we would do so. Hubris breeds arrogance and contempt for the capabilities of potential adversaries. Hubris can also blind statesmen and military leaders alike to the risks of war. As Sir Alistair Horne concludes in his recent book, Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, “We students of history should not succumb to our own arrogance in supposing that hubris is easy to avoid. It arises out of success. In the aftermath of triumph, anything seems possible. And this ... is when so many calamitous decisions are made.”
History is full of examples in which actions taken by one party to enhance one’s security only serve to fuel the insecurity of others, engendering a destabilizing spiral that simply contributes to everyone’s insecurity. No doubt there are times when such actions are justified, but, more often than not, the resulting spiral is an unintended and unanticipated consequence that is enormously difficult to control or manage, much less reverse.
Consider, for example, how one manages relations with Russia and China—both nuclear weapons states claiming that the U.S. and its allies are threatening “their space,” which they view as important to their security. Whether in Eastern Europe or in the East and South China Seas, it is critical that principles such as the inviolability of borders, the right of states to choose their own security relationships, and freedom of the seas be upheld, and that challenges to those principles be effectively met. Yet, the desire for a muscular response to those challenges should be tempered with the realization that, for others, a different set of vital interests is at stake. In these environments, coercive solutions may not have a high probability of success. While we must deter adventurism as well as aggression, and reassure our allies who, unlike us, live in their respective neighborhoods, we also should avoid actions that exacerbate a crisis, harden confrontation, or make the eventual diplomatic and political solution more elusive.
Consider, as well, how we attempt to manage the actions of autocratic leaders who conflate their own survival and state survival. To us, strong actions—for example, military strikes or drawing “red lines”—are typically justified on the grounds that they “deter” an adversary from taking further actions that we oppose. Deterrence presumes that an adversary will be dissuaded from taking actions out of fear of the consequences that we threaten. Yet what if the adversary actively seeks to provoke that very response on our part? In retrospect, Slobodan Milosevic was not deterred by the threat of NATO bombing in Kosovo in 1999; instead, he saw NATO’s bombing raids as a way to solidify political support for him. Milosevic may have miscalculated, at least in the long term, but deterrence failed because we also miscalculated his motivations.
Similarly, the Obama Administration drew a “red line” with respect to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, intended in part, perhaps, as an alibi for not using military force up to that point, but also as a deterrent to Assad in breaching an important international norm. Given Assad’s response, it is just as likely that, for him, the red line was not a deterrent, but an invitation to take the step that would embroil the United States militarily in Syria in a way that, ironically, Assad may have thought would only bolster his position. In the end, as Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile of “The Obama Doctrine” in The Atlantic suggests, Obama declined to carry through with the threat of military force against Assad and grasped, instead, the opportunity for a collaborative effort with Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons.