Three Arguments Against the Democratization of Destruction

Three Arguments Against the Democratization of Destruction

Why the U.S. military isn't doomed—yet.

The thesis of Andrew Krepinevich’s new piece in Foreign Policy, “Get Ready for the Democratization of Destruction,” is that “the rapid pace of technological progression, as well as its ongoing diffusion,” will help “to make the world a less stable and more dangerous place.” That claim is one I have often argued against, as the links below demonstrate. So with all due respect to Krepinevich, here are three reasons to treat his argument skeptically.

First, the argument is old. Since scholars started writing about military technologies, someone has claimed that the current crop will upend the geopolitical status quo—by lessening the most powerful states’ advantage over rivals or a state’s monopoly on force. The revolution is always almost here. It loomed at the dawn of the nuclear age and again after the September 11 attacks, as the
democratization of violence.” And yet states have fought each other less and less frequently since World War II. They have, in recent decades, become less prone to civil war, coups, and mass killing. And states have collected ever more wealth as taxable economies grow. There is no evidence that global instability is increasing or that state power is eroding due to military technology or anything else. If anything, the opposite has occurred. Nuclear weapons, in particular, seem to advantage those states that can make them and encourage peace among them.="#v=onepag">

Those trying to convince us of revolutionary trends afoot ought to explain what makes them different from the predicted revolutions that never came. The standard argument is that new technologies have low costs (in capital, expertise, or labor) relative to their destructive potential. That ratio should make them proliferate quickly, lessening early innovators’ advantage. I have often attacked that argument, particularly as applied to terrorists. But Krepinevich doesn’t even start that argument here. He discusses particular modern technologies—lasers, drones, nukes, missiles, pathogens, cyberthings—without a theory of what makes them uniquely disruptive (his related book, which I haven’t read, may do better).

Second, the article conflates U.S. military superiority and global stability. It assumes that weapons proliferation to lesser powers increases instability. But the opposite may be true. Even if Krepinevich is right, for example, about the proliferation of missiles and drones to poorer states, that outcome may aid all defenders, making it harder for the United States and other big powers to menace foreign coasts, and war more costly and less frequent.

Third, the article wrongly suggests that the increased importance of information to our economy increases danger. Krepinevich claims, for example, that we are highly vulnerable to internet disruption. As I have written elsewhere, that gets it backwards. The shift in value from physical infrastructure to information makes wealth harder to destroy, as it exists in dispersed networks and brains. Lowered communication costs, meanwhile, leave us less dependent on any particular supplier or region, making recovery from disruptions easier. The internet is more a source of resilience against attack than a risk multiplier.

The best take on how modern technology affects U.S. military superiority is Barry Posen’s article, “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony.” We could use more scholarship on how the trends discussed there and here will affect international stability.