National Security Research Paper

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Klaus Knorr wrote The War Potential of Nations in 1956. This book marks a key transition between different approaches toward the study of national security. Through much of the nineteenth and into the first half of the twentieth century, the security of a nation depended heavily on the balance between its own war potential and that of its adversaries and allies. In the second half of the twentieth century that relationship weakened in the context of cold war bipolarity and a massive nuclear standoff between superpowers. The relationship is changing again in fundamental ways at the start of the twenty-first century. The war potential of nations surely will continue to affect national security, but it will not nearly determine it. More importantly, almost all the terms in that statement are coming to mean very different things than they did in 1956.

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1. Historical Perspectives

In the second half of the nineteenth century, ‘war potential’ was a narrow conceptual proxy for ‘measuring’ the military power of nations. The foundations of war potential were the economic and technological resources that could be mobilized for military purposes. This made good analytic sense in an era of industrial warfare—when nations maintained in peacetime a small fraction of the military capabilities that they could mobilize for war by simply redirecting production. World Wars I and II were won by nations with greater war potential, not by those with the advantage of existing forces at the start of the war. Knorr understood well the promise—both analytic and practical—of being able to measure this potential. If national security were some function of objective measures of power, then parsing out the problem (at least) would be made a much simpler task for scholars and policy makers. He distinguished among three critical components of war potential—economic and technological capacity, administrative skill, and the political foundations of military power. The idea was to calculate war potential: if each component could be measured with reasonable precision and some arguments about their interactions could be built.

Knorr assessed this enterprise carefully enough to see clearly its inherent limitations. Except in the very few cases where nations use sheer force simply to seize something, the purpose of deploying military power was to influence the behavior of another actor. In all cases of influence there clearly were objective components to power. But these were always and every- where put into play in the context of relationships or anticipated relationships that had many other components of power. Without using formal models or even ‘soft’ game-theory metaphors, Knorr wrote in rather precise analytic terms about the importance of information assymetries, domestic political constraints, reputational effects, and the like in relationships of mutual coercion. He argued strongly that net assessment (the detailed counting and analysis of military forces) was by itself a very weak tool. Without reference to particular objectives and contingencies, to study and measure the war potential of nations would be a fragile approach to thinking about and planning for national security.

These arguments today seem obvious, almost trivial.

What was less obvious to Knorr, and remains more difficult today, is how to move the intellectual and policy debate forward. The consolidation of a bipolar power distribution during the middle years of the Cold War, along with the deployment of massive nuclear arsenals that essentially overwhelmed any realistic measures of ‘war potential,’ made that problem more immediate.

2. Twentieth-Century Strategy

Thomas Schelling’s 1960 work The Strategy of Conflict proposed one kind of solution. The new studies of strategy focused much less on the war potential of nations and much more on the war potential of situations. It did this by abstracting away from precise measures of capabilities and even more importantly from precise understandings of the intentions and objectives of an adversary—a major analytic move during a period of time when American policy makers (at least) felt they had a poor understanding of the USSR.

At a time when net assessment was becoming intellectually stagnant (and arguably boring), the turn to ‘strategic studies’ opened up a new and extremely interesting intellectual agenda for national security scholars to explore. It also pulled into the picture a new set of tools that were developing rapidly in mathematics and economics—in particular, mixed motive game-theory models. The combination of newly configured research questions and fast-improving tools led to an explosion of work that clarified powerfully the strategic logic of situations like nuclear deterrence, brinkmanship crises, and coercive diplomacy.

This knowledge came at a cost, of course. The power of abstract-deductive theory to produce generalizable arguments rests in part on a set of assumptions about the characteristics of the actors or players in the ‘game.’ It has always been a central disagreement among scholars whether (more precisely, when and under what conditions) the benefits of this approach are worth the cost.

The end of the Cold War sharpens both the intellectual and practical consequences of that disagreement. Bipolarity was a significant clarifying force in international politics—while the Cold War was never as ‘simple’ as some nostalgic views would have it, it did create a marked explicitness about the major lines of conflict that the twenty-first century so far lacks. The national security environment for many nations, and surely for the USA, is now much more fine-grained than it was in 1965.

3. Future Directions

The problem with flattening out the past is that it makes it harder to see the future in multiple dimensions without becoming frightened and confused. It may be that the USA has enjoyed a post-Cold War honeymoon since 1990 and that the future will be increasingly challenging and unstable. Of course, there are periods of modern history where linear extrapolations of contemporary trends would have worked tolerably well as a foundation for planning the future—for example, between 1950 and 1975. There are other periods—for example 1925 to 1950, or 1975 to 2000—where discontinuous changes in world politics, technology, social forces, and the economy radically displaced what were assumed to be core ‘realities’ of security planning. The period around the start of the twentieth century was such a period. Between 1895 and 1920, applications of the internal combustion engine, electricity, and the airplane— along with the rise of the German nation, social Darwinist ideologies, and decolonization—recast fundamental features of the security environment for nations.

Such periods present two distinct kinds of challenges: to master the technology, and to understand the social, economic, and military implications and possibilities that come with it. National security planners recognize the new uncertainties of threats that are smaller, more diffuse, and likely coming from many different directions. From a theoretical perspective, the strategic approach (to build increasingly sophisticated, generalized models of situations) will need at a minimum to be supplemented with renewed attention to the actors and players in the game.

4. Questions Of National Security

The historic literature on war potential of nations is a reasonable place to start. It forces certain questions: What is war going to be? What potentials are relevant? And are nations still the appropriate central focus for the investigation? The answers to these questions were never clean and simple, and they are becoming far more complex in ways that matter deeply for thinking about national security.

4.1 The Meaning Of ‘Security’

One important complicating factor is simply that security has come to mean much more to many people than the core issues of territorial integrity and political autonomy. The discourse of international politics (both popular and scholarly) now embraces concepts like economic security and environmental security. There may be instrumental political reasons to import metaphors from the security debate into these other important areas of national interest, but there are intellectual costs as well.

The broadening of the realm of ‘security’ makes thinking and theorizing about it as a dependent variable of anything a much more complicated task. The war potential of other nations would play a small (although not insignificant) part in an analysis of US environmental security. Environmental interests are not necessarily any less important than security interests. But the clarity of focusing on security in a narrow sense as territorial integrity and political autonomy is diluted by stretching the definition. Realists argue that security is a prerequisite for almost anything else that nations want to achieve in world politics. Nonrealists may disagree with the vehement emphasis on security. But few doubt that military power is still a critical restraint on the freedom of nations to act internationally, and particularly to act in ways that threaten the vital interests of the possessor of military power.

4.2 Globalization And Mobility

A second complicating factor comes from a set of transformations that fall under the rough heading of ‘globalization.’ More precisely, the ability of political units to produce and deploy organized violence for political ends (an updated notion of war potential) is being deeply affected by changes in the global economic environment.

The simplest way to think about globalization is to see it as a story about the causes and consequences of an increase in mobility. For most of human history, neither goods, nor capital, nor most people, nor many ideas moved very far from their place of origin. Over the last several hundred years, mobility of many (although not all) things has increased—unevenly across time and with some setbacks.

Political economists recognize that mobility makes possible the expansion of markets beyond the physical and other borders that previously contained them. There is simply no serious theoretical framework in which security is unaffected by this change. The war potential of nations effectively stretches beyond national borders in a profound way. This is made more conspicuous by the ‘spin-on’ phenomenon. The commercial sector now leads the military sector in most key technologies that underpin military power. And the logic of the commercial sector is decidedly not national. The so-called revolution in military affairs (RMA), and particularly the increasing information intensity of military operations (which is part of that revolution), cuts in the same direction. Information is inherently more mobile than tanks, airplanes, or almost any physical asset. Of course, it is also harder to secure in most settings than an aircraft carrier or a nuclear missile buried deep underground.

The most significant exception to increased mobility is people. People do not move across borders as readily as other technological and economic resources. This may be a key national factor of power that nations still control or contain—although it is not clear for how long that will remain the case. In any case, national security concerns about the increased mobility of people may complicate economic globalization as well as vice versa. Technology can be anywhere, but people still have to be somewhere, and where they are may matter a great deal for individual nation states. The current US lead in information technology owes a great deal to Indian, Taiwanese, and Israeli engineers and entrepreneurs who have immigrated to the USA (or come temporarily on H1B visas) and maintain strong network links to evolving technology clusters in their home nations. At some point nations will experience in a much more acute way the tension between the mobility of people who carry key technological talent and the ‘national’ security implications of allowing that talent to cross borders freely.

In addition to mobility (which has increased markedly in the past, most dramatically during an earlier period of ‘globalization’ at the end of the nineteenth century), the next phase of globalization is also about a dramatic increase in speed. The digital revolution is reducing the cost of moving a piece of information around the world in real time to near zero. Big, heavy things move much faster as well because they can be moved more intelligently with the use of information. This is unsettling to humans, who think and act slowly. It is even more unsettling to political organizations, because aggregating a bunch of slow humans into a polity usually makes them even slower. An increasing number of those polities now have some form of democratic decision-making system which has the effect (indeed, is designed explicitly in some ways) to slow things down even more.

This disconnect in speed will have profound implications for national security. There is a straightforward and narrow version of the argument. If wars will be faster—that is, time limited by military technology and by the constraints of democratic control— then existing forces may once again become a more important determinant of who wins than ‘war potential’ in a deeper sense. Yet there are inherent strains—and not just fiscal ones—for democracies maintaining large existing forces during peacetime.

There is a broader version of the argument as well. Balances of power have been an important stabilizing factor in international politics because balancing behavior has prevented the consolidation of hegemony by an aggressor nation. But balances do not form quickly. Napoleon nearly conquered the European landmass before an effective balance formed against him. The Grand Alliance did not fully come together to oppose Hitler until 1942—quite late in an offensive that actually began almost a decade before. When competing systems move at increasingly asymetric speeds the results are likely to be unstable and surprising. Balance of power both as theory and practice has been an important part of the relationship between national security and the war potential of nations. Yet balances may become less stable and more volatile in the future than nations expect.

4.3 Size Of The War Machine

A third complicating factor, loosely connected to globalization arguments, is the issue of size. The tools of large-scale organized violence are getting smaller. Nuclear weapons were the first modern step in this process, but they were hard to engineer and build, even for large nations. Biological weapons are different: a biological agent can be microscopic. More importantly, the equipment to produce custom-designed virulent biological agents will soon be available in suitcase size for US$10,000 or less. An effective computer virus may be even easier and cheaper to manufacture. In more than 50 years no subnational group has yet gained possession of and ‘used’ a nuclear weapon (including in a bargaining situation) for political purposes. Almost certainly it will not be possible to say the same of the next generation of weapons of mass destruction or disruption 50 or far fewer years hence.

5. Conclusions

Perhaps this kind of capability does not represent war potential in a traditional sense. One conclusion to draw from this is that it makes sense fundamentally to rethink the term itself, as well as the range of actors who can possess war potential. Changes in mobility, speed, and size have dramatically increased the porosity of national borders. Given that porosity, behavior that in the past might have been thought of as terrorism could increasingly become much more like war, in the sense that the goals of the behavior might not simply be revenge or the placing of pressure on a particular, discrete policy. The goal—realistically— might be to undermine the foundations of a nation or bring down a government. In that scenario, each important term in the phrase ‘national security and the war potential of nations’ will have taken on a very different meaning.


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