The Contested Commons

Earth Intelligence, Military, Peace Intelligence, Strategy
Online Story
Online Story

Michele Flournoy and Shawn Brimley

U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings

July 2009 Vol. 135/7/1,277

Two officials from the Office of the Secretary of Defense look at a changing and challenging world and what it means for the future of American power.

The world is undergoing a profound and lasting shift in the relative balance of power among nations. While the United States will remain the single most powerful nation well into the century, globalization, combined with the rise of new powers such as China and India, will undeniably reshape the contours of global power.1 This evolution in international affairs offers as many opportunities as it does challenges. The challenge for U.S. strategists and policymakers is to develop and implement a grand strategy that can protect our people, preserve our interests, promote our values, and position America to lead during a century of complex change.

A core task of senior leaders at the Department of Defense is to ensure that hard-fought wartime lessons are institutionalized at all levels to win the wars we are in while simultaneously preparing for future challenges-not all of which are apparent today. Finding and maintaining the right balance between these imperatives remains the guiding principle as DOD develops and eventually implements the Quadrennial Defense Review.

In broad terms, America’s recent wartime experience, combined with insights derived from other contemporary conflicts, suggest that the U.S. military will increasingly face three types of challenges: rising tensions in the global commons; hybrid threats that contain a mix of traditional and irregular forms of conflict; and the problem of weak and failing states.

Three Challenges

First, as rising nations and non-state actors become more powerful, the United States will need to pay more attention to emerging risks associated with the global commons, those areas of the world beyond the control of any one state-sea, space, air, and cyberspace-that constitute the fabric or connective tissue of the international system. A series of recent events-including anti-satellite missile tests, piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the east coast of Africa, and attacks in cyberspace-highlight the need for the United States to work with its allies and partners to maintain relative peace and stability throughout the global commons.

Second, America’s continued advantages in traditional warfighting provide powerful incentives for our adversaries to employ a mix of traditional and irregular approaches that span the range of conflict. The 2007 Maritime Strategy was correct to conclude that modern wars are “increasingly characterized by a hybrid blend of traditional and irregular tactics, decentralized planning and execution, and non-state actors using both simple and sophisticated technologies in innovative ways.”2 Defense Secretary Robert Gates has written that “one can expect a blended high-low mix of adversaries and types of conflict . . . being employed simultaneously in hybrid and more complex forms of warfare.”3

Third, as trends ranging from the economic crisis to climate change and globalization continue to put pressure on the modern state system, the number of chronically weak or outright failing states will likely increase. For example, the same factors that may engender the rise of new great powers may also accelerate the decline of other states that-by virtue of poor leadership, economics, and/or geography-are unable to adapt to a new era and meet the basic needs of their populations. Conflict in the 21st century is at least as likely to result from problems associated with state weakness as from state strength.
Sea, Air, Space, and Cyberspace

The problems associated with emerging hybrid threats and weak or failing states are well known to policymakers and analysts, as they are central features in today’s wars. Less obvious are the growing challenges to American power and influence that are associated with how we perceive and use the sea, air, space, and cyberspace.

The architecture of the modern international system rests on a foundation of free and fair access to a vibrant global economy that requires stability in the global commons. Alfred Thayer Mahan was perhaps the first strategist to coin the term, describing the world’s oceans as “a great highway . . . a wide common” in his classic 1890 work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.4

Since the end of World War II, American grand strategy has centered on creating and sustaining an international system that facilitates commerce, travel, and thus the spread of Western values including individual freedom, democracy, and liberty. The construction and protection of such a system was the central pillar of America’s Cold War strategy. NSC 68, the 1950 planning document generally credited with establishing the foundation of that strategy, outlined a two-pronged approach:

One is a policy which we would probably pursue even if there were no Soviet threat. It is a policy of attempting to develop a healthy international community. The other is the policy of containing the Soviet system? In a world of polarized power, the policies designed to develop a healthy international community are more than ever necessary to our own strength.5

Pressure on the System

Ensuring relative stability throughout the global commons remains central to the maintenance of U.S. power and influence in the 21st century.6 However, there is a growing consensus that rising state and non-state powers, combined with continued globalization, will put great pressure on the international system as a whole. While assessments point to a changing world, relatively little analysis has addressed when and how such changes will materialize. We are likely entering an era in which a series of strategic trends will make it more difficult for the United States to sustain stability within the global commons.

Recent trends in several dimensions of the global commons illuminate how the international system is beginning to evolve and change:

* Space: China’s successful 2007 antisatellite missile test spurred a series of responses, including French, Indian, and Japanese declarations of intent to prepare for challenges in space.7 The Chinese test created the single largest debris field in orbital space, posing obstacles to global use of space for decades.8 The United States demonstrated an antisatellite capability in 2008 by destroying an ailing satellite in a deteriorating orbit.

* Cyberspace: Cyber-warfare is increasingly seen as an inevitable component of state and non-state conflicts. Russian use of offensive cyber capabilities in Estonia and Georgia is well known, as is China’s reported use of cyber capabilities. Non-state actors such as al Qaeda and Hezbollah make frequent use of cyberspace as a planning and propaganda tool.9

* Maritime: A host of maritime examples portend future challenges: the 2006 Kitty Hawk (CV-63) incident (in which a Chinese submarine surfaced within the perimeter of a U.S. carrier strike group), recent tensions in the South China Sea (rooted in China’s territorial claims), and China’s continued investment in a host of surface, submarine, and anti-access capabilities; Russia’s claims on wide areas of the Arctic seafloor and increased military operations in the region; the scourge of piracy in and around key sea lanes; and Hezbollah’s use of an advanced antiship missile during the 2006 Lebanon War.10

Strategic Trends

These examples are indicative of two strategic trends that will pose significant challenges to the United States and its allies:

First, barriers to entry for both state and non-state actors to develop and field capabilities that can pose challenges to U.S. and allied freedom of action will lower substantially over time. The proliferation of knowledge and technology will allow an increasing number of state and non-state actors to deploy anti-access capabilities and high-end asymmetric technologies that can put allied infrastructure at risk and hamper U.S. power projection.

Second, rising powers will not likely be content to simply acquiesce to America’s role as uncontested guarantor of the global commons. Countries such as China, India, and Russia will demand a role in maintaining the international system in ways commensurate with their actual or perceived power and national interests. Such demands are already occurring, from declarations of interest in space capabilities, to indications that the Indian and Arctic oceans will become new global centers of gravity.11

While these trends are already apparent today, their enumeration should not be interpreted to mean that U.S. dominance in, for example, space-based capabilities or in blue-water naval power projection is being eroded at a precipitous pace. Far from it-America’s military will remain without peer for some time in the ability to project and sustain substantial military power from the air and sea over large distances.

These trends are, however, harbingers of a future strategic environment in which America’s role as an arbiter or guarantor of stability within the global commons will become increasingly complicated and contested. If this assessment is true, then a foundational assumption on which every post-Cold War national security strategy has rested-uncontested access to and stability within the global commons-will begin to erode. To assume away or leave these trends unaddressed as we formulate a new U.S. national security strategy and complete a Quadrennial Defense Review would be unwise, increasing the possibility of a future strategic surprise for which we would be unprepared.

The consequences of a shift in the international system that opens the global commons for other state and non-state actors to pursue their interests-and perhaps credibly threaten America’s use of these domains-are likely to be profound, posing challenges to U.S. security strategy and defense planning. To address such challenges, we need to think hard about their operational and resource implications, particularly as QDR deliberations evolve.

Challenges to American interests in the global commons will have serious implications at the operational level. In the maritime domain, for example, a recent U.S. Joint Forces Command report concluded that, unlike in recent operations, the United States may not enjoy uncontested access to bases from which it can project military power:

Given the proliferation of sophisticated weapons in the world’s arms markets-potential enemies-even relatively small powers will be able to possess and deploy an array of longer-range and more precise weapons. . . . Thus, the projection of military power could become hostage to the ability to counter long-range systems even as U.S. forces begin to move into a theater of operations and against an opponent. The battle for access may prove not only the most important, but the most difficult.12

Secretary Gates echoed this concern during his address to the Naval War College in April, stating that potential adversaries do not intend to contest us directly but rather invest “in weapons geared to neutralize our advantages-to deny the U.S. military freedom of movement and action while potentially threatening our primary means of projecting power: our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them. . . . We ignore these developments at our peril.”13

Any state or non-state actor wishing to oppose U.S. or allied forces will look for ways to deter, deny, or frustrate our ability to swiftly employ and sustain combat forces across a variety of scenarios. This is nothing new. What is relatively new is both the scale of the threat posed given the proliferation of advanced high-end systems, and the real potential for non-state actors to employ such technology, as evidenced by Hezbollah’s use of advanced antiship and antiarmor weapons.14 While these dynamics are most clearly at play in the maritime domain, there are similar forces at work in other dimensions of the global commons.

These developments challenge us to think creatively about how DOD can best develop the strategy, concepts of operations, and capability mix needed to meet these challenges.
The New QDR

For example, the QDR is exploring several high-end asymmetric threats of the type described here. Adequately preparing for these challenges may be more about identifying where new operational concepts and discrete investments are needed than in focusing on major shifts in force structure. From a naval perspective, it is clear that several issues need to be addressed, including the future of amphibious landing capabilities, the role of naval unmanned combat aerial vehicles, and the overall mix between ships designed for littoral environments and blue-water surface combatants.

Similar dynamics should influence the debate over how the Air Force pursues more capable unmanned aerial systems and the next-generation bomber. All the services must prepare for a future in which power-projection can be sustained at greater distance than in the past and vulnerabilities reduced through better defense and dispersion.15 These operational imperatives must be balanced with the strategic need to ensure that America’s global posture remains strong enough to assure our allies and dissuade and deter potential adversaries.

Finally, the security of America’s space- and cyberspace-based information architecture has become a matter of national concern. The QDR and other defense and interagency reviews are examining how we can improve the ability to organize America’s instruments of national power to ensure the security of these vital networks. Far more than a military matter, stability and security in space and cyberspace will depend on working with our allies and partners to develop a common framework and advance international norms that can shape the choices and behavior of others.
Opportunity to Lead

While this article focuses on security, it would be unwise to react to the emergence of tensions in the global commons by simply altering the mix of military investments and adapting America’s global network of defense alliances and relationships. They are necessary but insufficient responses to what will be a lasting shift in international affairs. The task for the United States is to respond to these challenges with a whole-of-government approach that advances our interests while legitimizing our power in the eyes of others.16

One way the United States could respond would be to (re)embrace a grand strategy that focuses on sustaining a healthy international system, the maintenance of which is not only central to our national interests but is also a global public good-something everyone can consume without diminishing its availability to others. Such a strategy would essentially update and make explicit what had been a consistent theme in U.S. grand strategy since the early years of the Cold War, but has been underemphasized in the post-Cold War period.

These developing challenges in the global commons also offer the United States a profound opportunity to reassert a leadership role in an area that will only grow in importance. Because stability on and within the global commons is a public good, others have powerful incentives to work with us on issues involving governance of cyberspace, ensuring peace in space, and settling contentious maritime issues. Protecting and sustaining stability throughout the global commons cannot be achieved by America alone.

We must lead in the creation of international norms and standards that can help advance the common good and expand the rule of law in these domains of growing importance. Helping to build the capacity of our partners and allies and working toward a common agenda on these increasingly complex issues should be a critical pillar of America’s national security and defense strategy.

The 21st century will see momentous change in the international system. There is every reason to be hopeful that the shifts under way in the global system can improve the prospects of peace and security. By virtue of its size, geography, economy, and values, the security of the United States is directly related to the security of the broader international system. As the Obama administration prepares a new national security strategy, and as DOD conducts its Quadrennial Defense Review, the time is right to both reframe American grand strategy and rebalance the U.S. military to succeed in today’s wars while preparing for tomorrow’s challenges.

1. See National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (November 2008), and the 2008 Joint Operating Environment: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force (Suffolk: JFCOM, 2008).

2. ADM Gary Roughead, GEN James Conway, ADM Thad Allen, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (October 2007), p. 6.

3. Robert Gates, “A Balanced Strategy,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2009).

4. Alfred Thayer Mahan, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History,” in David Jablonsky, ed., Roots of Strategy: Book 4 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1999), p.79.

5. NSC 68, reproduced in Ernest May, ed., American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC 68 (New York: St. Martins, 1993), p. 41.

6. Barry Posen, “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony,” International Security (Summer 2003), pp.5-46.

7. David Sands, “China, India Hasten Arms Race in Space,” The Washington Times, 25 June 2008, p. A01, Marc Kaufman, “U.S. Finds It’s Getting Crowded Out There,” The Washington Post, 9 July 2008, p. A01. See also Pavel Podvig and Hui Zhang, Russian and Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Plans in Space (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2008).

8. See Bates Gill and Martin Kleiber, “China’s Space Odyssey,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2007), pp. 2-6.

9. See Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China (Annual Report to Congress, 2009); Shane Harris, “China’s Cyber-Militia,” National Journal, 31 May 2008; Jonathan Adams, “Chinese Hacked Computers, U.S. Lawmakers Say,” Christian Science Monitor, 12 June 2008; Sandhya Somashekhar, “Wolf Warns of Foreign Attacks on Computers,” The Washington Post, 12 June 2008, p. B3.

10. See “The Long March to be a Superpower: China’s Military Might,” The Economist, 4 August 2007, p. 20; Robert Kaplan, “America’s Elegant Decline,” The Atlantic Monthly, (November 2007), pp. 104-112. See “Into the Wide Blue Yonder; Asia’s Navies,” The Economist, 7 June 2008, p. 6; Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities-Background and Issues for Congress” CRS Report for Congress, RL33153, 16 April 2008; David Lague, “Chinese Submarine Fleet is Growing, Analysts Say,” The New York Times, February 25, 2008, p. 10.

11. See Robert Kaplan, “Rivalry in the Indian Ocean,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2009), pp. 16-32; Scott Borgerson, “Arctic Meltdown,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2008); and Marc Kaufman, “U.S. Finds It’s Getting Crowded Out There,” The Washington Post (9 July 2008), p. A01.

12. 2008 Joint Operating Environment: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force (Suffolk: JFCOM, 2008), p. 44.

13. Robert Gates, Speech to the Naval War College (Newport: RI, 17 April 2009).

14. Mark Mazzetti and Thom Shanker, “Arming of Hezbollah Reveals U.S. and Israeli Blind Spots,” The New York Times (19 July 2006). See also Stephen Biddle and Jeffery Friedman, The 2006 Lebanon Campaign and the Future of Warfare (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute, 2008); Andrew Erickson and David Yang, “On the Verge of a Game-Changer,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (May 2009), pp. 26-32; Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China (Annual Report to Congress, 2009); and Roger Cliff, et al, Entering the Dragon’s Lair: Chinese Antiaccess Strategies and their Implications for the United States (Washington: RAND, 2007).

15. Tom Ehrhard and Robert Work, Range, Persistence, Stealth, and Networking: The Case for a Carrier-based Unmanned Combat Air System (Washington: CSBA, 2008).

16. See Joseph Nye, “Recovering American Leadership,” Survival (February-March 2008), pp. 55-68.
Ms. Flournoy is the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Mr. Brimley is a strategist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.