The United States now faces a rapidly evolving world filled with new challenges at a time when real-world defense planning is focused on budget cuts, when U.S. "strategy" lacks plans and program budgets, and when talk of strategic partnership lacks clear and specific direction. Far too much U.S. strategic rhetoric is a hollow shell, while the real U.S. national security posture is based on suboptimizing the budget around the fiscal ceilings set by the Budget Control Act (BCA), persisting in issuing empty concepts and strategic rhetoric, and dealing with immediate problems out of any broader strategic context.
The end result resembles an exercise in chaos theory. Once one looks beyond the conceptual rhetoric, the reality is a steadily less coordinated set of reactions to each ongoing or new crisis: the strategic equivalent of the "butterfly effect." To paraphrase Edward Lorenz, the chaos theorist who coined the term, "the present state determines a series of changes and uncertain adjustments in U.S. force postures and military actions in spite of the fact the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.
Put more simply, the United States has no clear strategy for dealing with Russia and Asia and is reacting tactically to the immediate pressures of events in the Middle East and Afghanistan without any clear goals or direction. Worse, these military tactical reactions are steadily more decoupled from the need to create an integrated civil-military strategy: Grab any short-term form of "win" and ignore the need to "hold" and build."
The World and Reality Are Outpacing U.S. Strategy, Planning, Programming, and Budgeting
Part of problem is the lack of past preparation for some of today's greatest challenges. No one has really prepared for the speed of China's emergence as a regional and world power, for the impacts of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, for the emergence of a global struggle for the future of Islam and the upheavals in the Arab world that began in 2011, for Russia's unexpected invasion of the Ukraine - all of which are interacting with a global recession and constant changes in technology. All are made worse for the United States by the sheer irrational dysfunctionality of sequestration and the BCA.
The world is suddenly far more complex, sometimes to the point where no effort in dealing with complex theory can really help. It is filled with very different major regional challenges and with restructuring the use of force into new forms of asymmetric warfare, roles for nonstate actors, and combinations of military threats and political actions. In some ways, it is a much harder world to deal with than U.S. strategists and planners had faced in the past.
There is something faintly absurd in feeling any form of nostalgia for the Cold War, but at least there was a certain element of focus and simplicity and definable, practical sets of strategic options. The growing complexity of the various struggles the United States now faces have all the focus and simplicity of a kaleidoscope, and it is unclear that the United States and its allies have any clear strategic options that offer a credible response to a series of steadily growing challenges.
Russia, Ukraine, and the Rebirth of Europe's Strategic Challenge
The simplest challenge so far is Russia and Ukraine, but "simple" is a very relative term in today's world. The invasion of Crimea that Russia began in February 2014 put an end to the U.S. assumption that it could somehow focus on other parts of the world. The strategic situation has grown steadily more complex as Russia has pushed deeper into Ukrainian territory, creating new hostile world views like its Color Revolution and challenging the United States and Europe in other areas.
It is unclear where Russia intends to stop its invasion of Ukraine and unclear that U.S. and European actions put forth thus far can halt the series of slow, slicing Russian gains. Sanctions have not halted Russia in Ukraine or deterred it from posing potential new challenges in the Baltic, Central Asia, and Middle East. NATO has so far done little to create a new deterrent to Russia, focusing on a "two percent solution" for increasing member country defense spending whose strategic objective is unclear and has little chance of being reached.
Once one looks beyond the reassuring words and rhetoric of NATO Ministerials and defense statements by member countries, and looks for actual substance, it is unclear what the United States intends to do, much less the NATO alliance as a whole. The United States has not announced any clear force plan for Europe, and NATO has never announced what the "two percent solution" would buy or why it would be important.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania remain exposed. Two non-NATO powers - Sweden and Finland - face their own challenges in the Baltic. The new "Central Region" of NATO has not shown how a key state like Germany would really support states like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary - all of which have so far shown a striking lack of unity.
Creating small NATO power projection forces seems largely symbolic and of little real deterrent or warfighting value. Britain and France have cut defense spending notably faster than the United States. As for the new southern flank, the military and strategic future of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey can be politely described as a divided set of national "mysteries."
Rebalancing to Asia or Simply to the Latest Area of Need?
The U.S. "rebalancing" to Asia has had some success in creating stronger regional partnerships in Southeast Asia, but it has not yet produced any clear force improvement plan - or any kind of force plan at all - for U.S. forces. It is far from clear that there will be any real increase in U.S. forces given the pressures of other areas and the ongoing cuts in the U.S. force posture driven by cost escalation and the BCA.
Worse, the real gains coming from stronger partnerships with nations like Australia have been more than offset by the growing tensions between Japan and South Korea and China's skillful exploitation of those tensions. China now seems to be becoming equally skillful in applying salami divide-and-conquer tactics to Vietnam and the other states in Southeast Asia and is steadily expanding its power projection capability in the Pacific. It is also offering a steadily more sophisticated blend of pressure over the South China Sea with economic negotiations, while it steadily builds up its sea and air power.
China is playing a long game that may well be more based on competition with the United States and its neighbors than actually posing a threat. But - as is the case with Russia - the United States seems to be relying on concepts and rhetoric that lack tangible plans and create no coherent response. If one asks what overall strategy links the United States with Japan, South Korea, and most of its other partners in Asia, what the force plans and force improvement plans are, and how the end result is to create a more stable and secure Asia, the answer seems to be that good intentions are enough to pave the road to success.
Complexity and Chaos in the Threat Posed by Nonstate Actors
The broader strategic challenges in Europe and Asia are currently overshadowed at the tactical level by the more immediate - and steadily growing - challenges in dealing with nonstate actors, especially jihadist violence and growing instability in the Islamic world. The end result is a complex and interacting series of crises centered in the Middle East and North Africa, but that extends far more broadly into Asia and the rest of the Islamic world.
"Terrorism" is only part of the story. These interactive crises include major rivalries and arms races between regional powers, insurgencies and civil wars, and the risk of a nuclear arms race and other forms of high-technology proliferation.