di Federico Petroni
Originally published on Limes, n. 11/2023, «Le intelligenze dell’intelligence»
1. The end of Pax Americana has shattered the ideology of globalisation. That is, the idea of Americanising the world through the free market and democracy – the spirit of the times for almost thirty years. In the words of the current CIA Director William Burns, at the end of the cold war, ‘history seemed to flow inexorably in America’s direction, the power of its ideas driving the rest of the world in a slow but irresistible surge toward democracy and free markets’.
In recent years, however, another ideology has also fallen: military supremacy. That is, the idea of enjoying such superiority in war and technology as to defeat any adversary and deter it from challenging Number One. It too has been the spirit of the times for three decades, since its extraordinary assertion against the fourth army on Earth, the Iraqi army, in the Gulf War.
Globalisation and military supremacy are the two sides of the US hegemony coin. One presupposes the other. This hegemony is the unattainable instrument of war as an umbrella under which to build and extend law and trade and the spread of democracy as justification for the use of force in a police-like fashion. It is logical to think that the two ideologies should stand and fall together. Since the invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that a large part of the planet does not wish to be America. Awareness of this has reached the highest government levels in Washington, where the ‘end of the post-Cold War order’ has been repeatedly proclaimed.
Yet, there is an equally resounding, albeit less investigated consequence. Armed supremacy no longer exists and the signs of disruption are not lacking. The American population disputes the very use of force abroad and is less and less willing to serve under arms or sacrifice itself for supremacy (will). The war industry is not capable of sustaining a major war with an equal Power, nor of returning to war quickly (capability). Above all, rivals have narrowed the gap, on three fronts. Nuclear proliferation erodes deterrence. Technological diffusion relativises America’s qualitative edge. And while defectors have prepared for war with America, America has not done the same. US Armed Forces do remain the first in the world, but they are no longer predominant. This is a momentous change. Being militarily preponderant is a cardinal principle of America’s mentality. Without it, it is a different America. The myth of supremacy has deluded the ruling class into taking invincibility for granted, ending up as a substitute for strategy. What use is the latter when overwhelming power is enough to avoid war? The ability to think and act in strategic terms has atrophied. And one activity is not exactly present in the US’s wheelhouse: strategic intelligence, that is, penetrating the deep intentions of other geopolitical actors – a potentially fatal deficit in the world’s current disorder and in the competition with China.
2. The demise of supremacy is first measured in the nuclear field. Compared with the race against the USSR, the world’s atomic landscape has today changed considerably. The concept of nuclear parity has lost its meaning. China will soon deploy the same number of warheads as the US and Russia. Washington is unprepared for a world with two atomic rivals on an equal footing, who are getting closer to boot. The US also has less influence on proliferation than in the past. Strategists estimate that the arsenals of North Korea, Pakistan, and India will increase significantly; Iran is now a de facto nuclear power; other countries, including allies such as Japan, could follow suit; Saudi Arabia is not too secretly entertaining the idea, haggling between China and the United States to equip itself with civil reactors.
Also diminishing is America’s ability to control the dynamics of escalation between third countries. Of particular concern to America are the less and less latent conflicts between India and Pakistan, India and China, and on the Korean peninsula. This fear reveals something deeper than just the nuclear sphere: waning US power to manage wars between increasingly autonomous actors.
America’s main fear is a limited future use of tactical atomic weapons. This is the result of a cultural difference: for the US, the Bomb serves to avert war; for many of their opponents, it is a guarantee of regime survival. For the former, it constitutes the unthinkable par excellence; for the latter, it is absolutely thinkable. And conceivable. As its military doctrine dictates, Russia has since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine threatened the use of nuclear weapons to increase its coercive potential. Which it did successfully, because the threat was among the factors that limited America’s reaction.
It is ultimately a matter of means. The US voluntarily skipped a generation of weapons modernisation. Barack Obama announced this unilateral decision in Prague in 2009: ‘To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.’ The idea was that the world would follow America’s example. The world has done exactly the opposite, in a powerful demonstration of the vertical decline in US influence. Thus, systems such as the Ohio class submarines, which should have been retired after three decades, have to extend their service to forty or fifty years because the new generation of weapons will not be deployed until the 2030s.
In short, the theories developed during the Cold War, such as Herman Kahn’s Escalation Ladder, are of no use today. A euphemism circulates in Washington: on the nuclear issue, we are in a learning process. The weapon that was supposed to put an end to all wars, from a supposed factor of stability, has become a destabilising factor.
3. In the conventional sphere, the shift is even more radical. For over a century, the US Armed Forces have been able to enter theatres of combat undisturbed. They have enjoyed a broad and ultimately absolute technological advantage. For thirty years, they have not had to face an enemy equal in strength challenging their control over communication, both physical and digital routes. Ever since the end of the Cold War, they have relied on resources sufficient for short or long but not intense operations. This superiority in all dimensions of warfare, a prerequisite of military planning for decades, is over. A 2023 report by the Rand Corporation, a semi-public consultancy centre, makes this clear: the current US posture is ‘insolvent’. Definition: ‘The tasks that the nation expects its military forces and other elements of national power to do internationally greatly exceed the means that have become available to accomplish those tasks.’ When a subject’s ambitions exceed its resources, that subject is out of line.
The point is that China and Russia have worked to neutralise the US’s wartime advantages, while the US has not worked to maintain the edge it enjoyed in terms of power. Beijing has developed tactics that dramatically increase the costs of force projection and defence of US interests overseas. It has organised its warfare around the ‘destruction of adversary systems’. According to Andrew Krepinevich, a long-time military strategist, China is capable of disrupting the Pentagon’s flagship ‘reconnaissance-strike complex’, compromising the accuracy, speed, and above all the range of US firepower. In the event of war in the Pacific, a gigantic ‘no-man’s-land’ would be created between the Chinese coast and Guam, which would favour a Beijing lunge on Taiwan. Breaking through this maritime wall would be possible, but only through technological-organisational innovations that the US, in Krepinevich’s analysis, does not seem structurally capable of undertaking.
Besides a gigantic bureaucracy that is unable to reform, the deeper reason is that for thirty years the main task of the US Armed Forces was not to fight a real war, but to deter it. This presumption of superiority has done away with the urgency to prepare to face a rival on equal terms. The a-strategic wars on terror have damaged the Armed Forces by diverting resources and attention away from preserving the balance of power with China and Russia. In recent years, Krepinevich notes, decision-makers have not even defined what precise challenges the military must prepare for. Rivals are identified and theatres too, but operational concepts, i.e. what to do in concrete terms, are missing. Planning is generic and abstract, focusing on dimensions (sea, air, cyber) and not on adversaries. Soldiers complain of too many trainings calibrated to yesterday’s enemies (jihadists) as opposed to today’s.
Technological supremacy is also less attainable than before. In recent decades, China has systematically surprised the Americans and undermined their overconfidence that they enjoy an unreachable quality edge. The most recent example: Beijing has introduced a quieter submarine propulsion system that will complicate the US hitherto-absolute knowledge of the location of opposing units. Coupled with the sophistication of the anti-submarine sensor network, it reduces the gap in a key dimension of a possible conflict over Taiwan. The Pentagon’s mission is no longer to maintain a technological advantage, but to keep apace. ‘In some areas, such as ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons, or electronic warfare, U.S. forces in a future conflict may operate at a distinct disadvantage,’ estimates Michael Mazarr, an infuential analyst at Rand.
The loss of absolute military-technical advantage undermines one of the key mechanisms the US has relied on to contain China: the credibility of the war threat. America does not know how to deter a war over Taiwan that it is by no means sure it can win. Perhaps not even that it can fight.
4. The end of military supremacy is a cultural earthquake for America. So is discovering that the world does not want to be under its benign hegemony. To appreciate this, one must go backwards in history.
First stage: Gulf War. In 1990 Iraq invades Kuwait, the United States assembles a coalition of 42 countries and sends over 600,000 troops overseas. But it does not know how the battle will go. It has not fought on a large scale for almost fifty years (ever since Korea). It fears heavy losses, up to 30,000 soldiers in several months. The result, however, is dazzling. In just six weeks, the Air Force wipes out the enemy’s powerful anti-aircraft and armoured divisions. The Army liberates Kuwait in one hundred hours. The casualties total 147.
Among the decisive factors is precision bombing. That is, the integration of communication technologies (mainly satellites and microchips) in three capabilities: target detection, coordinate transmission, strike. These bring the accuracy, speed and range of US weaponry to uncontested levels.
This was the first field application of a 1970s initiative aimed at offsetting the USSR’s quantitative advantage in the European theatre with the qualitative advantage of US technology. This was known as offset strategy. As early as the 1980s, the Soviet General Staff sensed its significance, so much so as to speak of ‘mak[ing] it possible to sharply increase (by at least an order of magnitude) the destructive potential of conventional weapons, bringing them closer, so to speak, to weapons of mass destruction in terms of effectiveness’. The performance against Iraq certifies what is immediately hailed as a real revolution in military affairs. The original expression coined at the Pentagon would be ‘military-technical revolution’. But strategist Andrew Marshall has it changed because he is certain that politicians, hearing about technology will take it as an excuse to sit on their laurels.
Marshall hits the nail on the head. America gets drunk on its dominance. Being able to resort to force without great cost encourages its casual use. In the words of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to those who in 1993 advised against bombing Bosnia without clear objectives: ‘What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?’ Ms Albright herself coined the symbolic expression of American hegemony a few years later: ‘We are the indispensable nation’. It was ideology of globalisation and supremacy in a nutshell.
But one will not understand why the myth of military-technical dominance arose unless one does a second leap back in time. Between 1950 and 1953, a debate raged in the halls of power on how to deal with the Soviet Union. There were two schools of thought. George Kennan advocated a light stance in Eurasia, limited to the defence of a few outposts, because he was certain that the enemy would not attack. On the other side of the fence, Paul Nitze, his successor as head of the Policy Planning Staff, was instead certain that the enemy would attack. Therefore, he wrote that ‘to seek less than preponderant power would be to opt for defeat’. How to gain supremacy? Through massive mobilisation of the nation and a large contingent deployed around the perimeter of Eurasia, from the Euro-Mediterranean to Alaska via the Middle East and Indochina. Nitze’s concern was that ‘U.S. military capabilities are strategically more defensive in nature than offensive and are more potential than actual’.
President Eisenhower opted for Kennan’s proposal (containment) because he was convinced that the nation could not support Nitze’s maximalism without losing its soul and its wealth. But the resulting strategy, expressed in ‘NSC 162/2’, added two elements: atomic weapons and scientific research (technological primacy) and extensive overseas commitments, selected from Nitze’s proposals. Like the commitment to defend the perimeter of Eurasia, from Korea to the Middle East, passing through ‘Formosa’ (Taiwan) and Indochina. Or like the commitment to intervene ‘in areas not of vital strategic importance’ for ‘the principle of collective security through the United Nations’ – the result of the ‘assumption’ of a ‘substantial degree of responsibility’ by the United States ‘as the leader of the free world’.
The yearning to one day acquire the coveted preponderance survived among Nitze’s heirs. The Gulf War convinced them that they had finally achieved it. Where did this yearning come from? Why did it persist? Because it is inscribed in the genetic code of the American project.
America was born and grew as an escape from history and geopolitics. A consistent element of its parabola is the refusal, expressed by George Washington and John Quincy Adams, to equate with the immorality of the power politics practised by Europe, from which the future Americans fled. These were not just the instincts of a weak fledgling nation. The nation’s founding goal was to allow the individual to pursue his or her own happiness by being inflicted as little as possible by the ugliness of less happy places. This did not prevent America from establishing an empire (1898 and beyond). But after the Second World War, it was no longer possible to stay away from Eurasia. Military supremacy became the tool to enable the citizenry to preserve its way of life. Keeping the world away became the first strategic interest of the United States.
Technological supremacy also drew on US cultural codes. It was, yes, a means to compensate for demographically inferior resources, but also to avoid militarising the economy and the population, diverting them from the pursuit of the American dream. Above all, inventing the best technologies was part of what defined national identity. Americans recognised themselves not only because they had fought and won the wars themselves, but also as a people of inventors. The cult of technology has the characteristics of religious faith. It reassures in moments of doubt. It can also blind.
5. Without the deterrent of supremacy and without the faith that the world wants to to be like it, America does not know what to do. It no longer has a strategy. The military-technical overwhelm has ended up replacing it. Best example: in the United States the adjective ‘strategic’ is synonymous with nuclear affairs.
The atrophy is measured in several dimensions. Firstly, in recent decades, the US has done the opposite of what its interests would dictate. If its objective is to prevent the formation of an anti-hegemonic coalition in Eurasia, in reality it is doing everything to unite, rather than divide, its rivals. It has fostered the rise of China under the illusion that it can change it. It has destroyed Iraq, allowing Iran to expand. It has destroyed manufacturing, undermining self-sufficiency, the military-industrial base and the middle-class American dream. With a surfeit of trade and financial wars, it has encouraged the creation of alternative channels between partners and adversaries to reduce the sanctioning power of Number One.
It retains formidable advantages: the first line of defence across the Atlantic, a penetrating influence on economic-technological circuits, a population that’s moving in a direction opposite to the rest of the developed world, the ability to attract immigrants, control over communication routes. But these advantages have all become relative, complicating greatly the position in Eurasia.
Over the past thirty years, the United States has neglected the sources of its power. A glaring one is popular legitimisation. In 1993, during the transition between Bush the father and Clinton, the then diplomat William Burns handed the incoming administration a memo on post-Cold War priorities. He argued that the most important was to justify national security spending and build support for American engagements abroad. During the Cold War, this was a relatively easy task but then became infinitely harder, because the post-Cold War period was a time in US history when many Americans would be preoccupied with domestic problems and budgetary constraints would be tighter than ever. His suggestion was to link American engagement in the world clearly and directly to American ideals because few would take those issues for granted. Wars on terror, impoverishment of the middle class via offshoring, unbridled elitism of the leadership have fuelled popular disenchantment with America’s mission in the world.
The disenchantment with strategy can also be seen in the quality of official documents. According to Michael Mazarr, US ‘incoherence’ is visible in the ‘widespread reliance on buzzwords rather than clear, rigorously defined concepts designed to solve specific operational problems’. Neither ‘integrated deterrence’ nor ‘great power competition’ are strategies, i.e. ‘a coherent design for the alignment of means to achieve ends through specified ways’. A geopolitical strategy is succinct. But if it is not articulated, it remains an abstract aspiration – a slogan.
America has been negligent. As happened with deterrence, America has come to believe that it is its own, automatic guarantee, whereas deterrence is a dynamic practice to be scrupulously tended to. Americans, both people and elites, can no longer even imagine a world in which they are not number one. This had led to a failure to recognise the dangers, or to overestimate them. The political leadership has become increasingly convinced that war avoids itself because it is too devastating. This is utmost irresponsibility.
The paradox is that while the absence of a major war was taken for granted, American foreign policy became militarised. This tendency was already present, but it spread as the USSR disappeared. The US casually extended the guarantees of protection as an instrument of imperial expansion, visible in the proliferation of military bases. Thus they realised the dreams cherished by Nitze of defending the perimeter of Eurasia. The price was overextending the empire. Diplomacy was then downgraded to a crutch for war operations – Burns commented bitterly that the Americans seemed to be replicating the role of the British Colonial Service of the nineteenth-century. Commanders of regional theatres became veritable ‘viceroys’, far more infuriating than ambassadors in their respective areas.
The service apparatus too became militarised. The CIA had always been the armed wing of the Presidency, but the wars on jihadists institutionalised its paramilitary role. And even now that the hunt for terrorists has lost priority, the bulk of the intelligence community’s activities goes to support the countless daily military operations scattered across the globe. After all, 10 of the 17 agencies fall under Defence. And the CIA is still widely used in Ukraine for targeting and logistical tasks (weapons delivery).
Thus, America tends to see every problem through a military lense, to be responded to with military instruments. Consequently, strategic thinking withers.
6. To reactivate its strategic intelligence, the United States should integrate others’ views into its reasoning. It needs to be empathic: to equip itself with the tools to think like its adversaries and partners, to intuit their moves, to decipher their anthropological codes, to grasp how foreign regimes will be influenced by the trajectory of the collectivities they govern.
The goal is not so much to understand what the other is aiming at; the static strategic stakes are not impossible to guess. The goal is to grasp the dynamic aspect: how the other might react, how its interests adjust in the face of what the Americans are aiming at. In short, to identify the least bloody and least costly way to defuse the most serious threat posed by the rival.
In other words, a cultural revolution. American powers have never practised empathy as a tool of analysis. The only exception: the departments that fought counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, and were forced to acculturate. But that was at the operational level. Even at the higher levels, government personnel are increasingly hyperspecialised, unable to train in the broad disciplinary horizon required by geopolitical analysis. Such deep coring is not provided even in what the apparatchiks call strategic intelligence, an expression denoting a mere intelligence activity aimed at higher-level decision makers in support of an already set-out strategy. It occurs downstream, not upstream. Consider two examples.
In 1953, having established the goal of containing the USSR, Eisenhower gave orders to ‘develop and maintain an intelligence system’ with the task of assessing: a) ‘indications of hostile intentions that would give maximum prior warning of possible aggression’; b) ‘the capabilities of foreign countries’; c) ‘potential foreign developments having a bearing on U.S. national security.’ The deep intent of a geopolitical entity was not of interest; what interested the US was only whether the geopolitical entity would attack and what means it had at its disposal.
Not surprisingly, then, one of the most admired cases of strategic intelligence at the CIA concerns a target list in Nazi Germany during World War II. In 1943, the Research and Analysis branch identified German oil production facilities with astonishing accuracy and suggested bombing them, weakening the enemy war machine. The CIA’s nostalgia even for such tactical examples testifies to how foreign strategic intelligence is to America. ‘Our products have become so specific, so tactical even, that our thinking has become tactical,’ one veteran ruminated years ago. The deluge of big data and artificial intelligence has further lowered the bar.
Strategic intelligence is used to apply a strategy, not to inform its elaboration. But what if no one elaborates it? The problem is that US intelligence is focussed on the enemy’s material capabilities, to the detriment of determining the enemy’s intentions. The US determines the adversary from its means: it will attack because it can or because we are weak. This is the Nitze school, which refigured the Soviets’ ambitions rather crudely – it considered those ambitions maximalist only because the Soviets had a more powerful army.
The apocalyptic current survives and is reproduced in the China debate, for example in the reconstruction of Beijing targets by the infuriating General HR McMaster, former national security adviser to Trump. He was sure of practising strategic empathy because he was certain that Xi Jinping and his people wanted an empire and to undermine America.
China’s neo-imperial project is now well known. But integrating its point of view into a strategy means answering more dynamic questions. Among them: what price can Beijing pay to get there? Does it consider the US presence incompatible with its security interests? How will it respond to economic-military pressure? To what extent will the population support Xi’s agenda, and is it ready to point to America as the cause of its problems? Arcane questions. According to former CIA Director Robert Gates, American intelligence on China’s military capabilities and its economy is quite good. Intelligence what goes on behind the scenes in the party leadership is a very, very tough objective to achieve.
The United States will adapt the Armed Forces to warfare in the 21st century. But it will no longer enjoy the military supremacy it once had. Therefore, it will have to adapt its thinking as well. In the duel with Beijing, empathy would be a prerequisite so as not to wage the war that everyone would lose, lest the US risk humiliation in Eurasia, which would sink its credibility, including financial credibility. To do so, the US would have to abandon the lazy fatalism that has distinguished it for at least 30 years. Or it risks moving in a flash from the illusion of Americanising China to the equally blind belief that war is inevitable. The future of the American empire and American humanity also depends on this strategic intelligence.
Translated by Dr Mark A. Sammut Sassi