Navigating Threats in the Strategic Dark

Editor’s note: In the following interview, originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of
Global Brief
 magazine, John McLaughlin writes that U.S. foreign policy is in the midst of an era of transition in the global system, where the rules and structure of international relations are unclear. There will be a number of flashpoints over the next ten years that ultimately determine the interests of U.S. foreign policy in the absence of guiding strategic concepts, he argues.

Global Brief: What is the greatest threat to international global stability over the next 10 years? 

John McLaughlin: That is a tough question. You cannot point to a single greatest threat to global stability at this point. Perhaps the greatest threat comes from a condition, rather than a country or a problem. That condition may simply be that we are in an era of transition in the international system. Paul Kennedy of Yale University has called this era the gap between strategic epochs. What that means is that we are at a moment when the rules and structure of international relations are not crystal clear.

We do not have a name for the era in which we find ourselves. We came from the Cold War. It was all so clear in the Cold War period. It was also briefly clear after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and until 2008, when the international financial crisis hit. That 17-year period was one in which the US was clearly the dominant power in the world. We have passed through that period. The US is probably still first among equals, but other powers are rising. There are other significant actors who have important aspirations – actors who are not necessarily susceptible to US persuasion.

Americans have always had a guiding star for their international conduct. Our civil war was about preserving the union. WW1 was about making the world safe for democracy. WW2 was about defeating the Nazis. And the Cold War was about containing the Soviets. But we do not have a simple strategic concept or North Star at this point. So we are at a moment of strategic and systemic transition.

Another issue of great relevance to international stability is demographics. When you look at the parts of the world that are most troubled today – North Africa, for example – you see that about 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30. You have very high unemployment rates in societies that are not prepared to deal with the demands of that young cohort. Looking ahead, therefore, I suspect that most of the problems that we are going to see in the international system will be generated not between states, but rather within states. For us, then – say, for the US and the Commonwealth countries – the problem is that traditional tools of statecraft do not work very effectively when we seek to address the internal problems of other countries. Our traditional tools of statecraft – things like economic sanctions and military power – work best in the context of relations between and among nations. When it comes to all of these problems that are now appearing within states – in Syria, Egypt, Libya, many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, other parts of the Middle East, and portions of Central Asia – our traditions, strategies and tools are weaker and less developed. As a result, there is great potential for instability in the international system.

GB: Are you worried about any major interstate conflicts over the next 10 years?

McLaughlin: Over the next 10 years, there are a number of flashpoints, in interstate terms, that we ought to worry about. One, of course, is between China and Japan over disputed islands. Both sides are quite serious about these islands, and while this may seem a lesser issue to those of us who are remote from it, it taps into historical rivalries between those countries. Another would be the traditional rivalry between India and Pakistan, which currently is quiescent, in part because each side has, for the moment, shown a willingness to reach out to the other – most recently with the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reaching out to Indian Prime Minister Singh and seeking some basis for discussion and the easing of differences. Of course, this comes in the aftermath of recent turmoil in Kashmir.

Still, there are some things in the neighbourhood that may potentially disturb this equilibrium. For example, as the US withdraws from Afghanistan by 2014 – without clarity, at present, about how many US forces, if any, will remain, and with relevant bilateral security negotiations not yet complete – the diminished US presence will, in all likelihood, reignite Pakistani paranoia about Afghanistan and concern that India, which traditionally has maintained an influential presence in Afghanistan, will seek to do so again. (In my view, India will.) Removing the US from that trilateral equation has the potential over the longer term to stimulate renewed rivalry between India and Pakistan – again, primarily because of the likelihood that India will seek influence in Afghanistan, and because Pakistan will react with concern, as it must always – as it sees it – protect its western flank when its eastern flank is exposed to Indian power.

Taiwan, to be sure, is always a potential flashpoint – although it is at the moment not a hot theatre. When you get past these first-order interstate issues, it is hard to see major ones that are on the horizon – although, frankly, these usually surprise us.

One could easily conjure up endless interstate conflicts in the Middle East. We are at the point now where it is feasible to imagine a redrawing of the boundaries in the Middle East. Of course, most people will draw back from that and say: how could that be? After all, these borders have been there since WW1 – except for the redrawing due to the Arab-Israeli wars. However, what we now see happening in Syria is, for all practical intents and purposes, an erasing of the border between Syria and western Iraq because the Sunnis in Iraq are identifying very clearly with their Sunni brethren in Syria, who are in revolt against an Alawite minority that has oppressed the majority Sunnis for decades. That border has become so porous that, in practical terms, it hardly exists.

Within Iraq, there are centrifugal forces that come and go, but I would again say that Syria has been the touchstone here. Iraqi Kurds identify with the Kurds in Syria. They also identify with Kurds in Iran. In essence, then, Syria is a proxy war between Shiites and Sunnis from across the Middle East. In a way, one could imagine Syria heralding a broader conflict in much the same way that the Spanish civil war in the 1930s heralded a broader conflict by becoming a proxy war between two competing ideologies – fascism and communism – with both the Germans and the Soviets playing heavily. Of course, I am not talking about WW3 here, but I do see an analogy insofar as we have competing ideologies offering physical support within a country – in a region that is highly volatile. Most of us who have followed the Middle East for years or decades will now say: “I cannot predict anything. I am just taking notes.”

I have left out obvious things: Iran and the US, or Iran and Western powers who oppose the Iranian nuclear effort. Yes, that could turn into an interstate conflict. But everything that can be said about that potential conflict has already been said. There are no good options.

GB: When do you begin to worry about intrastate conflict, and when do you let sleeping dogs lie? 

McLaughlin: A great deal of work has been done on this. A whole body of work exists to try to anticipate genocide – the ultimate expression of intrastate conflict. And the kinds of things that you look for are indicators of misery – as it were – in societies. You look at things like the unemployment picture and the data underlying that picture.

When you look at unemployment data in many countries, it is often unreliable – particularly in third world countries, where it frequently does not include women. As such, if you are looking at an underdeveloped society, you can almost always add 10 to 15 percent to the official unemployment figures. When you see high unemployment and high population growth, as well as a society that is riven by ethnic or tribal differences, then that is the time to pay attention. You also look for what people are saying in those countries. Are there statements coming from groups that are essentially incitements to violence? That can be a precursor to genocide.

How do you determine that something like this is a threat? That is more difficult. It depends on where you stand. If your national policy is premised on the importance of human rights universally, then any one of these things is a threat to your interests. If, on the other hand, human rights are not, in any practical sense, at the centre of your international strategic doctrine, then you are probably looking for concrete threats that you define in a hard-headed way as your interest. This, then, may cause you to distinguish between, say, Libya and Egypt, or Libya and Syria. Without minimizing at all the importance of what took place in Libya, it is now having secondary and tertiary consequences that were not apparent at the time. At that moment, one could not make the case that developments internally in Libya were central to US interests. They might have been central to European interests, given the degree to which many Europeans rely on Libyan energy. But when you look at a case like Egypt, which has upward of 85 million people, you have a highly populated country at the centre of the Arab world, where the Arab Spring effectively began in its most dramatic form (beyond the obviously important events that occurred in Tunisia prior to the Egyptian uprising). What you have at stake, then, is the survival of a values system that gained momentary expression in the Egyptian uprising. That uprising was noteworthy for two reasons: first, it was internally driven; and second, it was about universal values that we all share, including freedom, the right to employment, freedom of the press, democracy, pluralism and equality among groups. That has not happened for a long time, if ever, in that part of the world.

The failure of this movement in Egypt is something that would clearly have the potential to impact all of our interests, because of the message that it would send across an entire region. Syria, similarly, is one of the keystones to establishing any kind of peaceful relationship between Israelis and Arabs. In its current state, it evidently cannot really contribute to a peaceful outcome.

The basic point is that determining what is strategically in your interests is very, very difficult. Take Rwanda in the mid-1990s. The US had not actively intervened in Rwanda prior to the genocide. Subsequently, President Clinton and all of his senior national security officials looked back and said with regret that we ought to have stepped in. Of course, it was understood in Washington that something horrible was happening in that country. One of the difficulties, as always, was to know where this was heading, and what the magnitude was going to be. At what point does something like that cross into the realm of strategic significance? It really does depend a lot on how your strategic doctrine conceptualizes human rights.

There are practical issues, too. In the West, we are all facing the practical issue of how to pay for interventions. You simply cannot pick up and deploy somewhere endlessly. That becomes too costly at some point. For the Middle East, another loose factor in all of our thinking about the region is the oil equation. This equation is changing rapidly and dramatically. The US is on its way toward virtual independence in natural gas within a foreseeable period of time. And when it comes to oil, the fracking process or drilling process changes that we are initiating are probably going to take us to the status of being a net exporter of oil in the not-too-distant future. We may not become totally independent, but our need for oil from foreign sources will decline.

GB: How is intelligence tradecraft changing in this early new century? 

McLaughlin: There are two major, overarching changes at play, and then some minor ones. In terms of overarching considerations, the first one has to do with the absence of compelling organizing concepts – as I have mentioned. The Cold War concept of containment no longer applies. Without that sort of organizing concept today, you have to cover everything, in intelligence terms, because there is no obvious way of determining priorities. For example, during the Cold War, if the US was interested in Latin America or Africa, at a strategic level, then the dimension that overwhelmingly drew our attention was the nature and intensity of the relationship that those countries had with the Soviet Union. If the Soviet Union was becoming interested in Nicaragua or Angola, then those countries suddenly became very interesting to the US, and resources were mobilized in support of that interest and into those theatres.

Because that framework is gone, we now have to be interested in, and knowledgeable about, various societies for what they are in and of themselves. We have to take that knowledge down to the tribal level, the urban level and the cultural level. We therefore need intelligence specialists who have many more languages and far broader cultural acumen.

When the Soviet Union broke up, I was put in charge of the group that followed the states that succeeded the Soviet Union. I had to move analysts who had spent their lives studying Russian into other realms. I had to get them to study Uzbek and Tajik and Arabic and other languages that they had not previously had to learn. We did that. In that sense, intelligence is actually doing rather well with languages these days. It has taken about 10 years – one might say even 20 years – to get to a generation of intelligence officers who are now coming in having figured out early in their lives that they need to learn a language other than the ones that we used in the Cold War.

But again, there is no dominant organizing principle that allows us to say that we will cover country or region X and not country or region Y. However, if something happens in either of country X or Y – say, a terrorist attack that has ramifications beyond the locality, because of what it shows about the strength of the terrorist group and its relations cross-nationally and across networks with other terrorist groups – then we are going to have to pay attention. This happens periodically. It happened, for example, when East Timor gained its independence. This was an early harbinger of what was coming. All of a sudden, there was a major flare-up in East Timor that required the attention of our close Australian partners, and required Washington to be smart about what was going on there in order to offer assistance.

If the first point is that you have to cover everything, then the second point is that we are in the midst of the greatest technological revolution that any of us can remember. Perhaps if you were around in the Stone Age, technical change was equally remarkable then – that is, when someone figured out how to move to bronze, or how to move things with wheels. The current technological revolution spans every discipline. It is post-industrial, and the drivers are not heavy; they are light. The drivers are biology, information technology, nanotechnology – and also the combination of these three in different fields, and the synergy that develops among all of these new technologies. Technology, since the invention of the telegraph, has been the friend of intelligence. So long as it was relatively incremental, intelligence could stay ahead of technology – such that in the 1970s, for instance, we were able to develop covert communication systems that were ahead of what anyone else in the world had. And yet today the speed of change is such that it is very hard to stay ahead of it. If you do not stay ahead of it, then your adversary has what you have, and the difficulty of clandestinely detecting adversary plans and intentions is magnified.

Those are the big two trends. Having said this, classical espionage will be what it has always been. It is still a matter of one human being spotting, assessing, developing and recruiting another human being to commit espionage. It has been thus ever since human rivalry began.

GB: What are the differences in intelligence cultures across different countries and regions today? 

McLaughlin: The gradations among countries on this score are reasonably stark. Among the Commonwealth countries, there is a shared culture and a shared history when it comes to intelligence – forged largely in war, and particularly in WW2. The other cultural distinction among intelligence agencies has to do with the degree to which they separate intelligence analysis from policy. For instance, in the US, the culture requires that we draw a very stark line between intelligence and policy. The classical thing that people say here is that intelligence does not make policy, but rather informs it. Intelligence gives you the facts on the ground as best as they can be determined, and the situation as best it can be understood. But then intelligence steps back and essentially says to the policy community: “Over to you.” The rationale for this is that the intelligence function ought to be as objective and clinical as possible. This requires that it not become invested in policy. Of course, this is not the culture in every country in the world. I suspect that this is probably not the culture in China. It may not be the culture in Russia. It does not mean that those counties have it wrong. It is just that they go about intelligence in a different way. I suspect that they see intelligence more as an extension of their national policy – whereas here intelligence is an aid to policy, and certainly not a part of it.

A related dimension is the degree to which the principle of speaking truth to power is embedded in a national intelligence culture. This involves describing a situation as objectively as you can without regard to how pleasing it may be to those in policy development roles, or indeed to those in political power. This is certainly not a concept that is universally shared among intelligence cultures around the world.

Finally, intelligence cultures often distinguish themselves in respect of whether they have a global or more local view of things. This often depends on the foreign policies of a country. If a country aspires to have influence around the world, its intelligence culture will have a global orientation. Many countries, however, have a very regional or local focus. In fact, other intelligence agencies would sometimes say to us in the US: “You’re very big and we’re very small.” And I would say to them: “No, where you are, you’re very big and we’re very small.” In other words, they had insight into their particular areas that was much more sophisticated and nuanced than we could ever have had. As such, we respected their views and expertise on those areas, and we benefited where there was sharing.

GB: How do you see US strategic capabilities evolving this century in response to global changes in power? 

McLaughlin: Traditionally, people who think about power and influence divide the factors contributing to these into two categories: the physical things about which you cannot do anything, and the non-physical, cultural or policy matters that you can affect. Physically, you look at natural resources, territory, population, and so on. On those scores, the US is in reasonable shape, with a strong resource base and a population that is not ageing as dramatically as, say, Western European or Japanese populations. We have an ageing population, to be sure, but we are replacing our population at a greater rate than in some other countries. And we are open to immigrants.

When you look at the non-tangible aspects of power, then you are talking about the propensity to innovate, financial systems, systems of governance, and so on. On those scores, we have some advantages and, in the same breath, some problems that will affect our position in the world. Among our advantages is the fact that we are still a very innovative society. There is a great deal of creativity in the US, and a lot of encouragement for creativity. It is still eminently possible to innovate and grow a business or a technology here.

In thinking about potential future American energy independence, one positive for us is that we do not have a state oil company. We have many, many small- and medium-sized and large private oil companies. As a result, the potential to develop resources on the energy side is much greater than it is in most countries. In terms of our governance, of course, it is now commonly remarked that we are going through a very partisan stage, where we have trouble making and implementing decisions on really tough issues. Unless addressed, this dynamic will limit our competitiveness in an increasingly diversified world with rising powers. That, indeed, is something to worry about.

Looking outside of the US, it is obvious that the Sino-US relationship is the principal strategic relationship of this new century. How should we be thinking about this relationship? The US has been through periods before where we thought that some country in the world was rising in ways that threatened our standing. We have also experienced traumatic events that seemed to threaten our power position in the world. After Vietnam, for example, there was a period in the US during which people thought that we must be in decline simply because we had essentially lost a major conflict for the first time. Of course, that presumption of decline turned out not to be true.

There was a period in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s during which the idea of Japan Inc. was alive. Japan was never a threat, but there was a sense that Japan was somehow moving to the forefront of power in the world, and buying up a lot of American properties that were archetypical or emblematic or iconic for the US and for Americans.

The potential challenge from this century’s China is far different from all past challenges. We are not in the aftermath of conflict, as was the case with Japan. And while China is today not as mature as was Japan in manufacturing and many other economic sectors, it has a much greater population and a deep sense of history and strategy. So China presents a more serious challenge. The challenge in dealing with it lies in the fact that its future is uncertain. As a consequence, you have to hedge against the possibility that it could become more than a rival, but not hedge so much that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, we ought not to hedge so much in terms of our military policy and diplomatic activities that we signal to the Chinese that they are a potential adversary – thereby potentially making them so. In short, we have to hedge such that we find a balance that disabuses Beijing of any impression or perception that we are somehow organizing Asia against it. This must be a key objective.

A trilateral partnership involving Japan, China and the US is, on this logic, a much more positive and potentially productive thing to which to aspire than a situation in which the Chinese see us as organizing a bilateral front against them with Japan.