Francis “End of History” Fukuyama cautions us that in concerning ourselves too much with ISIS we’re not paying enough attention to “more menacing foes”:
The focus of today’s debate ought to be: how should we prioritise the threats facing us and how bad are the most serious? This year we have seen a fast-moving sequence of events, from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to China’s assertion of sovereignty over the South and East China seas to the collapse of the Iraqi government’s power. Authoritarian forces are on the move.
It is on this point that US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy speech at the West Point military academy in May was wrong-headed. It laid out various abstract criteria for the use of force (actions must be “proportional and effective and just”; where no direct threat to US interests exists, “the threshold for military action must be higher”). It is hard to disagree. But he went on to state that the only direct threat we face is terrorism. He said virtually nothing about long-term responses to the two other big challenges to world order: Russia and China. There was great fanfare surrounding the US “pivot” towards Asia – one of the most important initiatives of Mr Obama’s first term – but he did not mention the word once.
Despite the recent successes of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis), I would argue that terrorism is actually the least consequential of these challenges in terms of core US interests. What we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria is the slow spread of a Sunni-Shia war, with local forces acting as proxies for Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is a humanitarian crisis in the making. However, we could barely contain sectarian hatreds when we occupied Iraq with 150,000 troops; it is hard to see how we can act decisively now.
Identifying priorities and establishing subpriorities is always good advice. Is potential risk or actual risk a higher priority? The reality of the last forty years is that the only foes that have done us any serious harm have been violent radical Islamists (in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, in African embassies, and here in the United States) while neither Russia nor China has touched us.
To be sure Russia and China have national interests of their own and I would expect them to pursue them. Both countries are large enough and powerful enough that their neighbors will inevitably be nervous and changing that is beyond our power. Other than nervous neighbors what national interest of ours do Russia or China threaten? Dr. Fukuyama alludes to a case but doesn’t really make one.
Russia and China both have large militaries but they are more intended to be used domestically or in their near abroads than against us. It is their nuclear arsenals that we should be most concerned about which is why nuclear deterrence still matters.
Our long-time grand strategy has consisted in promoting freedom of trade and of the sea lanes and I think I’d add the free exchange of information to that. Transnational corporations may threaten those interests more than Russia or China do and perhaps they should be added to the list. Not to mention the U. S. government itself.
While I don’t lie awake nights worrying about the threat posed by violent radical Islamists, I think that dismissing them as a few primitive savages in the desert is a grave error. After all, a few dozen Saudis, Egyptians, and Gulf Arabs with a budget of a couple of hundred thousand dollar managed to kill 3,000 people and do hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage. How many people could a thousand with a budget of a billion dollars kill?
Equating destructive power with size or productive capacity is mid-20th century thinking. It is woefully obsolete.
If there is a thrust to world history it has been in the direction of personal empowerment. Since 1945 it has been the case that one country could destroy the entire world, something never the case before. Today one individual can be as powerful as an army of a millennium ago and with the developments in desktop manufacturing, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology that will only be exacerbated in the years to come.
Personal empowerment is a jinn we cannot return to its bottle, at least not without bringing the modern economy crashing down around our ears. It’s not something that we can successfully oppose with armies or even armed drones—another example of that personal empowerment and something we should be expect to be used against us sooner rather than later.
To mitigate the risks that empowerment poses we’re either going to need to start ignoring mass casualties, something that shows few signs of happening, or consider our policies more critically, with flinty-eyed objectivity. Since so many fabulously wealthy individuals, companies, and other institutions depend on Things As They Are for their riches and power, the likelihood of our doing that seems to me vanishingly small.
For more on personal empowerment and superempowerment see