Four broad weaknesses undermine U.S. national security, together threatening the collapse of U.S. global leadership: the addiction to military solutions for non-military problems, an elite focus on taking a bigger piece of a stagnant domestic pie, rising complexity of world affairs, and the arrival of an historic tipping point that will, for the first time since the early 1600s transform the U.S. natural environment from a free gift into an obstacle to the realization of the American Dream.
Those in Washington who aspire to run the world naturally focus on the very big hammer they have: with no serious military competitor remotely visible, the U.S. only needs a military as an insurance policy. There is no doubt that the U.S. has fundamental national security challenges, for which it needs a productive population of financially secure families, a stable and educated middle class actively monitoring the behavior of its elected representatives, a modern climate policy, a vigorous international police regime to pursue international criminals, and a domestic justice system to pursue domestic abuse of power by the corporate and political elite, and a foreign policy grounded in a long-term understanding of the kind of world that would benefit American society.
The U.S. is not remotely close to meeting a single one of these conditions for long-term national security, however, so–for fully internal reasons, regardless of how benign external conditions, regardless of how nicely the rest of the world treats the last superpower standing–the U.S. will continue to decline. What the U.S. does not need is a level of military superiority that will make entice decision-makers into smashing every glass window of opportunity they perceive with their big military hammer. While the Three-Trillion Dollar double adventure into Iraq and Afghanistan may constitute the obvious example, the broader U.S. post-Cold War propensity to play the tough guy toward adversaries (e.g., Yemen, Palestinians, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, the Egyptian people) while kowtowing toward difficult “friends” (e.g., Israel, Saudi Arabia) because Washington has lost the ability to design effective non-military foreign policy constitutes at least as serious a national security weakness. Simply put, elite addiction to military solutions for non-military problems will in and of itself push the U.S. into decline. Call it the “Military Solution Syndrome.”
The Military Solution Syndrome is the tip of the iceberg imperiling the U.S. ship of state. The next layer down is the broad domestic failure of leadership regarding the sorry list of chronic problems cited above. This failure results from the rise of elite corruption to the point of open warfare against the 99% under the protection of a government now essentially “bought and paid for.” Call this the “Class War by the Rich.”
These two broad trends do not make U.S. decline inevitable. Indeed, from the first election of Obama through his now deservedly forgotten Cairo address, the U.S. appeared on the road to curing itself of the Military Solution Syndrome. Similarly, the Madison demonstrations in defensive of public workers, the Occupy Movement against elite financial corruption, Carolina’s Moral Mondays, and the election of Elizabeth Warren gave powerful evidence that the public was beginning to realize who the real enemy was. But after a generation of concerted effort, the rich had a head of steam that a still mostly in denial public has yet to match, and little evidence that the public will make the necessary effort is visible. Sadly, greater military defeats than those in Iraq and Afghanistan plus worse economic disasters than the 2008 recession may be required to stimulate such a public reaction.
If the Military Solution Syndrome and the Class War by the Rich together comprise the domestic reasons for anticipating long-term U.S. decline, the circumstances of the global political environment constitute the third layer. First, the 21st century world is structurally complex, with power (aside from military power) increasingly spread out, alliances increasingly issue-specific, and means of achieving one’s goals increasingly varied…if one has the determination and vision to play for the long term. With decision-makers blinded by the shining mirage of military solutions and the broader ruling elite blinded by a roaring-twenties lust for profit, the U.S. is lost in a new world it has no idea how to cope with. Even the entirely foreseeable mess in Ukraine, greatly the result of Washington overplaying its hand, seems beyond the ability of U.S. decision-makers to manage; how to curb Israeli expansionists while protecting its citizens, identify “good guys” in Syria, provide Iran with a combination of respect and security, allow China room in which to live, or prevent the unraveling of West Europe evidently leaves Washington utterly at a loss. Official Washington looks paralyzed, like a “Deer in the Headlights.”
The final layer is the natural environment. The natural environment has for three centuries (it was, in contrast, a huge obstacle to settlement in the earliest days of European colonization) constituted the secret weapon of America. This incalculable freebie now appears to be disappearing. Whether we Americans are primarily responsible by our greed or nature is somehow doing a number on us, the case still remains that climate shift is about to make our lives much more volatile, from F5 tornadoes almost everywhere to drought and fire in the California food basket, and our short-sighted abuse of the environment is just making things worse. As if global warming were not enough, we have the additional epidemic of poisoning of the environment on a massive scale (e.g., the Gulf of Mexico from the oil eruption, groundwater from the scandalously irresponsible shale oil exploitation) This final layer of degradation of the natural environment, then, is quite literally the “Burning of Our Seed Corn.”
So, for those who want a sound-bite description of the challenge facing the U.S. today, it is the combination of the Military Solution Syndrome, Class War by the Rich, Deer in the Headlights, and Burning of Our Seed Corn.