Twenty years ago, I sat in a classroom on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with about 40 peers. We were focused on shopping—the ritual in which Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) students receive presentations from faculty explaining the various courses available to them. This special session was dedicated to International Security Policy, and the content was being delivered by its then esteemed Director, Dick Bates. I remember very vividly watching Bates step behind the podium to make the following statement with frank and unemotional solemnity: “You may not be interested in war. But war does.” Some people are bothered by what I suppose they find to be a melodrama at the moment; The next Tuesday was September 11, 2001.
Bates’ warning reminds us that violent conflict has been a feature of all human history and that we must understand and prepare for it. It also alerts us that war is opportunistic, and can begin and spread as a result of accidental events, seemingly ordinary decisions, and a conspiracy of circumstances that arise when we are arrogant or oblivious.
The US intervention in Afghanistan for 20 years is a painful example of the failure to heed Bates’ warning in both directions. It is evidence that the United States has not yet abandoned a false set of beliefs about what brute force can and cannot achieve. Also, it is difficult to review a chronology of choices made by the US government in Afghanistan without seeing a steady accumulation of war opportunities for space expansion, character change, and extension over time. This isn’t mission creep – it’s a war that does what war does.
The post-Cold War environment allowed for these misunderstandings and missteps, and was relatively lenient in imposing costs on the United States. Those days are over. The consequences of the misuse of brute force, and the neglect or error of how to effectively protect against war, will be cruel and unforgiving during a period of aggressive competition between powerful nations.
This change has not been lost on today’s defense community, and there is a great deal of attention being paid to the associated issues How to prepare for superpower war And How to prevent it. Both concerns arise precisely from concerns about China’s intentions over Taiwan and about Russia’s designs on NATO’s eastern front. These scenarios brought deterrence strategies back into fashion, and momentum is gathering behind the idea that deterrence is best achieved through Mobilize high-tech conventional warfare.
History tells us, however, that deterrence is never as logical, straightforward, and simple in practice as it seems. There is no doubt that machine learning, autonomy, ultrasound, and other advanced technologies should be brought into military use, but doing so does not guarantee a deterrent effect, and neither seeks to deter China and Russia from protecting them from war. Conversely, to the extent that the United States does not adequately take into account how its own approach to incorporating these technologies into its deterrent strategies can cause misunderstanding, instability, and miscalculation, it does not reduce the chances of war—it creates them.
This is never more true than during periods of flux and transition, when policymakers are exposed to the unsteady effects of disruptive patterns, unusual events, and an inability to discern trends or anticipate future paths. Periods of rapid and visible technological change make deterrence particularly difficult, as the potential applications of new tools used in many new ways and their ramifications are uncertain.
All of these dynamics are not only present but evident today, and we must be wary of their interaction with our defensive strategy. Enhancing our combat capabilities using advanced technologies does not guarantee deterrent success, nor will it improve our skill in distinguishing between what brute force can and cannot achieve. In fact, it might degrade them — owning a fancier’s hammer, after all, might tempt us to see more nails rather than less, or to think that a hammer can do the job of a scalpel. The promise of emerging technologies may also tempt us to make a series of seemingly singularly innocuous choices under the banner of deterrence but which add up to create mistrust and foment international instability.
An era of great power rivalry will not accommodate confusion about the uses and limitations of brute force, nor will it deal kindly with decisions made of ego, optimism, or wishful thinking. A wise defense strategy must now emerge from worst-case scenario planning, where strategies are not based on assumptions about what deters war but are tested for failures that might cause it. Emerging technologies cannot be pursued as a panacea, but must be selectively chosen to balance their benefits to us with the risks and threats they pose to others and to international stability. To do otherwise is to either forget or willfully neglect the lessons of Afghanistan and to believe, wrongly, that we can manage the consequences of war when we are once again concerned with us.