Islands, or Orbits, or Communities


Last week, I teed up the distant horizon point of view of “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress,” as well as three plausible scenarios for what kind of world we’ll find ourselves in decades hence. How these scenarios, Islands, Orbits, and Communities, play out will dominate how our world will be shaped in the future.

“Global Trends: Paradox of Progress” sets up its analysis by describes the factors that will lead to one or the other of the three suggested scenarios. Those factors include: dynamics within countries, dynamics between countries, and long-term, short-term tradeoffs. It is easy to see how the interplay between these broad categories can result in completely divergent scenarios.

The three scenarios—”Islands,” “Orbits,” and “Communities“—explore how critical trends and choices might intersect to create different paths to the future. These scenarios postulate alternative responses to near-term volatility—at the national (Islands), regional (Orbits), and sub-state and transnational (Communities) levels. The names of the three Global Trends: Paradox of Progress scenarios: Islands, Orbits, and Communities are intriguing and bear a bit of explanation.

More on “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress” in my next National Security blog post.

Want more now? You can read Global Trends: Paradox of Progress here:


AI and National Security


One of the most controversial issues at the nexus of technology and national security is concerns regarding the “militarization” of artificial intelligence – AI.

While this has been an issue for some time, it recently grabbed banner headlines regarding the issue of Google’s support for a Pentagon initiative called “Project Maven.”

The company’s relationship with the Defense Department since it won a share of the contract for the Maven program, which uses artificial intelligence to interpret video images and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes, has touched off an existential crisis, according to emails and documents reviewed by The Times as well as interviews with about a dozen current and former Google employees.

Google, hoping to head off a rebellion by employees upset that the technology they were working on could be used for lethal purposes, will not renew a contract with the Pentagon for artificial intelligence work when a current deal expires next year.

But it is not unusual for Silicon Valley’s big companies to have deep military ties. And the internal dissent over Maven stands in contrast to Google’s biggest competitors for selling cloud-computing services — and Microsoft — which have aggressively pursued Pentagon contracts without pushback from their employees.

Expect this issue to remain controversial as the U.S. military faces increasingly capable foes and as AI and machine learning offer ways to help our warfighters prevail.

You can read these two articles here and here

Looking over the Horizon

GT Main Report pdf

Over the past few weeks, I’ve shared some details about the National Intelligence Community’s capstone publication, “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress.” Just to recap, this publications provides a unique window – and valuable insights – into the typically secretive world of our U.S. intelligence agencies.

In this post, we’ll look at a more distant horizon and examine three plausible scenarios for what kind of world we’ll find ourselves in decades hence. Scenarios are important, because attempting to “predict” the future, that is, calling out a definite end-state, is fraught with danger and we ought to be wary of anyone who claims to be able to do so. As management guru Peter Drucker famously said, “Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.”

For precisely this reason, the National Intelligence Council team that put together Global Trends: Paradox of Progress made no point-solution prediction regarding the future. Rather, they offered three scenarios to help readers imagine how different choices and developments could play out in very different ways over the next several decades. This report suggests that the more distant future will be shaped by which of three different scenarios: Islands, Orbits, and Communities plays out.

In the introduction to the scenarios section of Global Trends, the NIC team paused to explain why the use of scenarios is helpful to peer into the future. Here is what they said:

Thinking about the future beyond the next five years involves so many contingencies that it is helpful to consider how selected trends, choices, and uncertainties might play out over multiple pathways—as told through a set of short stories, commonly known as scenarios. While no single scenario can describe the entirety of future global developments, scenarios can portray how the foremost issues and trends might characterize the future, much like the terms “Cold War” and “Gilded Age” defined the dominant themes of past eras.

More on “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress” in my next National Security blog post.

Want more now? You can read Global Trends: Paradox of Progress here

More Global Trends


Last week, I introduced the National Intelligence Council’s capstone publication “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress.” It is our intelligence community’s forecast of macro-trends that will impact all of us.

With last week’s post as preamble, just what does Global Trends: Paradox of Progress tell us about the future and what does that portend? Among the strategic foresight put forward in this report:

  • The next five years will see rising tensions within and between countries. Global growth will slow, just as increasingly complex global challenges impend. An ever-widening range of states, organizations, and empowered individuals will shape geopolitics.
  • While these other entities take shape, states remain highly relevant. China and Russia will be emboldened, while regional aggressors and non-state actors will see openings to pursue their interests.
  • The threat from terrorism will expand in the coming decades as the growing prominence of small groups and individuals use new technologies, ideas and relationships to their advantage.
  • The same trends generating near-term risks also can create opportunities for better outcomes over the long term. While advancing technology enriched the richest and lifted that billion out of poverty, mostly in Asia, it also hollowed out Western middle classes and stoked pushback against globalization.
  • Migrant flows are greater now than in the past seventy years, raising the specter of drained welfare coffers and increased competition for jobs, and reinforcing nativist, anti-elite impulses. Slow growth plus technology-induced disruptions in job markets will threaten poverty reduction and drive tensions within countries in the years to come, fueling the very nationalism that contributes to tensions between countries.
  • However, this dreary near future is hardly cast in stone. The same trends generating near-term risks can also create opportunities for better outcomes in the long-term. Whether the next five or twenty years are brighter—or darker—will turn on three choices:
    • How will individuals, groups, and governments renegotiate their expectations of one another to create political order in an era of empowered individuals and rapidly changing economies?
    • To what extent will major state powers, as well as individuals and groups, craft new patterns or architectures of international cooperation and competition?
    • To what extent will governments, groups, and individuals prepare now for multifaceted global issues like climate change and transformative technologies?

Want more now? You can read Global Trends: Paradox of Progress here

Avoiding Past Mistakes


America’s heart is usually the right place when it goes to war, but sometimes we don’t think it through. A recent article by Joe Meacham helped me understand why. Here’s how he began:

The passage, from a book read three decades back, came to mind not long ago. A tweet-driven tumult was, as usual, roiling Washington. Surly and defiant, President Trump was ensconced in the White House, lashing out like King Lear with a cellphone. The issue of the hour was our policy toward a defiant North Korea, and the president had chosen that moment to boast that his nuclear button was bigger than Kim Jong-un’s — hardly an Achesonian diplomatic strategy.

Which doubtless would have pleased, rather than troubled, Trump, who, like Miranda in “The Tempest,” looks upon each day as a “brave new world” that offers him fresh opportunities to star in a global drama of his own direction. Shifting between cable news and my own Twitter feed, I recalled the historian Barbara W. Tuchman’s observation in her 1984 book “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.” “Wooden-headedness” in statecraft, which she defined as “assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs,” has clearly become a prevailing factor in our politics. As Tuchman wrote, wooden-headedness was best captured in a remark about Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”

Why did the Trojans allow the Greek horse within the gates? How did the Renaissance papacy so badly misjudge the moment, accelerating the Protestant Reformation? What could the British ruling class have done differently to keep the American colonies within London’s reach? Who, if anyone, could have prevented Washington’s tragic misadventure in Vietnam? These were Tuchman’s topics, and now, in our own time, we are forced to ponder the why, the how, the what and the who about America in the Age of Trump. “A prince, says Machiavelli,” Tuchman wrote, “ought always to be a great asker and a patient hearer of truth about those things of which he has inquired, and he should be angry if he finds that anyone has scruples about telling him the truth. What government needs is great askers.” To put it mildly, though, the Trump White House seems more “Shark Tank” than Brain Trust.

Tuchman’s literary legacy is various and important. She wrote well about many things, including the coming of World War I (“The Guns of August,” a favorite of John F. Kennedy’s, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963), the Black Plague (“A Distant Mirror”), the Far East (“Stilwell and the American Experience in China”) and the American Revolution (“The First Salute”). There is something notable, though, about “The March of Folly,” a collection of sketches about mature countries getting things woefully wrong.

You can read the full review here

Last Man Standing


I count myself as one of the many admirers of Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. This regard dates back to well before his current job, going back to his service as a Marine Corps Officer.

Much appropriate good has been said about general Mattis, but it wasn’t until I read Robert Worth’s New York Times Magazine piece about General Mattis that I fully appreciated all of the great qualities he brings to the job. Here is how the article begins:

One morning in mid-November, while answering routine press questions about aircraft carriers off the Korean Peninsula and de-confliction zones in Syria, Jim Mattis quietly hinted at something far more important. The United States would not be withdrawing its forces from Syria after the anticipated defeat of ISIS, as President Trump had been promising since his inauguration. Instead, the defense secretary suggested that American forces not only would remain but could even expand their role. “We’re going to make sure we set the conditions for a diplomatic solution,” Mattis said. “You need to do something about this mess now. Not just, you know, fight the military part of it and then say, ‘Good luck on the rest of it.’ ”

In a quieter time, Mattis’s comments might have made headlines: Here was a potential shift in America’s tortured efforts to manage the Middle East, and one that was bound to ignite conflict with Turkey, a NATO member and ally. In late December, Mattis offered more details at another briefing, saying that America was moving from a purely offensive role in Syria to a “stabilizing” one. He spoke of sending more diplomats and contractors, reopening schools, bolstering public health — a plan that would grow to include deploying new border forces and promoting economic renewal, all with a view toward helping Syrians topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Although the number of United States boots on the ground would remain small, for now, the goals were ambitious and a little gauzy, and sounded an awful lot like the “nation building” that Trump had so often derided during his presidential campaign.

Want more? You can read the full piece here

National Defense Strategy

Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy

Last month, I reported on our capstone national security document The National Security Strategy of The United States of America. That strategy is a dramatic departure from the previous National Security Strategy, which had a more generalized focus of “security, prosperity and international order.” Today’s National Security Strategy is more muscular and more focused on compelling threats of peer competitors such as China and Russia.

This month, the focus will be on the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military Competitive Edge. This report focuses on the defense-related aspects of, and flows naturally from, the National Security Strategy. This report makes a number of important points, among them:

  • Today, we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding. We are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order—creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory. Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.
  • China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea. Russia has violated the borders of nearby nations and pursues veto power over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of its neighbors. As well, North Korea’s outlaw actions and reckless rhetoric continue despite United Nation’s censure and sanctions. Iran continues to sow violence and remains the most significant challenge to Middle East stability. Despite the defeat of ISIS’s physical caliphate, threats to stability remain as terrorist groups with long reach continue to murder the innocent and threaten peace more broadly.
  • This increasingly complex security environment is defined by rapid technological change, challenges from adversaries in every operating domain, and the impact on current readiness from the longest continuous stretch of armed conflict in our Nation’s history. In this environment, there can be no complacency—we must make difficult choices and prioritize what is most important to field a lethal, resilient, and rapidly adapting Joint Force. America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.
  • This unclassified synopsis of the classified 2018 National Defense Strategy articulates our strategy to compete, deter, and win in this environment. The reemergence of long-term strategic competition, rapid dispersion of technologies, and new concepts of warfare and competition that span the entire spectrum of conflict require a Joint Force structured to match this reality.
  • A more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, will sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order. Collectively, our force posture, alliance and partnership architecture, and Department modernization will provide the capabilities and agility required to prevail in conflict and preserve peace through strength.

You can read the full National Defense Strategy here

National Security Threats


Earlier this month, I posted the first two high points of the National Security Strategy of The United States of America, our highest national security document. The final pillar is to, “Preserve Peace through Strength. This pillar contains a number of components:

  • First, preserving peace through strength involves renewing military capabilities through modernization of existing systems, seeking new capabilities, eliminating bureaucratic impediments to innovation, and embracing commercial off-the-shelf solutions.
  • Second, increasing military capacity by increasing the size of the Joint Force.
  • Third, Improving readiness with a renewed focus on training, logistics, and maintenance.
  • Fourth, renew space and cyberspace capabilities.

This strategy is a dramatic departure from the previous National Security Strategy, which had a more generalized focus of “security, prosperity and international order.” Now, our National Security Strategy is more muscular and more focused on compelling threats of peer competitors such as China and Russia.

You can read the full National Security Strategy here

China Power


For most of the post-World War II era, Americans have worried about the ideology of those who opposed us. It was “Communist ideology” that we feared. After the Soviet Union imploded and China – a Communist country – began to rise, it was easy, and even natural, to assume that America is now facing a new “Communist ideology” that must be dealt with.

That is why I found Edward Wong’s piece, “A Chinese Empire Reborn,” so valuable. The author reveals that we must understand that China isn’t about ideology, it’s about power. He says:

From trade to the internet, from higher education to Hollywood, China is shaping the world in ways that people have only begun to grasp. Yet the emerging imperium is more a result of the Communist Party’s exercise of hard power, including economic coercion, than the product of a gravitational pull of Chinese ideas or contemporary culture.

Of the global powers that dominated the 19th century, China alone is a rejuvenated empire. The Communist Party commands a vast territory that the ethnic-Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty cobbled together through war and diplomacy. And the dominion could grow: China is using its military to test potential control of disputed borderlands from the South China Sea to the Himalayas, while firing up nationalism at home. Once again, states around the world pay homage to the court, as in 2015 during a huge military parade.

For decades, the United States was a global beacon for those who embraced certain values — the rule of law, free speech, clean government and human rights. Even if policy often fell short of those stated ideals, American “soft power” remained as potent as its armed forces. In the post-Soviet era, political figures and scholars regarded that American way of amassing power through attraction as a central element of forging a modern empire.

China’s rise is a blunt counterpoint. From 2009 onward, Chinese power in domestic and international realms has become synonymous with brute strength, bribery and browbeating — and the Communist Party’s empire is getting stronger.

At home, the party has imprisoned rights lawyers, strangled the internet, compelled companies and universities to install party cells, and planned for a potentially Orwellian “social credit” system. Abroad, it is building military installations on disputed Pacific reefs and infiltrating cybernetworks. It pushes the “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative across Eurasia, which will have benefits for other nations but will also allow China to pressure them to do business with Chinese state-owned enterprises, as it has done in recent years throughout Asia and Africa.

Chinese citizens and the world would benefit if China turns out to be an empire whose power is based as much on ideas, values and culture as on military and economic might. It was more enlightened under its most glorious dynasties. But for now, the Communist Party embraces hard power and coercion, and this could well be what replaces the fading liberal hegemony of the United States on the global stage. It will not lead to a grand vision of world order. Instead, before us looms a void.

Want to read more.

Security Threats

NSS_BookLayout_FIN_121917 indd

Last week, I posted the first pillar in the new U.S. National Security Strategy, “Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life.”

The second pillar is to: Promote American Prosperity. This pillar calls for the United States to: “Lead in Research, Technology, Invention, and Innovation,” in order to maintain a competitive advantage in emerging technologies such as data science, encryption, autonomous technologies, gene editing, new materials, nanotechnology, advanced computing technologies, and artificial intelligence.

This pillar goes on to note that in order to attract and maintain an innovative and inventive advantage, scientists from government, academia, and industry should be encouraged to achieve advancements across the full spectrum of discovery.

This pillar continues by stressing the importance of promoting and protecting the “U.S. National Security Innovation Base (the American network of knowledge, capabilities, and people – including academia, national laboratories, and the private sector)” by guarding against the theft of intellectual property allows competitors unfair access to innovative and free societies.

You can read the full National Security Strategy here.