The decennial of the greatest terrorist attack against the United States is an occasion packed with retrospection and reflection. Every news network and publication is offering its two cents on what the U.S. did, what it should have done, and where it should go in the future. Normally, I might complain about the artificiality of it all — shouldn’t we take stock of matters near actual watershed moments rather than a random anniversary? But September 11, 2011, strikes me as a well-placed time for self-assessment — with bin Laden dead, Qaddafi in exile, and our missions in Iraq and Afghanistan coming to a conclusion, we may well be looking at an inflection point in our foreign affairs.
My own take is this: the state of U.S. foreign policy on September 11, 2011 is nearly identical to what it was on September 11, 1991 — we have no idea what our goals are or the best way to reach them.
Clinton’s “humanitarian war” in Serbia, Bush’s policy of preemption and democratization in Iraq, and Obama’s experiment with “Responsibility to Protect” in Libya may suggest an evolving and revolving set of aims and strategies. But this notion of consistency is belied by the actions those presidents chose not to take — Bush never took preemptive action against Iran; Obama still views Syria as off-limits even as Assad brutalizes his people; and Clinton sat by while one-in-six Rwandans were systematically murdered. For two decades now, our ship of state has been adrift, taking action on an ad hoc basis.
One might explain our lack of focus in our foreign affairs as the result of there being no pressing threat or no rival superpower like the Soviet Union to challenge our supremacy. Even China is a generation away from being any sort of serious military rival. Like indolent suburban teenagers, perhaps we have nothing better to do than lounge in our first-world opulence.
This view is overly optimistic. Flanked by non-threats like Canada and Mexico and distanced from the remainder of the world by the oceans, our North American neighborhood might feel like the suburbs. But the truth is that technological progress has changed the dynamic of conflict and eroded the ability of the United States to secure its citizens from attack.
Security and international relations studies are hostile to the notion that technology has a major impact on their field. This view is self-indulgent — it allows them to continue to think of security problems in familiar frameworks. But these frameworks are only valid in the context they were created. For example, wars fought with nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from wars fought with sticks and spears. What use is a balance of power theory when applied to relationships between nuclear powers? What prevents a scrappy nuclear state, outnumbered ten-to-one, from achieving the same level of security as a superpower?
It took decades to come to grips with nuclear doctrine, and in the time we spent discovering Kahn and Schelling, we lost trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, and risked the sum of our societies in needless confrontations. And in the end, we lucked out. The model of international relations we had going into the Cold War at least gave us forewarning; we might not have known what to do in a nuclear era, but, having identified states as the principal actors in the world order, we had bureaus of men like George Kennan to deliver us treatises on the Soviet mindset.
This time around, we’ll get no Long Telegram because there is no embassy to telegram from. Our warnings are coming in the form of panicked reports of intensifying cyber warfare and increasing volumes of weapons-grade nuclear material on the black market. We are facing a paradigm shift just as important as that brought about by nuclear-tipped ICBMs. For the first time in history, we are looking at the possibility of large-scale anonymous war — war fought with means that negate deterrence because they obfuscate the identity of the attacker. And we have no guarantee that our opponents will be states — as technology proliferates, we will increasingly see sub-state entities with access to anonymous warfare capabilities.
The best example of this new form of warfare is Stuxnet, the computer worm engineered to destroy Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. Stuxnet broke new ground in cyber warfare — this was an attack on an off-grid asset that the Iranians presumably took great care to secure. The technique used to penetrate Iranian enrichment facilities and cause them to self-destruct could just as easily be used to cripple an electric grid, turn a petroleum refinery into a smoldering ruin, or cause a nuclear plant to go prompt critical like Chernobyl. But the most important feature of the Stuxnet attack is not its destructive potential — it’s that identifying the author of Stuxnet or a similar attack is nearly impossible.
Without the spectre of retaliation, states are likely to shed many of their inhibitions toward conflict. What is to prevent the United States, convinced that China steals jobs from America, from sabotaging Chinese industry by launching Stuxnet-style attacks on Chinese commercial factories? Assuming China identifies the events as the work of an attacker, it might logically deduce that one of its enemies is responsible. But which one? The U.S.? Japan? Russia? Or maybe some angry dissidents? And vice versa — if the U.S. electrical grid turned off tomorrow, who would we blame, and how would we respond? Against such assaults, there is usually little else to do but absorb them and fall behind in the march of nations.
It’s not just cyber war that can be made anonymous — as nuclear weapons proliferate, it becomes harder and harder to assign authorship to an act of nuclear terrorism. If the Soviets had been able to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States and vaporize New York, they couldn’t shrug their shoulders when the U.S. looked for vengeance — the rogues gallery capable of such an attack was just too small. But as the nuclear club expands, deterrence against such attacks is weakened. And if the plotters are a sub-state entity, like Al-Qaeda, then deterrence may be a moot point anyway.
Put 20 men in a room together with knives, and foreign policy experts will give you a dozen theories on how to keep the peace between them — collective security arrangements, balancing alliances, shared cultural bonds, and so on. But we’ve yet to find an international system that can offer security once the lights in that room have been turned off — in the pitch black of anonymous warfare, maybe the only road to safety is to stab 19 people. That is the grim future that the U.S. must work to avert.
We are the hegemon that sets the rules and dictates the structure of the international system. But such power does not last forever. There is limited time to grapple with this new form of conflict, prepare ourselves and the international order for its effects, and find ways to fight the technological trends that empower anonymous warfare. Sadly, this is a challenge that the U.S. of September 11, 2011, does not appear ready to face.