BackTable of ContentsChapter 1Next

Defining Trends

The new world system is being shaped by a number of trends rooted in technological change and the diffusion of liberal values. Eight of the most important economic, political, and military trends are the following:

Proliferation is Increasingly Current Rather than a Future Concern
The Domestic Focus is Limiting National Security Capabilities
Information Technology Is Displacing Heavy Industry as the Source of National Power
International Organizations Are Assuming an Improtant Legitimizing Role, Despite Their Limited Capabilities
Globalization is Creating Transnational Threats as Well as Benefits
Democracy is Becoming the Global Ideal, if Not the Global Norm
The Sovereign State Faces Fragmentation Challenges
Governments are Giving MOre Weight to Economic Interests Relative to Traditional National Security Interests

Top of Section

Proliferation is Increasingly a Current Rather than a Future Concern

Nuclear weapons programs undertaken by rogue states have proven difficult to stop, despite the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Acquisition of nuclear weapons by a few of these states could destabilize whole regions and severely complicate U.S. power projection operations. The problem is likely to get worse on the supply side. More countries are developing the industrial base to produce nuclear weapons (by now a fifty-year-old technology), and continuing economic problems in the former Soviet Union are making criminal diversion of its nuclear material and know-how more likely. Access to chemical and biological weapons may prove even easier.

Reducing the demand for weapons of mass destruction requires constructing a world order in which such weapons confer little military or political advantage to proliferators. One element of such an approach is to reduce the regional tensions that lead states to worry about their neighbors' intentions. Another part of the process is to build an international consensus against proliferators and in favor of reducing existing nuclear stocks.

The proliferation agenda also includes eliminating chemical and biological weapons, plus strengthening agreements on control of missile technology.

DOD Outlays as Percent of GDP, FY 1974-94

Top of Section

The Domestic Focus is Limiting National Security Capabilities

The end of the Cold War and the peace among the major powers has made foreign policy seem less pressing to peoples in many nations. The public is more preoccupied by domestic travails, in part due to the perception that social problems are worsening and in part due to the lower economic growth rates of the last twenty years.

The focus on domestic policy in the U.S. draws support from across the political spectrum. The political center generally believes that the United States must reinforce its economy before it asserts itself internationally. The left is sympathetic to the argument that military and foreign expenditures are a drain on resources that could be better used at home (the theory of "imperial overstretch" as the cause for national decline). The right tends to believe that the triumph of democratic and free market ideals removes the rationale for active intervention abroad (building upon the thesis of the "end of history"). As one pundit noted, the left does not want to inflict the U.S. on the world, and the right does not want to inflict the world on the U.S.

As a result of this emphasis on domestic problems and the realization that the greatest danger to world peace--the Soviet threat--is gone, public opinion in many countries now insists on lower defense spending. In the U.S., Northern and Eastern Europe, and Russia, force sizes are declining, and weapons procurement is falling even faster. U.S. cuts are hitting the assets that allowed the United States to maintain a global presence: foreign base infrastructure, the intelligence services, military aid, and military-to-military cooperation programs.

The trend towards declining forces is by no means universal. Forces are being maintained in areas where perceived threats have not waned, for example in a southern Europe worried about the situations to the south and east of the Mediterranean. Military spending is increasing in Southeast Asia, as larger economies make generous defense budgets easier to support.

The priority given in most industrial countries to domestic policy translates into a reluctance to deploy forces. Particularly unwelcome are sustained commitments, as distinct from emergency responses. At the same time, emergency operations are impeded by increasing public sensitivity to casualties, especially those incurred during military operations that are not considered vital to national interests.

Top of Section

Information Technology Is Displacing Heavy Industry as the Source of National Power

Mastery of information technology is surpassing mastery of heavy industry as the primary source of national power, whether exercised through commercial or military channels. The industries growing most rapidly are in the computer and communications fields, and they continue to introduce new technologies at breathtaking rates.

The extension of this trend to the battlefield suggests that information-based warfare will become more widespread within a decade or two. Defense requirements will demand more investment in information systems and less in industrial-era configurations of tanks, planes, and ships. The nature and conduct of information warfare is becoming a subject of intense interest to defense analysts.

Top of Section

International Organizations Are Assuming an Important Legitimizing Role, Despite Their Limited Capabilities

Partly because some nation-states are failing and partly because world public opinion shares more and more values in common, international organizations are becoming more accepted, even when they may limit national sovereignty in various domains.

The increasing weight given to international organizations is felt most strongly in the desire by the market democracies to seek authorization for the use of force. Although the Cold War legitimized the Free World alliance and rendered the U.N. system largely impotent, the passing of the Cold War has brought new life to the U.N.'s role in legitimizing the use of coercive force.

However, the first blush of enthusiasm for multilateral action has faded in light of the experience of the early 1990s, when international organizations proved less than effective in orchestrating responses to humanitarian disasters and civil wars. The Clinton administration's attitude underwent a sea change from its early embrace of assertive multilateralism to the cautious approach of the spring 1994 Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 25. Multilateral action has proven difficult because of differing political objectives among states and organizations; problems in making decisions in a timely manner; the limited military capabilities of multilateral organizations and ad hoc coalitions; public sensitivity to casualties from multilateral operations; and the high financial costs of operating in a multilateral fashion.

The entire world community need not become involved with every crisis. Regional organizations are playing the leading role in resolving some local problems that affect members most directly (although such organizations may sometimes lack the resources and cohesion to intervene effectively, thus requiring outside assistance). The U.N. has delegated its role to the powers most interested in some particular problems, in what has been called "spheres of influence multilateralism."

Recent events have shown that multinational organizations such as the U.N. Secretariat, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) have their own institutional interests. These interests are not always congruent with the goals of U.S. foreign policy. No matter how much influence the U.S. may have over an organization, that organization will always have its own procedures, its own staff, and its own agenda. Thus, U.S. respect for international organizations does not necessarily translate into automatic acquiescence in their judgments.

Top of Section

Globalization is Creating Transnational Threats as
Well as Benefits

The pulse of the planet has quickened, and with it the pace of change in human events. Technological advances and open societies are allowing unprecedented free movement of goods, people, and ideas. These trends are likely to continue as communication costs fall and the new World Trade Organization facilitates the dismantling of obstacles to trade. Trade, finance, and communications are all becoming global. Computers, faxes, fiber optic cables, and satellites speed the flow of information across frontiers, as illustrated by the explosive growth of the Internet.

Most of these flows across frontiers are beneficial. Not only is prosperity enhanced, but so is freedom, as governments lose their ability to control the exchange of ideas. That brings the concepts of human rights and democratic government to the furthest reaches of the globe. Some of what flows across borders is, however, pernicious. For example, terrorists can now instanteously share technical information with their comrades far away. Both pro-democracy activists and promoters of ethnic cleansing can more easily disseminate their views to the public.

Transnational threats take various forms. One of the most worrying is the internationalization of crime. Organized criminal groups and international terrorism could endanger governments. Smuggling of plutonium and enriched uranium could become a serious threat to national security as the sophistication of criminal enterprises increases and barriers to obtaining and transporting these deadly metals fall.

U.S. Soldiers in U.N. Operation in the former Yugoslavia
U.S. Soldiers in U.N. Operation in the former Yugoslavia

Another type of transnational threat is the international diffusion of health and environmental problems. With increasing travel and migration, epidemics like AIDS have become global rather than local scourges. As the planet's resources are used more intensely, environmental problems spill over from one nation to another, and dangers to the global commons multiply. All nations are affected by global warming, loss of endangered species, and the depletion of the ozone layer.

A third type of transnational threat is disruptive migration. Many industrial societies feel that immigration is already at intolerable levels. Deteriorating conditions in troubled states and increased access to information about the industrialized world will stimulate more migration. Mass exoduses resulting from political strife or natural disasters will sometimes require mobilizing the military for emergency relief. Large numbers of refugees could overwhelm attempts to control their movements, thus requiring military force to contain them.

Top of Section

Democracy is Becoming
the Global Ideal, if Not the Global Norm

The world has been experiencing a wave of democratization since the late 1970s. In Latin America and Central Europe, democracy has become the norm, not the exception. Even in Asia and Africa, where many governments remain autocratic in practice, most feel compelled to present themselves as either democratic or in transition to democracy. The overthrow of democratically elected governments has become an unacceptable practice in the eyes of the world community, bringing opprobrium or worse to the perpetrators.

But elections are no guarantee that freedom will prevail. In several transitional states, neo-communists have made a comeback at the ballot box, in reaction to the slow progress made by reformers in improving the lives of ordinary people. In some places elections have been held prematurely, before the emergence of a free press and other basic institutions of civil society, resulting in the fear that some of these nations will experience "one person, one vote, one time." In other nations, especially India and the Muslim lands, religious extremists with considerable popular appeal continue to reject governance based on democratic principles in favor of governance based on the divine will as they interpret it.

Top of Section

The Sovereign State Faces Fragmentation Challenges

The sovereign state is losing its unique role as the fundamental unit of organization within the world system. As globalization proceeds, governments lose some measure of control and are less able to deliver solutions to problems felt by their citizens. Frustrated by the inability of governments to help, people may turn away from the sovereign state and embrace smaller, more effective groups. Thus, fragmentation pressures are often related to the decreasing ability of the state to respond to its citizens' needs.

Fragmentation pressures take a variety of forms. One is a wave of lawlessness. Another is extremist ideologies, like those espoused by radical and intolerant fundamentalist religious groups, which challenge social harmony. The decline in national cohesion also affects the caliber of public servants and politicians: the quality of governance deteriorates, with corruption growing at the expense of disinterested public service.

Sovereign states face no greater threat than fissiparous minorities, whose desire to break away from a larger state is sometimes justified by their treatment at the hands of intolerant majorities. The ideal of national self-determination is increasingly invoked to validate the fragmentation of multiethnic states--sometimes into units that more closely approximate legitimate nation-states, but sometimes into mono-ethnic mini-states determined to exclude minorities from political life.

Democracy is not necessarily a panacea for intra-state ethnic tensions. It is difficult to reconcile the principles of majority rule and national self-determination when a cohesive minority wants to opt out of a larger state. In fact, in the absence of guarantees of liberty against the tyranny of the majority, democracy can exacerbate ethnic problems. When people vote systematically along ethnic lines, those elected often pursue the interests of their narrow group rather than compromising when the common good calls for it.

The sad results of such intra-state tensions can be seen in many places. Violent nationalist, ethnic, and ethno-religious conflicts are becoming more common and more bloody, in Africa (Angola, Burundi, Nigeria, the Sudan, Rwanda), the Middle East (the Kurds), South Asia (Sri Lanka, India), the former Soviet Union (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Tajikistan), and even on the doorstep of the European Union (the former Yugoslavia).

Top of Section

Governments are Giving More Weight to Economic Interests Relative to Traditional National Security Interests

Concerns about the economic foundations of national power are increasingly voiced in the industrial nations. East Asian states take satisfaction in the rapid growth that is propelling them into the forefront, while Europe and North America are concerned about growth rates that have been much lower in the two decades since the oil shock of 1973 than in the preceding post-war decades.

Concerns about prosperity and employment are playing a greater role in shaping international affairs and U.S. policy. The U.S. is increasingly prone to place economic concerns at least on par with, if not ahead of, military and diplomatic concerns. It is likely to put concerns about the budget deficit, low levels of national savings, and investment needs ahead of worries about the long-term impact of current reductions in military expenditures.

A broad consensus has emerged that open economies perform best. Despite opposition from protectionists, the Clinton administration has made progress towards an open multilateral economy. It secured Congressional ratification for NAFTA and for replacing GATT with a World Trade Organization. It has also elevated the profile of APEC, institutionalizing annual head-of-state summits.

BackTable of ContentsChapter 1Next
| Back | Table of Contents | Chapter 1 | Next |