The new “U.S. lesson learned” one hears regarding the most recent wars Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon is that today’s conflicts are fought through asymmetries. One side has conventional strength and the other guerrilla tactics. One has satellite and drone surveillance and the other informants and tunnels. Smart bombs versus improvised explosives. Tactics and strategies supposedly are being rewritten to account for the new world of warfare.
Except this lesson is far from new. Unless one resided in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Europe, wars almost always have been fought through asymmetries of power. Naval powers blockade land powers. Land powers sweep and hold territory. Cavalry destroys infantry, longbowmen decimate crossbowmen, and siege towers meet not other siege towers, but burning oil and dropped stones. Historic exploitation of asymmetries applies equally well to grand strategy. Trading states use their resources and networks to induce and coerce. Military giants move their forces within striking range to deter and compel. Terrorist networks use their flexibility, creativity, and ruthlessness to injure and frighten. Pillars of moral outrage stand fast against tanks, jails, and uncomprehending enemy arguments about “acting in your own best interest.”
Leaders are chosen in large part because of their ability to recognize which tactics and strategies favor their bodies politic and which favor those of their opponents. It is a rare – and even more rarely successful – leader that fights square battles with similar tactics. Such an endeavor ends in mutual stalemate or mutual destruction. In IR theory this kind of situation is recognized as systemic stability (except in rare instances where offensive power so overwhelms defensive strength that each side has an incentive to strike first and very low expectations of an effective counterstrike). Fighting against a superior opponent where that opponent is strongest is even more foolhardy. David didn’t swap punches and wrestle with Goliath – he slung a stone instead.
Yet this lesson is not only not new, it also has not been learned. If it had, the question that would rise above the debate over current U.S. strategy is, “What asymmetries of power exist today and how do they threaten American and international security?” Check the platforms of the major candidates and you’ll find statements regarding strategic implications of everything from ethanol and veterans education to flag pins. Listen to the 24-hour news networks and count the number of “expert analyses” of American strategic vulnerability that results from asymmetries of power. Send me an email when you reach three.
So what asymmetries of power exist today, which are evolving or likely to evolve, and how do they potentially threaten long-term American and international security? Here is one to consider: energy. Plenty of breath warms the airwaves about the world’s current energy problems, but none sounds the tocsin about how the imbalance between net energy exporters and net importers creates enormous potential to bypass American strengths (military, economic, moral) and strike at or coerce over a serious American weakness. How, for example, would the United States respond to another oil embargo? How sluggishly will its economy function on gasoline that suddenly costs $8/gallon? Or, taking a long-term approach, what happens when the best oil and natural gas contracts go to those firms whose headquarters are not located in a nation held in contempt by key Muslim populations and whose CEOs can do business with men like Hugo Chavez? The United States once denied the Japanese access to the petroleum they required for their strategic goals, and Japanese leaders reluctantly chose to attack Pearl Harbor and start the war in the Pacific, even though they reckoned there was little chance of success. How will American leaders respond from the other side of that situation?