Speaking at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government last week, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described changes in the security environment and how these are affecting defense planning. Of particular note in the speech was his description of what he calls the "security paradox," which is the notion that although war has become less likely, "destructive technologies are available to a wider and more disparate pool of adversaries," including individuals and other non-state actors. The result, he concludes, is that our more peaceful world is also more threatening. In this and other respects, Gen. Dempsey's analysis echoes many of the points that Dan Caldwell and I make in Seeking Security in an Insecure World.
Gen. Dempsey began by noting the importance of the way we conceptualize the security environment. "How we think about security, about the security environment, carries important consequences for our nation and for me, particularly for how we build our military." This, it seems to me, is a far cry from the more traditional assumption that there are objective facts--about power, geography, and national interests, for example--that guide policy in the realm of national security. Carrying the point further, Gen. Dempsey said, "Our own inertia can blind us to new truths standing right before our eyes. Our preconceived notions can obscure the weak signals of impending change and those are the most important signals."
Addressing the "security paradox," Gen. Dempsey noted that ballistic missiles have become part of the arsenals of mid-level powers, that bombs made of fertilizer can destroy mine-resistant military vehicles, and that cyber attacks capable of crippling a society can be launched by an individual. "What truly concerns me as chairman is that these lethal and destructive technologies are proliferating in two directions. They're proliferating horizontally across advanced militaries in the world, and they're proliferating vertically, down to non-state actors, especially insurgents, terrorist groups and even transnational organized crime. As a result, more people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point in my life. And that's the security paradox."
(A video of Gen. Dempsey's talk is available here.)