Recently, I’ve been reading a great deal about what dangers the strategic defense and security environment will hold for us millennials, the next generation of policy leaders. Whether focused on the demands of austerity on U.S military spending, the alliance structures that hold together “the West,” or the potentially dangerous rise of new geo-strategic actors such as China, there is a great deal being discussed about the policy challenges of the coming decade.
I can’t pretend to have any grand insight to such difficult and important questions. However, I think there are a few simple ideas and home truths about the complexity of our world, human nature, and strategy that may be more useful for millennials than any grand ideological ideas. If millennials can heed these simple ideas, then maybe the next generation can make our world just a little bit less dangerous than today.
The world has always been this way. A simple point which I have argued before, is that contrary to the popular discourse about the extremity or complexity of today’s security environment, the events unfolding today are in no way unique, radical, or “new.”
The world has and always will be unpredictable, dangerous, and inter-connected. This is not novel. Yet, such perceptions are dangerous, because a focus on apparent novelty could encourage extreme or unprecedented policy responses — emergency measures for the new environment.
Equally, this could distract you from fundamental policy efforts that require attention, such as alleviating the poverty and corruption that still blights the lives of billions worldwide.
Millennials are not “special." Similarly, the next generation must be careful not to believe its own hype about our apparently era-defining peaceful world views, liberalism, or intellectual dynamism.
If any truth holds about decision-makers throughout history, it is that they will remain imperfect. We millennials will prove equally as prone to the mistakes that we so widely decry of today’s leaders.
Also, sadly, we will likely end up waging war on each other just as successive generations have done. This is not a pessimistic outlook. We may genuinely be capable of lowering the overall threshold of human error, suffering, and violence in the international system. But we must do so from a position of self-understanding. Afterall, Generation X were pretty sure they had it all worked out, too — and look how they turned out.
It’s about the means and ends, stupid — Which brings me to the crux of the dilemmas facing all policymakers: the question of strategic decision-making.
Strategy is the match up of means with ends: Of what forces (military, diplomatic, economic, intellectual) you can apply to achieve your policy goals and desires. These concepts should be the yardstick against which all decisions are made. Indeed, all of the big defense questions facing millennials for the coming century are inherently strategic.
How can the U.S. retain global influence (end) with a lowering of their budgetary defense spending (means)? How can structures such as NATO or the UN (means) be used to stabilize the world (end)? Will China’s military rise (means) lead to a confrontation or peaceful co-existence (end)?
Not just for the coming years of budget cuts, but for the future also, matching your means with your ends should be the guiding logic for all policy. Robust and effective means of any kind which do not help solve your current security dilemmas are strategically irrelevant — see today‘s spending obsession with fast-jets and aircraft carriers whilst U.S. soldiers struggle to pacify an in-land insurgency in Afghanistan.
Equally, objectives whole-heartedly committed to without the requisite means will at best prove inefficient; or at worst, openly back-fire and descend into farce or tragedy — see post-invasion Iraq, where the costs and requirements of re-construction were not matched until disaster had already struck.
So if we millennials can all just be a little bit more strategic and consistent in our foreign, security and defense policy than the last generation, the choices we make could, just, do more good than harm to our world.
Here’s to hoping.
Photo Credit: expertinfantry