Foreign Policy National Security Politics The War on Terrorism

Colin Gray on China, Terrorism, and Proliferation

Colin Gray, a professor at the U. S. Army War College writes in Parameters (H/t Tom Ricks) gives lays out one of his expectations for solid national security planning:

Expect to be surprised. To win as a defense planner is not to avoid surprise. To win is to have planned in such a manner that the effects of surprise do not inflict lethal damage.

The statement, with some modifications, is a good baseline for any type of long-term planning. What I find most refreshing about Gray is the common-sensical approach he takes – and the lack of regard for what is politically acceptable to say. This of course is necessary to be an effective military planner – as a clear-eyed view of the world forces one to tackle politically fraught issues. I do not agree with all of Gray’s assessments, but unlike the opinions advanced in op-eds, they seem to be the result of a genuine engagement with the issues rather than of domestic political arguments. 

The article as a whole should be read. But here’s a sampling of his assessments:

On China:

Assessed materially, China will not be a credible near-term peer competitor for power and influence; she cannot spend enough to overcome the US lead. But China does not, and will not, accept the position of prominent member of a posse for world order led by the American sheriff. Considerations of guess what?—fear, honor, and interest—will ensure a conflictual relationship between Washington and Beijing. Both sides currently recognize this.

[At the same time] Warfare is quite likely between China and America over Taiwan, though not about Taiwan…

It is possible that the current loose strategic alliance between China and Russia will mature into a full security marriage, but this is uncertain. These nations share a strong dislike for most western values—though they agree that it is healthy to be wealthy—as well as US hegemony, but they do not share much else.

On terrorism:

Terrorists can succeed, however, only if the counterterrorists beat themselves by over-reaction. Principally, counterterrorism is a mission for the afflicted nation’s security services, not for soldiers. Terrorism does not threaten our civilization, but our over-reaction to it could do so. Terrorists do need to be hunted and thereby kept off balance, dealt with as criminals, and sometimes even shot on sight according to the permissive tenets of irregular warfare.

On nuclear proliferation:

[W]e need to recognize that our current conventional superiority obliges our enemies to seek asymmetrical offsets. The more effective are NATO’s conventional arms, the more likely it is that regional great powers would choose to emphasize a nuclear-based deterrent and defense. If you do not believe this, you are in effect claiming that, say, China or Iran would choose to be defeated in conventional war, rather than raise the stakes through nuclear escalation. That would be a heroically optimistic assumption.