The Security Paradox

21 April 2012


Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey spoke at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts on Thursday, 12 April 2012. In his speech he formulated what he called a security paradox. I was made aware of this by a piece in Foreign Policy magazine, This Week at War: The General’s Dystopia by Robert Haddick.

The chairman’s formulation of one of the central strategic dilemmas of our time in the form of a paradox gives us a concise motif for the discussion of this dilemma. Here is the passage of the speech that first formulates the paradox:

…I believe I’m chairman at a time that seems less dangerous but it’s actually more dangerous. That’s the essence of what I describe as a security paradox. Although geopolitical trends are ushering in greater levels of peace and stability worldwide, destructive technologies are available to a wider and more disparate pool of adversaries. Highly accurate ballistic missiles are prevalent in every theater. Bombs made out of fertilizer can defeat and destroy our toughest mine-resistant vehicles. A cyberattack could stop this society in its tracks. And these are real threats that we face today.

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 nonstate 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.

The international system is more stable than at any time in the past, and there is less peer-to-peer war than throughout much of history, but the possibility of technologically sophisticated violence is more pervasive than at any time in the past. This summarizes the paradoxical coincidence of two of the most important strategic trends of our time. we have long known that major peer-to-peer wars are becoming less frequent in the international system, and we have long known that rapidly technological process is democratizing advanced technological capabilities. It is the virtue of the Chairman’s security paradox to bring these two strategic trends together.

It might sound a bit odd to say that war has been made less frequent by the contemporary international system, since there are seemingly interminable conflicts all over the world, and this is partly a semantic question of how “war” is to be defined. If we place the threshold of war rather low, and include non-state actors, we can say that war is pervasive in the world today. But if we place the threshold high, and disallow non-state actors are participants in war sensu stricto, war can be seen as rare. In fact, if we define war as peer-to-peer conflict between major military powers, there has not been a war since 1945. Subsequent larger conflicts have been proxy wars between Cold War adversaries that did not rise to the level of peer-to-peer (or near-peer) conflict.

I have expressed this strategic trend of the decreasing frequency of all-out war as the devolution of war, noting that this devolution involves the weaponization of eliminationism, which keeps depredations below the threshold of atrocity in order to forestall international intervention (and thereby avoid a “war”).

Another way to express this is to employ the acronym OOTW, which stands for “operations other than war” (also MOOTW, military operations other than war). Chapter 9 of Field Manual 100-15 – War and Operations Other Than War details military operations other than war, which may include (but are not necessarily limited to) arms control, attacks and raids, antiterrorism, counterterrorism, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, security assistance, foreign internal defense, COIN, noncombatant evacuation operations, peace operations, and recovery operations. It is no secret that the military forces of major powers have been much more involved in OOTW than war itself for some time, although all of these OOTW can escalate into conflicts indistinguishable from war.

I don’t know of any acronym that sums up the devolution of technology as neatly as OOTW sums up the devolution of warfighting powers to conducting operations other than war, but the historical phenomenon of technology becoming less expensive and more widely available is familiar to all. I dealt with the technological devolution after a fashion in Power to the People, in which I discussed the electronic intelligence possibilities now available to non-state entities and indeed to individuals. Anyone today using Google Earth knows what it is like to have available on their desk top satellite intelligence once reserved for a handful of nation-states capable of launching a satellite into earth orbit.

We have every reason to believe that major military engagements will continue to be avoided in favor of military operations other than war, and we similarly have every reason to believe that advanced technology, including the technology of weapons systems, will continue to disperse more widely and cheaply. Thus the security paradox will not only continue to describe the global security situation, it will likely be exacerbated by high technology weapons systems devolving further down the continuum of actors and agents.

These developments are not smooth and continuous; there continue to be some technologies like nuclear weapons that require the resources of a nation-state to develop and to deploy (although, I might point out, not to steal). Computer technologies are very widely available, and wherever computer technologies inform weapons technology, we can expect such high technology weapons systems to eventually devolve to the level of the individual. Ideologically motivated groups, like terrorist groups, making a concerted effort to acquire such high technology weapons systems, will have them much sooner.

How are we to manage a world in which high technology weapons systems are in the hands of strongly ideologically motivated groups who are willing to kill in order to attain their objectives? That is the question that will shape security thinking for the remainder of the twenty-first century and beyond.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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3 Responses to “The Security Paradox”

  1. MisterEgo said

    You know, it could be just a mirage. MAD appeared pretty much when major power conflicts disappeared. It could be argued that, as you put it earlier, (un)like human, the major powers condition has changed. They are in fear now, instead of frenzy in the first half of the previous century.

    As for non state actors, I feel that he is at least slightly exaggerating, intentionally or not. It’s probably not nearly as problematic as other nation states, and that probably includes your “easy to steal nukes” hypothesis (I don’t think they are easy to steal). I understand that it needs to be fought early, before it takes root, of course.

    I’d hazard a guess that a fat army is probably not the best tool against insurgency/terrorism but for something else (against smaller states), but then, I am no expert. I would not be surprised if major power vs small country conflicts have, in fact, not diminished significantly compared to other hegemony(ies) periods.


    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear MisterEgo:

      Indeed, I would argue that it was MAD that forced the devolution of war; if war escalates under MAD, everyone loses, which is the point of MAD. So instead of escalating, war morphed into something different, something insidious. We could, following your terminology, call this the warfare of fear in contradistinction to the warfare of frenzy.

      I wouldn’t say that nukes are easy to steal, only that they are easier to steal than to build. A crack commando team with inside intelligence could take possession of a nuke, but that same team could not build a nuke. For that matter, a bunch of bright teenagers in a basement couldn’t build a nuke, but with sufficient funding they probably could build a drone, and perhaps also precision guided munitions. A drone mounting precision guided munitions can be a potent threat, which is precisely the kind of threats the Chairman had in mind when formulating the security paradox.

      “Hegemony periods” — I haven’t heard that particular formulation, but it is handy and I will probably start to use it.

      Best wishes,


  2. […] pode a guerra híbrida ser definida? Como a guerra híbrida difere de MOOTW? Como a guerra híbrida difere da guerra assimétrica? Como a guerra híbrida difere da execução […]

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