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What readers must know about the global strategic situation.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Author John Sutherland is a senior operations and intelligence analyst whose influential articles include the widely acclaimed “iGuerrilla: The New Model Techno-Insurgent” (May 2008 ACG) and “War on Terror: A Global Update” (May 2010 ACG). The following strategic update presents his insightful assessment of today’s most critical global security challenges.


International relations, at the most fundamental level, is the quest for power: Some nations have power and want to keep or expand it, while other nations (and, increasingly, stateless groups that are not “traditional” nations) want to attain it. Yet the calculus of power is ever shifting as nations struggle with the inevitable ebb and flow of their military strength, wealth and influence. This competition to gain, hold or expand power has several profound implications for today’s global strategic situation.

AMBIGUITY: Traditionally, diplomats have sought to create a “balance of power” among nations, a condition essentially of strategic ambiguity in which no nation feels threatened. Yet if a nation or bloc of nations does not feel threatened, it is not deterred from engaging in military, political or economic adventures to expand its power at the expense of others. Ambiguity or uncertainty created by the balance of power promises at least some expectation of “victory.” One tragic historical example is World War I – although the interlocking web of treaties “balanced” power among European nations, each side marched off to war in 1914 because it expected victory.

CLARITY: When power is extremely “unbalanced,” with one nation or bloc of nations clearly dominant, the result typically is general stability and relative peace. With no expectation of victory, there is no incentive for less powerful nations to challenge the status quo. Although such clarity of power does not mean the absence of all conflict, it does make the outbreak of any cataclysmic war impossible or extremely unlikely. Historical examples include the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) of the ancient Roman Empire, the Pax Britannica (British Peace) during the 19th-century heyday of the British Empire, and, some might argue, the Pax Americana (American Peace) while the United States is the world’s sole remaining superpower.

WILL: Power is relative, not absolute. Regardless of a nation’s apparent military, political and economic power, such power is irrelevant if that nation’s leaders lack the will to use it. In the late 1930s, for example, the combined power of France and Britain greatly outweighed that of Adolf Hitler’s rising Nazi Germany; yet French and British leaders were unwilling to use their power until it was too late, preferring “appeasement” instead, despite Hitler’s oft-demonstrated appetite for new conquests. Lacking the will to exercise their combined national power, French and British leaders’ goal of “peace in our time” became “war on Hitler’s schedule.”

RATIONALITY: Historically, the successful conduct of international relations has depended upon the expectation that national leaders will act rationally in a given situation – although, admittedly, what might seem rational to one nation has at times and under particular circumstances appeared distinctly irrational to another. Yet rationality is not always a hallmark of sectarian-led nations (or stateless groups) in which religious tenets and beliefs trump any seemingly rational secular concerns. The increasing proliferation of sectarian states and groups in the Middle East presents diplomats representing the world’s secular states with perhaps their greatest challenge in many decades.

An assessment of today’s global strategic situation clearly reveals that the quest for power among nations has not diminished – nor is it likely to.


Europe was the hub of power and influence for centuries. There were so many great and powerful nations that none knew which was most powerful – hence two cataclysmic World Wars and a Cold War dominated 20th-century Europe, changing everything.

WELFARE STATE DEBT: The Cold War (1946-91) during which the United States assumed the main burden of defending Western European countries allowed those nations to redirect their defense dollars to their economies. Given essentially a “blank check,” Euro-socialists built a cradle-to-grave nanny state. Free markets gave way to utopian equality, bloated bureaucracies, lush entitlements and imminent bankruptcy.

Today, Spain has 24 percent unemployment and empty banks, Greece is broke, and Germany is being strong-armed to ruin its own stable fiscal situation by subsidizing everyone else. Europe has fulfilled Margaret Thatcher’s prediction: “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

This problem is made worse given the creation of the European Union (EU), Europe’s attempt to counterbalance U.S. power and influence. EU nations have a shared currency (the Euro), resulting in the problems of the few becoming everyone’s problems. Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain lead the debt derby, with Ireland and France following closely behind. The EU is an unnatural political creation that now seems in danger of fragmenting. Yet the dissolution of the EU would birth a plethora of impoverished states seeking to reclaim ancient rights to land, resources and possible reaggregation that reverses post-Cold War fragmentation. That could well bring revolution and dictatorships reclaiming center stage as old solutions re-emerge.

DEBT COPING: Europe has few ways of coping with this self-inflicted implosion. It can cut budgets and thereby strand legions of dependent citizens, tax wealthy citizens and redistribute their wealth, or extort the solvent states to bail out the failing ones. Greece and Spain are experiencing the pain of austerity as a dependent citizenry erupts in violent rioting upon the announcement of each new austerity measure. France has decided to exploit class warfare by taxing the rich at a 75 percent rate, causing the flight of wealth to more taxpayer-friendly nations.

WELFARE STATE DEMOGRAPHICS: Growing entitlements and eroding values have generated a society more interested in entitlements than in families. European populations are declining: no kids = no tax base = no future. Demographically, Europeans aren’t even replacing the current generation. Thus no generation after next means no workforce to fund future entitlements.

DEMOGRAPHIC COPING: Europe’s demographic death spiral has only one solution: immigration, legal or not. Europe essentially eliminated national borders and has rolled out the multicultural red carpet to predominately Muslim immigrants. The newcomers, however, are not all fans of democracy, beyond the generous entitlements democracies provide. Thus firebrands like Khomeini (France) and Qaradawi (Britain) are coddled in the West while fomenting militant Islamism abroad. And since European nations do not demand assimilation from the new immigrants, imported religious intolerance threatens the very continuance of liberal Western democracy.

WELFARE STATE DEFENSE: No money for defense and eroding confidence in European culture have created endemic weaknesses and declining influence. The continent that once fielded massive armies and built global empires can no longer field a complete combat division. The European Union looks to NATO and the United States for salvation. EU nations deploy bits and pieces as a conglomerate force that is so hobbled by national caveats that the aggregate effect is to burden their allies more than their enemies.

DEFENSE COPING: The way to cope with being defenseless is pseudo-isolationism and nuclear proliferation. Much of Europe self-righteously rejects any external engagement beyond writing indignant letters or issuing official condemnations. The ghost of “appeasement” is back. Europe has traded the threat of military intervention for ineffectual economic sanctions (unless facing a low-risk environment like Libya), and the results are predictable: Iran builds nukes; Syria slaughters dissenters; Russia mugs Georgia; and Israel is blamed for rocket attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. National pacifism yields homeland defense without an army, navy or air force. The answer is nukes – aggressive nations will leave another country alone if they know it possesses nuclear weapons. If Iran “nukes up,” expect Europe to follow suit.


The Middle East became the main battleground following the Cold War. The expiration of old European spheres of influence and their secular imperative reinvigorated the ancient sectarian impulses. The time came for the Muslim world to replace its earthly dictators with divine theocrats.

ARAB SPRING – SECTARIANISM: The West mistook opposition to dictatorship as support for democracy. This isn’t historically new: France swapped a king for an emperor; Russia traded a czar for a Bolshevik dictator; and Iran booted a shah for a supreme leader. In each case, the cure was usually worse than the disease and the pattern was consistent – liberals may start a revolution, but radicals finish it. The “Arab Spring” has become an “Islamist Winter”: Hamas took Gaza; Hezbollah got Lebanon; al-Shabab runs much of Somalia; the al-Houthi are taking Yemen; al-Qaeda hid in the shadows of New Libya and is headed to Syria; and the Muslim Brotherhood bagged Egypt. Iran and Bahrain were misfires, while Tunisia, Mali and Libya have more in common with the Iranian “Spirit of 1979” than the American “Spirit of 1776.” Secular dictators have been replaced with sectarian theocrats, and the rule of law has become the rule of Sharia with the goal of resurrecting the Caliphate.

SECTARIAN COPING: To date, the West’s way of coping has been to pretend the Arab Spring is democratic, while the region’s new sectarian rulers give public lip service to secularism but condone, abet or actively encourage increasingly violent waves of religious-based persecution. The West pressures old allies to step down and foolishly backs sworn enemies in the vain hope that the region’s new rulers will appreciate such magnanimity when they take power. So far, no good – witness al-Qaeda’s flag flying in Benghazi and murdered U.S. diplomats.

ARAB SPRING – TRIUMPHALISM: Muslim triumphalism leads to political overextension, unrestrained avarice and strategic overreach. The response is pursuit of the Caliphate and cultural/sectarian war, meaning jihad. Targeted for “return” to the Dar al-Islam would be Spain, India, North Africa and the Balkans. The recent warming of EgyptianIranian relations is ominous at best. Iran has long-range missiles, and Egyptians destroyed the Israeli oil pipeline and stormed the U.S. Embassy. Libya followed suit, killing the U.S. ambassador on the anniversary of 9/11. Europe would be threatened in the traditional border areas of southern France, Italy and Austria. Israel would be doomed.

ARAB SPRING – CIVIL WAR: A Shia-Sunni civil war may come sooner rather than later. It would be a natural repeat of the long-ago wars of succession to Mohammad between Ali and the companions. Iraq’s Shia president indicted his Sunni vice president, who fled to Sunni Turkey, and a series of bombings killing a hundred Shias followed. The Turks are backing the Syrian Sunni rebels, with Saudi financial support, and Iran and Hezbollah are backing the Shia Alawites. The Syrian civil war is looking a lot like the Spanish civil war. Iran will lead the Shias, while a number of candidates might lead the Sunni bloc. If Iran develops nukes, so will Saudi Arabia and possibly others. The result will be global disruption of Middle Eastern oil, a rise in terrorism, and a region unsafe for non-Muslims. In the end, one side will win or, more likely, both sides will return to obscurity and the serial failure that followed World War I.

COPING: The West will need to keep trade routes open, defend Israel, and promote secularism as an alternative to sectarian bloodshed. If a Shia-Sunni civil war erupts, it would be Ireland of the 1970s on a much more massive scale.


The world’s “Big Three” states – America, Russia and China – have held and continue to hold the global center stage. The first is the reluctant “top dog” increasingly looking to relinquish the lead in exchange for a simpler life; the second single-mindedly pursues the path of recapturing old glories; and the last is a manpower giant seeking regional hegemony and increased global influence.

AMERICA: The United States seems to be repeating its flawed war-ending game plan from the Vietnam War: declare victory; recall the troops; slash defense funding; and spend the “peace dividend” like a drunken sailor. U.S. forces turned out the lights in Iraq and have provided the Taliban with an end date in Afghanistan. Iraq is now Iran’s puppet – as just two examples, consider that Iraq abstained on an Arab League vote to sanction Syria and the country now has an Iranian transportation minister. The United States appears to be leaving the future of Afghanistan to the Taliban and Pakistan – who will be only too happy to fill the void left in the wake of America’s withdrawal. After several years of U.S. foreign policy fiascos (if not having a coherent foreign policy can be described as a “policy”), America appears weak, distracted and irresolute. Even the murder of a U.S. ambassador provoked only a “strongly worded note” in response. Add to this America’s fiscal troubles and it becomes clear that the world’s only remaining superpower lacks the will to act like one. America is dangerously exposed.

RUSSIA: The veneer of democracy in Russia is wearing thin. The parade of anti-Putin demonstrations leading up to Vladimir Putin’s 2012 election as “president for life” was met with old-fashioned, Soviet-style repression. Nationalism, virtually a state religion in Russia and a useful tool to dictators, is fanned by restarting the Cold War: bombers have reappeared over American airspace; Russian subs roam the Gulf of Mexico; and Russian knee-jerk opposition to the United States has returned to block U.N. actions on Syria and Iran. Russians are weary of Putin’s oligarchy, his toady Dmitry Medvedev, and his millionaire cronies; but any effective opposition to Russia’s corruption and heavy-handed governance is kept in check by robust “organs of state security.”

Russia is a lead victim of the Euro-demographic death spiral. The country’s population dropped by 2.5 million from 2000 to 2012, and the number of retirees joining the pension rolls is skyrocketing. Putin made population decline a campaign issue by offering cash to families who have three or more children, with the goal of getting Russia’s population up from 142 million to 154 million by 2050. Meanwhile, expect Putin to continue to use “foreign threats” to distract from his regime’s domestic abuses.

CHINA: Today, socialists around the globe point to the People’s Republic of China as the model for the new world order, just as they pointed to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. They were wrong then and they’re wrong now. China may have one of the world’s largest economies, but “big” doesn’t mean “rich.” The size of China’s economy is based on its massive population, but its actual “wealth” lags. China’s current gross domestic product (GDP) is only $4,000 per person – one-tenth that of the United States ($40,000). At the most optimistic rate, China could reach a GDP of $20,000 by 2030 (still only half that of the United States today).

Add to that the challenge of spillover from the EU crisis – there is already a slowdown in China’s economy in response. The problem is that the expectations of China’s population have risen rapidly, making any fiscal downturn a shock that could shake the very foundation of the Beijing government. China perpetually faces a difficult balancing act between the industrial coastal region (40 percent of the population) and the vast rural interior (60 percent). China’s wealth is focused in the manufacturing and export coast, and the inland folks periodically grow restless – prompting wealth redistribution to calm the masses.

Finally, China’s male-to-female imbalance ranges from 119 to 130 men for every 100 women. The longstanding one-child policy fuels a high abortion rate and may leave 24 million men without wives by 2020.


The United States faces serious but not insurmountable challenges in 2013 and beyond. Yet meeting these challenges requires a thoughtful and deliberate coping strategy.

MAINTAIN POWER: The surest path to U.S. security is for America to remain the most powerful nation in the world. The country should not allow “sequestration” to gut its military forces. More than at any time since the 1991 Soviet collapse, the United States now should appear strong, act strong and be strong. America’s strength includes dominance in conventional, special operations and nuclear forces (the triad of missiles, bombers and subs). To allow any other nation or bloc of nations to achieve parity is to invite war.

DESIGN A STRATEGY FOR MAINTAINING POWER: The United States needs to create, communicate and execute a viable and coherent global strategy that guards its vital national interests. The strategy should be clear and uncompromising in laying out America’s global goals and objectives. The country needs a 21st-century version of the Monroe Doctrine that sends an unambiguous message to friends and enemies alike that weds the nation’s intent to its power.

INDEPENDENCE: An independent nation maintains freedom of action through self-reliance. Dependence upon foreign energy, finance and manufacturing puts America at the mercy of other nations whose goals may be inimical to those of the United States. Energy is increasingly the key component of power, and America has plenty of reserves in oil and natural gas and could – if it chose to – lead the world in nuclear energy. There is no reason to allow energy blackmail via politically motivated embargoes and production reduction by foreign producers.

Financially, America cannot allow itself to be trapped by foreign debt. For example, U.S. debt payment to China, America’s largest creditor, skyrockets and subsidizes the explosive growth of the Chinese military buildup. Financial independence requires cutting the U.S. deficit and dramatically reducing foreign debt payments – this is clearly a vital national security issue that demands prompt action. America should also bring its industrial manufacturing base back home from China, India and Mexico, thereby creating jobs, independence and a surge capacity.

NO “ISLAMIST WINTER”: While America should support popular uprisings against dictators, it should do so with an eye on U.S. national interests – and should never back Islamists, regardless of the meaningless rhetoric thrown up to camouflage what is in effect an oppressive sectarian coup d’état. When a dictator is benign like Egypt’s Mubarak or Iran’s shah, America should follow policies and actions that temper the process to buy time for liberal secular parties to organize and take root. Likewise, when the target of a Middle East revolution is an unambiguous enemy like Iran’s Ahmadinejad or Syria’s Assad, the United States should back the movement aggressively. Turkey must be drawn back into the secular world as a counterbalance to Iran’s undisguised quest for Middle East hegemony. The United States must remain Israel’s staunchest ally, for the sake of both Israel and America.


Increasing global debt implies that many nations today cannot afford a powerful conventional military. Thus, when lacking overt force, nations will pursue asymmetric warfare through terrorism, insurgency and cyberattacks (weapons of mass disruption). Ominously, nuclear weapons are alluring to nations that seek to acquire them to provide a “wall of immunity” as protection from external coercion. Declining wealth may also trigger desperation, as it did in the 1930s. The result then was the rise of the dictators, the imposition of “command” economies, and aggressive, revanchist war.

In the short run, a nation vs. nation challenge to the United States is unlikely. As of now, no single nation can match America’s power. In Europe, no money equals no resilience and no surge capacity. Should conflict arise, it likely would be abrupt and decisive – any protracted conflict would have to be asymmetric and prosecuted by proxies. Yet the assessment of relative power among nations is becoming less obvious. And as uncertainty grows, so does the likelihood of war. Today resembles 1933 more than 1914. In 1914, each of the European nations saw itself as powerful enough to win. None had a decisive edge, and a stalemated bloodbath followed. In 1933, the aggressors perceived a shift in power and particularly in will. This produced a comprehensive test of relative power and a global bloodbath that ultimately rearranged the world security environment.

To the casual observer, the West appears in decline; Putin and Ahmadinejad have openly said as much. Britain, France and Germany are no longer military powers; they’re bankers, diplomats and historical curators. The West refuses to defend its values and its borders, inviting aggression by showing weakness, indecision and foolish accommodation toward those who seek to destroy it. The United States may be forced to join those nations proceeding along this lamentable path as it sinks into its own debt hole. America in 2013 remains the world’s only superpower, but it stands at a historic crossroads. The country’s ultimate fate rests firmly in the hands of its political leaders.


John Sutherland is a retired U.S. Army infantry lieutenant colonel, a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s School of Advanced Military Studies, and currently a senior operations and intelligence analyst at the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) group in the Joint Staff. He was a senior analyst and contributor on the June 2012 JCOA “Decade at War” study, which can be read online at

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Armchair General.