Ten years ago a group of nineteen men primarily from Saudi Arabia were in the last stages of preparing for their dramatic exit from this world. In the US the major political news revolved around the Social Security "lockbox" and dire warnings of dark conspiracy afoot with Vice-President Cheney's energy task force meeting behind locked doors. The most recently completed Quadrennial Defense Review was silent on asymmetrical warfare and made little mention of unmanned combat systems (UCS.) The "Gang of Five Hundred" had reached a quick consensus on George W. Bush being a one-term president.
And, the US was rolling in bucks. The federal budget was running an embarrassingly large surplus. There was so much loot in Uncle Sam's pockets that tax cuts were agreed by one and all to be a very good idea. There was also a wide consensus on the desirability of increased spending on education and health care for senior citizens. Americans were feeling almost guilty about all that money littering the floors and vaults of the Treasury Department.
The overall American mood was optimistic. There was a degree of buoyancy within We the People that even the boom days of the early and mid-sixties seemed grey and dismal in comparison. The "go-go" years of that famed decade paled into dimness compared with the confidence, even exuberance, seen on Wall Street and Main Street alike. The Summer of '01 was very much a period of "let the good times roll!"
The US was the globe's only superpower. The economy was booming in all sectors--even housing and real estate. Jobs were plentiful. There were no real enemies abroad in the world, only a handful of annoying Arab terrorists such as those who attacked the USS Cole and our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Hardly enough to worry about, right?
We now know that the Summer of '01 was the last season of the ancien regime. We know now that the past decade has been the opening period of several rather revolutionary dynamics in national security and foreign affairs.
The concept of asymmetrical warfare has come front and center. The US and other civilized states now must prepare to deter or defeat opponents at any point on a conflict spectrum which runs from the use of terror to the employment of missile delivered nuclear and thermonuclear weapons.
The introduction and very rapid evolution of unmanned combat systems (UCS) whether in the air, on land, or in and under the sea indicates that the new technology bodes well to be a game changer equivalent in impact to the introduction of gunpowder weapons. There can be no doubt that even in this early stage of development, the UCS far surpasses in impact both current and near term potential of the submarine, the aircraft carrier, or aircraft themselves.
The nation-state which has served to define global politics for the past five hundred years is now threatened on two fronts. One of these is the supra-national organization. The other can be best seen as sub-national or, to use a longer term, national entities living uneasily within the confines of a state dominated by a different and larger nation.
Another feature which has come to the center of global politics is the latest restatement of a very long standing conflict. It is a conflict which has emerged many times over the centuries. The defining foundation of this very ancient and basic tension is between philosophies of life which center on the individual and views which put the priority upon the community and see the individual as important only insofar as he contributes to the common good of the community.
The tension between individualism and communitarianism dates back to the time when agriculture emerged as a rival to the far more ancient hunting and gathering way of life. To be successful the agriculture based approach to life requires stable communities in which land and labor can be monitored, controlled, guaranteed. The hunting and gathering economy depends upon the voluntary cooperation of individuals so that every person's strengths can be utilized and their weaknesses offset. Agriculture requires both the subordination of the individual to the needs of the community and a hierarchy to assure this subordination.
The individualistically oriented view of life emphasizes the rights of the individual while properly linking these rights with concomitant duties. The communitarian understanding puts a great weight on the duties of the individual--often to the point of ignoring the concept of "rights" completely. The polities which tend to the individualistic end of the spectrum are open and democratic to a significant degree. Polities which lean in the communitarian direction are authoritarian, even autocratic.
In the past, the conflict between the individualistic and communitarian has been seen in the wars between Western democracies and authoritarian ideologically driven states such as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. It was the conflict of world views and understandings which hid under the term, "the Cold War." Today it exists as the struggle between civilized states and the exponents of violent political Islam.
Running as a connecting thread between all of these several substantial and rapid changes in the practice of global politics is the equally fast and major transformation of the technologies of information transmission and communication. As a means for facilitating the organization of ad hoc constituencies or as a tool for perception manipulation or as a political force multiplier, the Internet, the cellphone, and their dependencies such as social media have only begun to demonstrate their power and potential quite recently.
Then there is the change in the way in which We the People see ourselves, the world, and our future. In a very important sense, the change in mood and perception during the past decade is also a revolution. Perhaps it is the most important revolution of all. This contention is predicated on a commonplace: The perceptions, attitudes, and, thus, actions of the American public place very real and powerful inducements and constraints on decision and policy makers. In short, the mood of Americans generally is the context in which all national security and foreign policy actions are taken (or not taken.)
(It has gotten too bloody hot to go on for now--105 degrees F here at the computer. Please indulge the Geek and let him go and cool off secure in the knowledge that he will go on with this "thought piece" on the morrow when it might be a tad cooler.)