Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

Chinks in Our Armor: How Vulnerable Is American Democracy?

| Oct. 31, 2022

Asymmetry of capability has given way to asymmetry of vulnerability and while democracies worldwide remain threatened, they also contain the means to restore themselves.

In 2007 I visited Fort Bragg, North Carolina as a guest speaker for a U.S. Army Ranger engineer battalion preparing to deploy to Iraq. The subject of my talk was "asymmetric warfare" and as I spoke, I mostly received nods of recognition from these very smart, thoughtful, and focused military professionals. Yet as I neared the end of my talk, I concluded with an admonition: Success in counterinsurgency demands more than a different equipment set; it demands a different mindset. The nods of understanding suddenly turned to frowns and head shakes. After my talk, I took questions from the audience. These experienced professionals objected to the idea that soldiering—that the use of organized and focused violence to achieve coercion—wasn't essentially the same regardless of mission. They argued that with a lighter logistical footprint and good leadership, U.S. forces in Iraq could be just as effective at counterinsurgency as conventional warfare. They were wrong.

Soldierly wisdom is special and accumulates over time. Today, only a tiny percentage of Americans have anything like military experience, nor even the military literacy that was so common in the 1960s and 70s. So, as an academic and a U.S. Army veteran whose military experience was over thirty years old at the time of my talk, there is no question that the soldierly experience in that room had to be taken seriously. That said, it was only right for a vanishing type of war. The reason is clear if you think about it: strategy, tactics, and the relationship between technology and combat are all a dance in which each partner exchanges leads. One tactic or technology's great advantage in one fight can become a vulnerability in the next. Even a massive advantage in population, military size, and technological and economic power can be turned into a weakness. It is also a truism that losers in one fight work harder to understand and overcome the sources of their failure than winners. Winners too often assume that some linear improvement in technology or tactics that advantaged them in a previous fight will suffice to maintain a winning edge in the next one. After 1950, the U.S. military was rarely granted adversaries who challenged its strengths (as Iraq did in 1990). Instead, adversaries now focus on chinks in U.S. armor. One example is democracy’s dependence on access to unpolluted information. Another is our dependence on a fragile internet infrastructure—undersea cables—to carry the information we need to make democracy a force for prosperity and security.

Democracy as a Vulnerability?

The amazing mix of people who make up the U.S. military today is primarily drawn from the U.S. cultural space. That means they share in their fellow citizens' understandings of right and wrong, and American exceptionalism; a pride in national identity and historical accomplishment too often based on historical caricature. Americans, for example, take great pride in their democracy—in the notion that as ordinary citizens, their leaders answer to them, and that they as citizens have a great say in their own governance in domestic and foreign policies. That's why during World War Two II, Americans increasingly used the word "freedom" to contrast American popular sovereignty with the dictatorships of the Axis alliance. But what is it about democracy that makes it so historically lethal to authoritarian states?

The essence of democracy is the popular consent of laws and rules that constrain us from our own impulsiveness. Hence, Americans' pride in being "a nation of laws, and not men." When I took my oath of service as a U.S. Army private in 1983, that oath was to "defend the U.S. Constitution, against all enemies foreign, and domestic." But as Nazi elites such as Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Third Reich's Sicherheitsdienst (or security police) in the 1930s groused, lawyers, laws, and rules slow things down. They interpose a time-consuming process between the will of the leadership and action. So if democracy demands compromise and debate, which takes time, how in the world were democracies able to compete with and overwhelm autocratic governments?

The answer is threefold. First, the costs of debate and compromise in terms of time are real but always overwhelmed by the benefits of better policy. Autocrats can act quickly but unfettered behavior comes with its own costs. First, autocrats generally can't abide by contradiction or even bad news. As a result, they tend to make mistakes, and the longer and more absolutely they rule, the more serious their mistakes become. Second, leaders beholden to popular sovereignty get better information and intelligence than autocrats, and in open societies common to democracies, they are also under public scrutiny by well-informed publics who enjoy social, political, and economic literacy. Third, most democracies—especially the United States—benefit from ethnic, linguistic, and national diversity. That means well-led diverse teams can leverage the advantage of different histories and perspectives to make decisions and implement policies. Autocrats invariably maintain power by inventing enemies, first domestic and then foreign, which means they rarely admit diversity into their decision-making elite. It also means human capital flight....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Arreguin-Toft, Ivan."Chinks in Our Armor: How Vulnerable Is American Democracy?" The National Interest, October 31, 2022.

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