National Security Dilemmas: Challenges & Opportunities

  • Published

National Security Dilemmas: Challenges & Opportunities by Colin S. Gray. Potomac Books, 2009, 334 pp.

Clausewitz was right: war is the province of uncertainty and chance. The future is unpredictable. Politics is or should be the driver of strategy and, in turn, military planning. The United States is seriously deficient on that point. It is excellent at the tactical and operational level in regular warfare but wanting in connecting strategy to policy and in counterinsurgency theory and doctrine. Further, the United States is guilty of presentism and not much given to the study of the historical bases of strategy and defense planning. Those are some of the ideas common in Colin Gray’s recent writing and teaching, and they are presented in convenient form in his National Security Dilemmas.

Prof. Colin S. Gray is too well known to most readers of Strategic Studies Quarterly to require much introduction. He has been a frequent lecturer at many of the US war colleges and staff schools and is well published in some of our most prestigious academic journals, such as Foreign Affairs and International Security. One of the leading (perhaps the leading) strategic thinkers in the West, his published books are many. Further, Dr. Gray has long served as a consultant for many defense agencies here and in the United Kingdom. His undergraduate degree is in economics, and he holds a doctorate in international politics from Oxford. He is a professor at the University of Reading, England.

Several chapters of National Security Dilemmas are based on previous research Gray did for the Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. That leads to some redundancies here and there, but each chapter is engaging in its own right. One of the most interesting is about the definition of victory. Impatient Americans are often distressed about outcomes because they are not the smashing outcomes like those of World War II. However, Gray makes the valid point that there are many degrees of “victory,” especially if keeping in mind that the goal of war is a better peace. Sometimes even a smashing victory does not result in an improved state of peace, while somewhat lesser achievements on the battlefield can improve a state’s situation. Gray cautions against the American tendency to worship technology, for there are many other factors that can affect outcomes. He repeatedly argues that the incredible complexity of war makes it dangerous to count too heavily on any one of its dimensions—and that surprise in war is not surprising.

Perhaps the most informative chapter is “Maintaining Effective Deterrence.” It argues that in many situations, that should be the strategic choice and that many different dimensions of military power can deter—including land power. A common notion has been that deterrence can work in state-on-state conflict but that terrorists are undeterrable. Gray concedes that some terrorists may indeed be beyond reach but holds that deterrence can affect others. One problem is that regular war and irregular war are often seen as polar opposites. Gray argues that they are not. Many wars contain elements of each, and there are various mixes between the extremes—and deterrence can have an effect at many levels. It is fundamental that the ultimate decision in deterrence rests in the minds of the deterred, not the deterrers. That, along with cultural and psychological differences, makes it exceedingly difficult to predict outcomes—or to prove whether deterrence worked in any given instance.

National Security Dilemmas also deals with insurgency. That is not an area of excellence for the US military, but Gray argues that it can be mastered. He also points out that since the future is unknowable, it would be improvident to put all our defense eggs into the counterinsurgency (COIN) basket. He does not think that the “Long War” will go on forever, and in any event the national existence is not threatened by the terrorists—though an overreaction to the threat could wreck us. In short, competency in irregular warfare must become an important element in our military, but it should not dominate. State-on-state war is a possibility in the future, and that can threaten our national existence. Incidentally, Gray does not think that a nuclear-free world is a practical possibility, and he says that proliferation is practically certain to continue. Gray also sensibly argues that the United States needs to be careful in deciding when to engage in COIN. Some conflicts would be unwinnable, and others simply would not be worth the effort. One of the redundancies found in the book has been his treatment of the distinction between war and warfare. This is especially important in COIN, because war includes all the instruments of national power but warfare is the conduct of war by mostly military means. As the objective in COIN is typically not the insurgency’s military force but rather the hearts and minds of the civilian population of the area in question, the lethal part of COIN should be subordinate.

For the aspirant strategist, Gray’s work is a treasure chest. His treatment of preemption versus preventive war is golden. Preemption is entirely legitimate and necessary in his mind. However, preventive war is often wrongly labeled as preemption and should be approached with extreme caution—precisely because war and politics are so unpredictable. In the case of preemption, the decision for war has already been made by the prospective enemy, but preventive war is a choice for the political leadership. It can and has led to disaster when predictions turn out to be false—Hitler’s prediction in 1941 that the USSR would collapse like a house of cards with the first kick on the front door!

Some readers are already quite familiar with the works of Colin Gray. For them, National Security Dilemmas would be a fine review. For the rest, the book should be near the top of our reading lists—perhaps at the top. There are many more nuggets in this treasure chest than can be explored here.

David R. Mets, PhD

Air Force Research Institute

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."