Max Boot Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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As I recall from our first interview, you were born in the Soviet Union and then emigrated to the U.S. What does this discussion that we're having now tell us about why the Soviet Union unraveled and the U.S. became the only superpower in the world? Because there wasn't a military conflict, there was no battle that decisively led to that outcome.
Well, there wasn't a battle. There was certainly the war in Afghanistan which bled the Red Army dry in the way that the U.S. Army had been bled dry in Vietnam, but I think information technology had an awful lot to do with the downfall of the Soviet Union. The fact that we have a Silicon Valley and they didn't helped to precipitate their downfall, because by the early 1980s the Soviet leadership was looking around the world and realizing they were falling further and further behind the U.S. in both civilian and military technology. They couldn't compete because we were making all of these advances with microchips and this became a real threat to them, and in a way Afghanistan further demonstrated the threat because one of the most effective weapon systems employed in Afghanistan was the stinger missile, which was a product of our information breakthroughs, [and] which negated a lot of the power of Soviet aircraft.
So in a variety of ways, the Soviets realized they were losing the race against the United States and they tried to reform themselves. This was the basic impetus for what Gorbachev did with perestroika and glasnost. Obviously, they failed. They tried to change the system but what they found was instead the system simply collapsed. So, you can't say it's all due to information technology, but information technology played a large part in precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union when it occurred.
When the wall came down we were left with the U.S. standing alone as the greatest global power, and positioned to dominate the world in all regions. In your book, or in one of your columns, you point to the extent to which, in terms of military budgets, no one comes near us. In fact, we're spending, you write, $500 billion on the military, almost as much as the rest of the world combined. This is the key that I wanted to emphasize: we spend more on research and development, testing and evaluation of new weapons than any other defense budget in its entirety. So, in 2006 we spent $71 billion [on R&D] and in that same year Russia's defense budget will be $65 billion total, China $56 billion, France at $45 billion, and Japan and the UK at $42 billion. So, that gives us a place in the future with no challengers.
It gives us a place in the future with no challengers at the high end, the conventional end of warfare, where we're utterly dominant. Nobody else is building F-22 stealth fighters or Nimitz-class aircraft carriers or Virginia-class submarines or M-1 main battle tanks. In the technology of conventional high-end warfare, we are undisputed masters and have been since the collapse of the Soviet Union and our victory in the Gulf War, which showcased the prowess of a lot of these weapon systems.
But of course, our enemies aren't standing still, and this is a pattern you see throughout every revolution in military affairs going back 500 years. Nobody's lead is unchallenged. Even first movers, early movers, can find their lead dissipating over time as challengers figure out new ways to adapt. Sometimes it means copying the technology that you've innovated, other times it means coming up with the tactics that negate the impact of your technology. As we're seeing now, our enemies are doing both. For example, a lot of the cutting-edge technologies of the early 1990s are absolutely commonplace around the world when you think about GPS devices, for example, or satellite reconnaissance imagery. This was the most closely guarded secret in the U.S. government ten, fifteen years ago, and it still is in some ways, satellite images of the earth. Well, now you can go to Maps Google and see the exact kind of images that were classified ten or fifteen years ago! Anybody can have access to this kind of technology. The same is true with night-vision devices and other things that were pioneered in the U.S., so those are getting out to everybody, including our enemies
But our enemies are also figuring out new ways to attack us that nullify the advantage of our firepower. They've learned from the mistakes of somebody like Saddam Hussein, who was stupid enough twice to put armies into the open field against the American military and watch them be wiped out with our precision weaponry. There aren't too many people who are going to be stupid enough to do that, so our enemies now are trying to get nuclear weapons to negate some of our conventional advantage, or they're resorting to terrorist tactics which don't present an obvious target for retaliation by the United States. So, we're seeing, even as we're spending all this money on our defense budget, our military lead chipped away by various competitors.
You quote General Schumacher, who talks about the difficulties of a hierarchy fighting a network. The history you're talking about has presumed the implementation and the organization of increasingly complex hierarchical organizations, whereas once you get into the age of networks it's a different ballgame. Talk a little about that.
What we've seen in the last twenty, twenty-five years is the democratization of information. It's no longer held by a handful of large organizations, whether companies or governments. Nobody has to wait until 6:30 in the evening to get their evening news from a network newscast. You can get your news anytime, all the time. This is, of course, a microcosm of the changes sweeping through society. What we've seen is that new types of organizational structures are successful in the information age, different types from the kinds that were successful in the industrial age. Companies like GM or Ford or U.S. Steel, which can't adapt organizationally to these changes, don't do very well, and you see the rise of new competitors, whether Walmart or eBay or Dell or Microsoft, that have different organizational structures for harnessing information technology.
Exactly the same thing is happening in the realm of international security, for unfortunately in many ways the U.S. government is kind of the GM or Ford of governments. It's an old-line, industrial, vertical bureaucracy that was very effective during the Cold War or World War II but isn't so effective today, whereas our enemies are kind of the eBay of terrorism, a lean, decentralized network without lots of decisionmaking delegated to numerous layers of command. It's pushed out to people on the spot.
I was making this point a few weeks ago at Annapolis and one of the officers said, "Sir, what's the advantage that al Qaeda has over the U.S. military?" It's that they don't need travel orders to go outside their AOR, their area of responsibility. That's kind of a humorous way to put it, but it gets at a larger truth which is that we have this giant bureaucracy and they don't. Bureaucracies are good for certain things but they also slow you down, they hinder you, they make it hard to respond very quickly. For that basic reason, in many ways, our enemy is proving more nimble and more adaptable than we are.
Let's break this down, because there are two problems I see as we get into our discussion of the information age. One is the skill base. As you get this democratization of information you're also getting easier technologies to use, I would guess. So, that's one level, the skill base and how do we fare there versus our adversaries. The other is ideological motivation, because we're now dealing with actors who seem to have soldiers who are motivated by a narrow definition of religious ideals, whereas our society has become a "California society": laid back, wanting to live the good life as opposed to fight the good war.
There's a large element of truth in that, but I think the ideological motivation is less important, in part because it's less novel. We have often in the past faced adversaries who were more ideologically motivated than we were, more willing to court death than we were, and there's often been the perception in the past that as a rich, commercial nation we're weak and soft and decadent and can't compete with the Germans or the Japanese, these other militarists. In fact, we have competed very well when we've mobilized the full resources of our society. What makes it difficult to compete today is it's hard to know what to do with all of our resources. We have this amazing capacity now with our smart bombs to destroy any spot on the planet. We can kill anybody we want to kill. But we don't know who to kill.
When we were fighting the Germans or Japanese, you had very obvious targets. You don't have very obvious targets today, and that's deliberate, because our enemies realize that if they present obvious targets for us they will lose. So, they're fighting in a way that plays to their strengths and hits our weaknesses. And they have much greater capacity than ever before, essentially because they're utilizing our own technology. There have certainly been no shortage of guerillas in the past, no shortage of religious fundamentalists, but what's different about these guys is they're able to wage their insurgency not just in one region or one country but all over the world, because they're using jumbo jets and the internet and cell phones and satellite television, all these made-in-America technologies they're utilizing tremendously effectively to become sort of super-guerillas, super-terrorists, the most potent insurgents in history. That's the challenge that we face today.
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