The Best Defense

The Future of War (I): A New America project looking at 21st century conflict

In the interest of improving our national security, protecting our rights, and helping get us out of the endless "war on terror," the New America Foundation is launching a project on the future of war. Here is a look at the initial thinking, which is liable to change as our various participants bring to bear their very different areas of expertise.

Plus, isn't it time that there was a study of the future of defense funded by neither the Pentagon nor the defense industry?

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By the Future of War team, New America Foundation
Best Defense office of the future

Throughout history, changes in the conduct of warfare have been one of the primary drivers of shifts in how societies and states are organized. Today, the evolution of autonomous weapons systems, the emergence of ever more sophisticated surveillance technologies, the militarization of cyberspace and outer space, and a range of similar developments are dramatically changing the nature of war -- with profound implications for the nature of the international order, the manner in which we control and constrain power and violence, and the nature of the state itself.

Few seem fully to grasp this, however. For the most part, these changes in the means and methods of warfare are usually viewed narrowly, and understood as matters of interest mainly to specialized communities of policy wonks, military planners, civil libertarians, or counterterrorism experts. As with the story of the blind men and the elephant, many people are looking at different facets of the changing nature of war, each trying to describe what they see (and often misunderstanding what it is they are seeing). That's not good enough: We need to look at the whole elephant. 

With the United States still locked into a "forever war" paradigm that doesn't comport with American values or history, it's more urgent than ever to understand the ways in which changes in the nature of war both drive and are driven by changes in state-level, sub-state-level, and international policies and institutions. At the same time states are developing unprecedented military technologies, the means of mass destruction have been democratized: Today, terrorist organizations and other non-state actors can cause damage and destruction on a scale we normally associate with states. Meanwhile, new technologies are eroding old assumptions about sovereignty and state autonomy. Nonetheless, we still operate mainly within a legal and political paradigm that draws sharp -- if increasingly arbitrary-- lines between domestic and international matters, between states and non-state actors, and between war and crime.

It's increasingly apparent that existing legal paradigms neither provide adequate tools for responding to new kinds of threats nor offer an appropriate framework for protecting human rights and human dignity. As we move forward, we need to find a way to evolve beyond the post-9/11 state of perpetual war -- and we need to do so in a way takes into account these seismic changes, allows for an adaptive response to evolving threats, and enhances the robust protection of human rights.

The New America Foundation is well positioned to sort out the thorny issues that arise from the changing nature of warfare. Unlike most think tanks and NGOs, New America isn't made up of specialists having "insider" conversations with one another: lawyers talking to other lawyers, or defense policy experts talking to other defense policy experts. Instead, New America connects the worlds of law, technology, political science, history, policy, the military, the human rights community, and the media, each of which often operates in isolation.

Core members of New America's Future of War team include journalists, technologists, military history and terrorism experts, human rights experts, and international law and defense policy experts. Our individual and collective expertise and connections enable us to convene the most creative and influential thinkers, writers, and decision-makers from these varied and often separate worlds; develop bold conceptual frameworks combined with more specific legal and policy proposals; write and talk about these intelligibly and interestingly; and attract extensive media coverage to our work and our recommendations.

The Future of War project is led by Peter Bergen, director of national security studies at the New America Foundation and the author of several books. This series was drafted by him and the team's other members: Rosa BrooksAnne-Marie SlaughterSascha Meinrath, and Tom Ricks.

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