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World View: The 1996 Strategic Assessment from the Strategic Studies Institute

Edited by Dr. Earl H. Tilford Jr.. | February 1996

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Each January the regional analysts at the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), U.S. Army War College, assess global trends that appear likely to determine the state of the world through the next decade. This year, SSI is attempting to integrate its "World View" with an assessment of how the Army of the 21st century will operate within a strategic environment that is both dynamic and uncertain. From these assessments of the world and the Army's future, SSI analysts devise study proposals which address those issues and threats that impact on the requirements for structuring an Army for the 21st century.

Addressing the Strategic Landscape.

Several rather general strategic trends are apparent. Through the year 2006, the United States is unlikely to be confronted with a threat posed by a true global peer competitor. While Russia and China and, to a lesser extent, Japan, have the potential to become regional peer competitors, obstacles exist which may prevent them from doing so. In any event, it is not likely that they will be able, or perhaps even want, to pose such a challenge to the United States in the foreseeable future.

It may well be that what was known as the post-Cold War period has ended. If the December 1995 elections are any indication, Russia is edging backward into its future as large numbers of Russians, ordinary citizens and political figures alike, seem to long for a return to the stability and perceived national glories of their Soviet past. Meanwhile, Russian troops remain heavily engaged in Chechnya and in peacekeeping operations elsewhere around the southwestern periphery of the nation. No matter what direction Russia may take, it will have significant strategic implications for the United States and the West. Whether market-oriented reforms continue or Russia lapses into a more tightly state-controlled economy, it will be subjected to the harsh realities of long-term economic problems. While these factors will limit its ability to revive its military, the fact that Russia possess thousands of nuclear weapons means it will remain a significant factor in the strategic equation.

Even as 1996 began, U.S. Army units were moving into Bosnia to perform a massive and potentially dangerous peacekeeping mission with their NATO and non-NATO counterparts. Although a peace agreement has been signed, the volatile mixtures of age-old hatreds and animosities remain. While no one can predict with any certainty what the outcome of the Bosnian operation may be, the sure thing is that the implications for NATO and the future of European security extend well beyond the borders of the former Yugoslavia.

In the Middle East, Israel, Syria, and the Palestinians face the most difficult challenges of their long and tortured negotiations: the status of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and the extent to which the Palestinians will have a truly independent state. Elsewhere, Iraq continues to pose a threat to its Persian Gulf neighbors, and through persistent efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, to everyone else in the region as well. Meanwhile, Iran looms on the strategic horizon as a significant threat just as Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern allies may be facing increasing pressure to limit their relationship with the United States and Western European powers.

China is the big unknown in the Far East. Whether China will continue with market reforms while moderating its stance on human rights is uncertain. What is sure is that China is modernizing its armed forces, although it probably will not be capable of effective combined operations for many years. The extent to which China poses a threat to its neighbors and to the strategic interests of the United States is, however, uncertain. Elsewhere, while tensions remain high on the Korean Peninsula, in Vietnam, now that Washington and Hanoi have normalized relations, the two countries can seek wider areas of cooperation.

Japan is the economic powerhouse of Asia. It has the ability to harness its economy to become a major military power. If Japan so chooses, however, such a course might endanger its status as an economic superpower and antagonize every country in Asia.

For Africa, 1995 was a relatively peaceful year. Yet, potential trouble spots abound and are both acute and significant in Zaire and Nigeria. Throughout the continent, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, corrupt governments, infectious diseases, and high population growth continue as sources of concern.

South America remains a continent beset by rapidly expanding populations and persistent poverty. These problems will continue to compel scores of thousands to migrate--most legally--into the United States. If, after U.S. and U.N. forces leave Haiti, there is a return to politically-motivated violence, the potential for increased migration will be high in 1996.

Major Strategic Determinants: 1996-2006.

From the perspective of 1996, SSI's analysts estimate that the following 18 major determinants will influence the Army's posture, U.S. vital or strategic interests, and the national military strategy over the coming decade.

  • Looking out to 2006, in part due to the advent of the Information Age, there will be systemic changes in the way major governmental and private institutions are structured. There will be major changes in the way nations and peoples govern themselves, how they educate their young, organize their armed forces, and deal with the environment.
  • In the near term, two factors will affect the U.S. Army: the outcome of operations in Bosnia and the 1996 national elections. How the Army performs, or is perceived as performing in Bosnia, will affect how it is viewed by the American people. That can have both long- and short-term effects on recruiting, retention, and the kind of support the Army receives from Congress. Barring unforeseen events, the Defense Budget is likely to decline no matter what the outcome of the November elections. But issues raised in the attendant debates could affect the overall rate of decrease in defense spending.
  • Russia's rugged road to democracy will become even more arduous with the probable reemergence of the Communists as a potent political force. This will only add to the challenges posed by lawlessness, massive ecological degeneration, rebellion in the Caucasus and a struggling economy.
  • No matter what happens politically or economically, Russia will likely pursue policies and objectives which conflict with those of the United States and the European democracies. Whether or not Russia will have a conventional military establishment that is the "peer" to that of the United States, it will be powerful enough to constitute a major strategic threat given its nuclear capabilities.
  • The Asia-Pacific Region will be one of the world's most economically dynamic areas throughout the coming decade. The role China will play is the major factor in the strategic equation. Disputes over Taiwan and the Spratly Islands could reach crisis proportions relatively soon. China's nuclear capability is a growing concern.
  • In the near term, relations between Seoul and Pyongyang are not going to improve. The United States will be a part of this confrontation as a result of its political and military commitments to South Korea because of the U.S.-Democratic People's Republic of Korea Agreed Framework on nuclear power issues. If fighting breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, U.S. forces will be involved.
  • Through the next decade, Europe will be the region where significant political-military and economic developments affect the economic order. NATO will remain the premier security organization in Europe as emerging democracies in Central and Western Europe struggle toward open societies and free market economies.
  • In 1996, the wars in the former Yugoslavia will be a dominant concern among European policymakers. Implementing the Bosnian Peace Settlement could strain the NATO Alliance. The ultimate resolution of events in Bosnia, and the roles NATO and Russia play in how that unfolds, will impact the future of Europe in numerous ways.
  • The issue of NATO enlargement will continue over the next decade as Alliance members debate how and when to effect it. The way NATO enlarges and which countries will be included will affect the West's relations with Russia and will be influenced, to some extent, by the future political direction taken by Russia.
  • Through 2006, in Latin America, a rapidly expanding urban population and problems associated with poverty will foster unrest, subversion, terrorism, insurgency and coups d' etat. The United States will feel the impact in the form of illegal migration, increased drug trafficking, and possible repeated deployments of U.S. forces in various peacekeeping and peacemaking operations. Elsewhere, it is uncertain what effect the relinquishing of the Panama Canal in 1999 will have, but since the canal is a major strategic waterway, the implications could be significant.
  • Drug trafficking will continue as a major problem throughout Latin America. As long as the U.S. market remains lucrative, the lure of coca cultivation and cocaine production will continue.
  • By 2006, Cuba likely will have entered a post-Castro transition resulting from the dictator's death or removal from power. If political instability and violence result, the United States may be compelled to intervene militarily. That will mean Army and Marine units deploying to a far more threatening environment than they found in Haiti in 1994.
  • In 1996, Arabs and Israelis will have to deal with the most difficult issues remaining in their peace talks. The United States will remain the only nation that can act as an honest broker between Israel, Syria and the Palestinians.
  • Throughout the Middle East the disparity in the distribution of wealth will continue. A high birth rate will exacerbate the problem by insuring that a youthful population predominates.
  • By the beginning of the 21st century, Muslims throughout the Middle East will demand that the Western powers, especially the United States, withdraw from the Persian Gulf. The House of Saud will be pressured increasingly to limit its support for the United States. Without Saudi Arabia, the United States will be unable to find a reliable surrogate to police the area.
  • Before 2006, Iran may pose a major threat as a regional hegemon, if not an aspiring regional peer competitor. If Iran and Iraq put aside old differences to present a united front, the United States and its Middle Eastern friends and allies will face a significant strategic challenge.
  • In Africa, conventional, interstate war in the Sub-Saharan region is unlikely. The challenge will be to prevent the spread of conflict from one country to another.
  • Conditions in Africa's strategic giants, Zaire, Nigeria, and South Africa, will be vital to determining the short-term stability of the region. If Zaire and Nigeria disintegrate into anarchy or violence, Africa will face its greatest security challenge since the decolonization period of the early 1960s.

Over the next decade, the world will remain unpredictable, dangerous, and violent. The Army, facing declining budgets, must meet the challenge of remaining effective in support and peacekeeping operations while staying ready to be a decisive and strategic force in war.

In 1996, the way the Bosnian operation unfolds will be crucial. Developments in the Middle East will reach a crucial stage as Israel, Syria and the Palestinians work to settle the most contentious issues. The Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Straits, Spratly Islands, and Cuba all bear watching. Long-term strategic concerns, however, must focus on Russia and China. Whatever directions those nations take will, inevitably, affect the United States and the Western democracies.