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America in the Third World: Strategic Alternatives and Military Implications

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | May 1994

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Since the end of the cold war, the Third World has moved from the periphery to the center of American national security strategy. As the basic assumptions of past strategy become obsolete, debate rages over future U.S. strategy in the Third World. The outcome of this will have immense implications for the military.

Debate in Three Dimensions.

The current debate over U.S. strategy in the Third World takes three dimensions:

  • Debate over the extent of American involvement in the Third World (isolationism versus engagement);
  • Debate over the basic philosophy of American engagement (idealism versus realism); and
  • Debate over the form of American engagement (unilateralism versus multilateralism).

Future strategy will be shaped by the outcome of these debates.

The Changing Face of Security.

To make sense, future American strategy must be based on trends in the Third World. Current trends point toward a grim future characterized by:

  • A reversal of the recent trend toward democracy;
  • Instability, ungovernability, and, in some cases, anarchy;
  • Economic stagnation and ecological decay;
  • Primalism; and,
  • The increasing importance of new security threats and new types of forces to confront them.

The Third World itself will split into a "third tier" of violent, ungovernable regions and a "second tier" which faces severe security problems but will be able to preserve some degree of stability. In the third tier, the extreme of ungovernability will be "failed states" with a total breakdown of order and civil administration, but many other states will see ungovernability ebb and flow, with parts of their territory permanently beyond government control.

A Strategy for the Future.

To meet the challenges of this new security environment, U.S. strategy for the Third World must be modified. A primary feature should be substantial disengagement, especially from the volatile third tier. We should promote human rights, but with modest expectations. Ecological sanity will also become an important objective. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will affect nearly all strategic decisions.

Military Implications.

Over the next 10 years, the chance of major American involvement in sustained land warfare in the Third World will drop to near zero. The most likely opponents will be gray area organizations, primal militias, warlord armies, and, for the short term, unstable "backlash states." To meet these future threats, the U.S. military must be able to perform both offensive and defensive missions. Offensive missions will include:

  • Humanitarian and ecological relief and intervention;
  • Strikes to punish enemies or enforce international actions; and,
  • Traditional special operations.

Defense missions will include:

  • Immigration control;
  • Counter-terrorism;
  • Force protection during ecological and humanitarian missions; and,
  • Strategic defense against weapons of mass destruction.

The dominant branches of the future U.S. Army will be Special Operations Forces, Military Police, Military Intelligence, Aviation, and Air Defense Artillery.


For the next decade, the Third World is likely to undergo a phased transition. Initially nation-states will still remain the most important political units and backlash states with large conventional militaries will pose the greatest danger. As a result, the conventionally-configured U.S. military will retain utility and, if a frightened tyrant miscalculates, a variant of the Gulf War may ensue. Eventually, though, the Third World will enter a new phase. The third tier will disintegrate into ungovernability while nation-states and conventional militaries decline in significance and, eventually, pass from the scene entirely. Hopefully, the United States will have undergone substantial strategic disengagement by this point. When humanitarian and ecological relief is necessary, we can only be effective if we have undertaken a radical restructuring of our security forces. This includes not only reorganization and changed emphasis within the military, but also alterations of the fundamental relationship of the U.S. military and the nonmilitary elements of our security and intelligence forces. To approach the security challenges of the future with the ideas and organizations of the past will condemn us to ineffectiveness.

These conclusions, of course, reflect a specific image of the Third World's future. There is at least the possibility that current trends will change, that democracy and ecologically- sustainable economic development will win out, that fragmentation can be resisted, that viable alternative systems of personal meaning can be constructed, and that cooperation rather than conflict will dominate. The key to a positive future in the Third World would be the rise and rapid spread of an alternative value framework and politico-economic system stressing population control, ecological sanity, intergroup cooperation, and deference to authority. Because of the extent of change needed and the speed with which it must take place, such a new system would probably have to take the form of a unifying religion, either a totally new one or a mutation from an existing one. Only a religion can generate the transformative power needed to change the course of the Third World's future.

Given the American mindset, though, we tend to expect either technology or U.S. activism to solve the profound problems of the Third World. Both are chimeras. Americans should wish for a rosy future, but not plan on it. Danger and chaos in the Third World are more likely. But if some rosy future does come to fruition, American strategy must still undergo radical transformation. Our objectives, the form and extent of our engagement, and the requisite military force will be different, but the extent of change the same. Whatever future scenario is used to reform U.S. strategy in the Third World, the need for strategic entrepreneurship remains.