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Time's Cycle and National Military Strategy: The Case for Continuity in a Time of Change

Authored by Dr. David Jablonsky. | June 1995

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"What do we do now?" is the incredulous question posed by Robert Redford as senator elect at the victory celebration in the movie, The Candidate. It is a question still germane for the United States 6 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 3 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Historically, the answer has been slow in coming in times of great change. In the first 100 years of the American nation's existence, the confluence of geographic insularity and the primitive state of war technology contributed to free security. But what was simply fortuitous in this state of affairs came to be perceived as permanent, and when conditions changed at the beginning of the 20th century, policies did not. Instead, nearly half of this century passed before the American people recognized the nature of global developments and the need to become engaged in dealing with them.1

The challenge today is to understand the role of change and continuity in looking to the future in the wake of a great victory. The correct answer to this challenge can prevent the United States from spending half of the next century trying to create an effective strategy for a changing world. In particular, it is important to distinguish between those aspects of the Cold War that were anomalies capable of distorting future perceptions, and those that should be retained. "We need to make sure, as we put the Cold War behind us," John Lewis Gaddis points out in this regard, "that we do not also jettison those principles and procedures that allowed it to evolve into the longest period of great-power rivalry without war in the modern era. If a long peace was in fact the offspring of the Cold War, then the last thing we should want to do, in tossing the parent onto the ash heap of history, is to toss the child as well."2

Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle.

Stephen Jay Gould in his geological studies of what he calls "deep time" refers to both "Time's Arrow" and "Time's Cycle" as ways to look at historical events. Time's Arrow treats history as "an irreversible sequence of unrepeatable events. Each moment occupies its own distinct position in a temporal series, and all moments considered in proper sequence, tell a story of linked events moving in a direction." ~ This is the principal metaphor of biblical history. From God's creation of the world to the dispatch of His Son to a particular place to die for man and rise again, that history is Time's Arrow. In the afterglow of the Cold War victory, more than one analyst applied this metaphor to the triumphant victory of western democracy as proof that history had come to an end. That obituary, as Michael Howard concludes, is premature.

The failure of rival creeds does not mean that our own is bound to succeed, only that it has been given another chance. Both fascism and communism emerged in Europe because liberal democracy failed to live up to its expectations. If we fail again, we may expect new and similar challenges, both in our own continent and throughout the world.4

With Time's Cycle, on the other hand, fundamental states are "always present and never changing. Apparent motions are parts of repeating realities of the future." ~ Thus, Thucydides could write that given human nature, past events "will at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future."6 And over two millennia later, Arnold Toynbee was struck by the same metaphor even as he examined the Greek historian's account of the Peloponnesian War.

The general war of 1914 overtook me expounding Thucydides to Balliol undergraduates. . . . and then suddenly my understanding was illuminated. The experience that we were having in our world now had been experienced by Thucydides in his world already. I was rereading him now with a new perception?perceiving meanings in his words, and feelings behind his phrases, to which I had been insensible until I, in my turn, had run into that historical crisis that had inspired him to write his work. Thucydides, it now appeared, had been over this ground before. He and his generation had been ahead of me and mine in the stage of historical experience that we had respectively reached; in fact, his present had been my future. But this made nonsense of the chronological notation which registered my world as "modern" and Thucydides' world as "ancient." Whatever chronology might say, Thucydides' world and my world had now proved to be philosophically contemporary.7

From this cyclic perspective in the current transition period, international politics freed from Cold War constraints will return to earlier post-war patterns. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, for instance, there was a decade of social misery and disruption with order on the continent only maintained by the police of the Habsburgs and the Romanovs. And after 1918, only the false light of the Locarno era illuminated the wretched and confusing darkness of the interwar years. In a similar manner after the crusade of World War II, there was renewed disillusionment and despair as the Soviet threat began to emerge.8 More recently, like the other post-war periods of the early 1920s and mid-1940s, there have been wholesale changes in governments around the globe. In the United States, the recent overturn of the Democratic majority that had run Congress for 40 years was reminiscent of the 1946 Republican landslide. In Italy, the Christian Democrats that had ruled since World War II were voted out of power, as were the Japanese Liberal Democrats for the first time since 1955. At the same time, the French Socialists were also eliminated in parliamentary elections; and in Canada, the ruling Tories suffered such a decisive defeat that they no longer even rank as an official parliamentary party.9

Both Time's Arrow and Time's Cycle are present in the current preoccupation with chaos as the defining concept of the post-Cold War era. On the one hand, the spread of global instability and environmental decay in the developing world is perceived as the result of a series of unique events in this century concerning global interdependence and transnational forces.10 The resultant anarchy, like the events preceding it, is considered unique in the arrow of linked historical events and constitutes, in Robert Kaplan's estimation, "the national security issue of the early twenty-first century."11 At the same time, Time's Arrow is also perceived as moving the developed world out of the zone of military risk, by making war between modernized, western nations "subrationally unthinkable."12 ~ On the other hand, there is the broad cyclic perception that the spread of chaos will eventually undermine the nation-state system, returning the world to a pre-Westphalian, anarchical medieval paradigm of international relations.13 Whatever the perception, the concept has caught on. Last fall, the U.S. Institute of Peace sponsored a heavily attended conference on "Managing Chaos" that featured speakers ranging from Henry Kissinger to Les Aspin and Ted Koppel. And Brian Atwood, the head of the Agency for International Development, recently argued that "disintegrating societies and failed states. . . have emerged as the greatest menace to global stability" and constitute a "strategic threat."14

The Fox and the Hedgehog.

The Greek poet Archilochus observed that "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."' ~ The "many things" in the current transition period are the strategic fads and fashionable theories that tend to overwhelm the cumulative understanding of history, making it difficult for the strategist to distinguish the ephemeral from the persisting and structural. The focus on global chaos and anarchy in the developing world is an example. To elevate this to the highest level of primary national security concern ignores larger, more fundamental threats, while assuming much too prematurely the declining importance of great powers and nation states. "In fact," Jeremy Rosner points out,

while many ethnic, environmental and other humanitarian problems do cross borders, it is nation states, with their armies, governments, laws and legitimacy that are?and will remain?the dominant force in world affairs. And from the Balkans to the Mideast to Asia, the greatest threat to peace remains the ambitions of nation states and leaders who are hostile to democracy and norms of international behavior.16

The strategist, therefore, must remain the hedgehog, focused on one big thing: the response to the danger of unbalanced power as the central organizing structure in an anarchical, self-help, state-centric world. Seen in this light, the current transition in international politics can take on the appearance of an interwar or even a pre-war period. This is not to succumb to either cynicism or pessimism. It is simply to acknowledge that this century in Time's Cycle has produced three major balance of power wars, two hot, one cold. Certainly, there is nothing in this current period to suggest the obviation of what Colin Gray calls the golden rule in world politics: "bad times return."

The possible fact that one might peer into the future from the vantage point of today and find no threats of major substance, is quite beside the point. One can occasionally look upward and see only blue sky. Few would draw far-reaching conclusions from that empirically unchallengeable observation of the moment. Certainly, one would not give away all of one's bad weather clothing.17

The strategist, then, is like the doctor, who while acknowledging the multidimensional aspects of human behavior, chooses in effect to focus on one big single, overarching vision as the governing mechanism that rests on a firm understanding of professional essentials. For a strategist, a miscalculation concerning the essence of his profession, the relationship of ends and means, can prove politically or physically lethal for entire communities. This does not mean that there is not more in collective life than pure political or military security, just as physical health is not all there is to individual health. Nevertheless, both the strategist and the doctor remain hedgehogs who maintain that the core of their professional focus must be treated well enough if everything else is not to remain of secondary interest.18

In other words, first things first. The primary concern of American strategic hedgehogs is the survival of the United States with its fundamental values and political institutions intact. But two other core national interests have traditionally been involved: economic prosperity and promotion of values. The purpose of this report is to examine how well U.S. strategists will be able to maintain the focus on "one big thing," while dealing with other complex national security problems resulting from the interaction of all three core national interests. The vehicles for the examination are two key unclassified U.S. documents: the President's national security strategy and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's derivative national military strategy. Together, these documents deal with the primary national security issues facing the United States in the post-Cold War era: the role of America in the world, and the priority of effort and use of force necessary for that role if the United States is to continue to achieve its three core national interests. The basis for the examination is the assumption that the future will be marked somewhere between the poles of Time's Arrow and Time's Cycle by change and continuity with the past. It is not, as Gary Wills notes, an easy position to find or to maintain.

Insofar as we steer rationally toward the future, we do so by our rear-view mirror. There is no windshield because there is nothing to "see" up ahead. We go forward by seeing backward. By tracing the trajectory of past events we extrapolate to future positions. But if we trace only one trend, the chances of steering well are slim; too many other things will jostle and interact with the simple arc we are imagining. That is why so many simple reforms or five-year plans or platform pledges are bound to go away, even with the best of wiles. The best guides to the future are those whose knowledge of the past is broadest and deepest, who are most cautious and aware of complexity, least confident that they can "see" something up ahead. 19


In the wake of victory in the Cold War, Time's Cycle is a reminder that the fruits of such victory can soon turn bitter. The Athenians, for instance, defeated Persia in the 5th century BC and then with the arrogance of hubris defeated themselves. In a similar manner, the Turks spent centuries attempting to conquer Constantinople for Islam only to see world power passing to secular European states even in the triumphant year of 1453. Such examples are why G. K. Chesterton saw a kind of heroism in dealing with what had gone on before: "Man is like Persius, he cannot look at the Gorgon of the future except in the mirror of the past."179 Nevertheless, as Homer's Odyssey, reminds us, there is strength to be drawn from the past. In that epic, when Telemachus goes with his grandfather and father, Ulysses, to fight the army of his mother's suitors, Athena speeds his first spear with such impact that it breaks the spirit of the suitors and ends the battle. Telemachus is victorious against the mob, "for he is a crowd in himself."

He is all the good things loved that have been passed down to him in the mystery of human tradition, the community that lives on even in the single self. His spear flies shining into the future because his whole race threw it? the human race, the past, the Fathers.180

This is ultimately why Time's Arrow with its assertion that every moment of time is unique is unsatisfactory. Man craves something that provides help for the future, some underlying generality, some principles that impart order by transcending the distinction of moments. In no field is this urge more evident than in strategy and international relations. And yet Time's Arrow is a constant reminder that strategy is far from being a science, that international politics like evolution can go down very different paths based on particular events. Natural selection, for instance, does not preclude a large role for chance and accident in making life evolve very differently. For this there are no general principles or scientific laws. In a similar manner, as an example, the role of contingency in international politics is illustrated by the Korean War. For absent that conflict, the Cold War might have taken on an entirely different form?one without high defense budgets, increased Sino-American hostility, a militarized NATO, and U.S. global commitments.181

But it did not. And from the peculiar form of that decades-long war in peace have emerged strands of change and continuity that pose challenges and opportunities for American elites in the iterative civil-military security dialogue that is itself a product of the Cold War. Two of the most visible products of that process are the current U.S. national security strategy and the derivative national military strategy. Both documents deal with the interrelated issues that face the United States in a transitional period of great uncertainty: the nature of America's global role and the prioritization and military efforts that should accompany that role. And in both cases, the three core American national interests of security, economic prosperity and promotion of values serve as the basis for these efforts. The result is a combination of change and continuity embodied in the national security strategy of engagement and enlargement, which with its synergistic use of those core values, effectively demonstrates the false dichotomy between domestic well-being and an activist global role for the United States.

Both documents can play a major role in helping the White House create a consensus on strategic choices that will determine the course of U.S. national security policy well into the next century. This was also the situation that faced Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. The primary difference, however, is that today the President is dealing with an American public, more informed, more internationalist and certainly more open to leadership and persuasion from the very top. There is some concern, in this regard, that self-imposed restrictions on the use of American military may have led to a self-deterrence phenomenon. But the fact remains that the public is insistent on a case-by-case examination concerning the use of force and very much in favor of the type of prioritization inherent in the strategy of selective engagement. "Of course, Americans do not like sending their sons and daughters abroad for combat," Leslie Gelb points out.

But they never did. What country does? It is remarkable how readily, despite internal opposition, Americans will fight for others if the cause is just and rightly explained?even in the absence of an overriding threat. . . . Americans are not turning inward. They are waiting for their President and others to chart a compelling international course. If Americans are to sacrifice when nothing seems to threaten their survival directly, they want to know why and how. Public opinion polls demonstrate not the return of isolationism, but good old American pragmatism.182

That pragmatism is evident in a number of ways in the national military strategy's extensive treatment of peacetime engagement. To begin with there is the acknowledgment that the varied missions inherent in this strategic component are here to stay. There is also the use of those missions to help provide a relevancy for credible peacetime strength in an era of uncertainty. Finally, there is the strict prioritization concerning missions on the periphery in keeping with the realization that unrestricted humanitarian operations is not only counterproductive in terms of public support, but also "induces an insidious kind of muscle fatigue, consuming sinew in what appears to be a beneficial exercise."183 But that pragmatic prioritization has worn a bit thin in the wake of the antiseptic success of the U.S. relief operations for Ruwandan refugees? all reminiscent against the background of widespread genocide of Herman Kahn's assertion that "it is the hallmark of the expert professional that he doesn't care where he is going as long as he proceeds competently."184 At least part of the answer to this problem is to begin the very long process of helping to shape a more effective and responsible United Nations. This must include the development of military capabilities that move beyond traditional peacekeeping operations to the more complex military missions associated with peace enforcement that, in Jessica Mathew's description, "are still being patched together colonel by borrowed colonel."185

In the meantime, the U.S. military will continue to plan for uncertainty in the best tradition of Admiral Horatio Nelson. "But in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood," the admiral instructed off Cadiz in October 1805, "no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy."186 The problem today is that even the enemy ships are not yet clearly visible, leaving U.S. planners to face the adverse confluence of both Time's Cycle and Arrow. Time's Cycle begins with Edward Gibbon's reminder that history "is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind."187 Historical experience also suggests that by the time a distant threat emerges as a clear and present danger to the United States, it will be too late, as it was in 1941 when the Imperial Japanese Navy had to announce that danger from the air. At the same time, the ongoing unprecedented technological revolution in Time's Arrow is creating an increasingly more instantaneously dangerous world. In such an environment, capabilities planning will form the basis for threat-based requirements planning and implementation when it is needed in the future. On the other hand, a return in the present to threat-based requirements planning can lead to a new version of the Ten Year Rule, in which even the existence of Nelson's enemy ships is assumed away.188

It is in this context that the National Military Strategy of the United States ultimately plays its most important role. The JCS document clearly underscores the need for a selective and flexible strategy in the calculation of the relationship between the means, the BUR force, and the ends, the thwarting of aggression and the promotion of stability. That emphasis is demonstrated throughout the national military strategy in the focus on the use of all elements of national power to achieve the overarching twin objectives and on the great care that the United States must exercise in using military forces as instruments of national policy. The strategy also reflects the iterative interaction of the JCS with the NCA, a relationship reflected in the President's national security strategy and the Defense Secretary's annual report. Equally important, the document provides the Chairman a single, unclassified outlet to make his case for the controlled build-down of U.S. military forces in protecting and opportunistically extending the current transition. In making that case, the national military strategy also demonstrates that capabilities-based planning is not synonymous with a military effort to collectively feather its organizational nest. National security for the strategic hedgehog is the ultimate duty of the nation-state; and even in the vast complexities of the modern world, the primary responsibility for achieving that mission still belongs to the military. In the end, that reminder may be the most important rationale for continuing to publish the unclassified national military strategy document.


1. Terry L. Deibel, "Strategies Before Containment: Patterns for the Future," International Security, Vol. 16, No. 4, Spring 1992, p. 81. See also John Lewis Gaddis, "Coping With Victory," The Atlantic Monthly, May 1990, p. 49.

2. Gaddis, p. 50.

3. Stephen Jay Gould, Time's Arrow. Time's Cycle. Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, Cambridge: Howard University Press, 1987, pp. 10-11.

4. Michael Howard, "Cold War, Chill Peace," World Policy Journal, Vol. X, No. 4, Winter 1993/94, p. 30. See also Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History," The National Interest, No. 16, Summer 1989, pp. 3-18; the short responses to Fukuyama's article, Ibid., pp. 19-35; and Samuel P. Huntington, "No Exit: The Errors of Endism," Ibid., pp. 3-11.

5.Gould,p. 11.

6. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. & ed. Rex Warner, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1976, p. 80.

7. Arnold J. Toynbee, Civilization On Trial, New York: Oxford University Press, 1948, pp. 7-8. See also Colin S. Gray, "Strategic Sense, Strategic Nonsense," The National Interest, No. 29, Fall 1992, p. 12.

8. Howard, p. 33.

9. Charles Krauthammer, "After the Battle, Unrest," The Washington Post, November 18, 1994, p. A-27. See Also John Mearsheimer, "Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War," International Security, Vol. 15, No. 1, Summer 1990, pp. 5-5 6; Robert Jervis, "The Future of World Politics: Will It Resemble the Past?" International Security, Vol. 16, No. 3, Winter 199 1/92, pp. 46-47; and Colin S. Gray, "Villains, Victims, and Sheriffs: Strategic Studies and Security for an Interwar Period," Comparative Strategy, Vol. 13, October-December 1994, p. 358.

10. For example, Norman Angell, The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power in Nations to Their Economic and Social Advantage, New York: Putnam, 1910, and Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, Power and Interdependence, 2nd ed., New York: Harper Collins, 1989.

11. Original emphasis. Robert Kaplan, "The Coming Anarchy," The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 273, No. 2, February 1994, p. 58.

12. John Mueller, Retreat From Doomsday: The Obsolesence ofMajor War, New York: Basic Books, 1989, p. 240. For Mueller, war is initially rejected because it is ineffective or unprofitable and then later becomes "unthinkable" because of changes in mental habits caused by a socio-cultural revolution. The development of nuclear weapons did not affect the process. See also John Mueller, "The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons: Stability in the Postwar World," International Security, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall 1988, pp. 55-59. See also Carl Kaysen, "Is War Obsolete? A Review Essay," International Security, Vol. 14, No. 4, Spring 1990, p. 43, who believes Mueller is right for the wrong reason. "It is because wars of the kind under consideration have become unprofitable, both economically and politically, that they have become unthinkable."

13. For example, Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War, New York: Free Press, 1991, and John A. Keegan, History of Warfare, New York: Knopf, 1993.

14. Jeremy D. Rosner, "Is Chaos America's Real Enemy?" The Washington Post, August 14, 1994, p. C-1. See also U.S. Institute of Peace, "Managing Chaos," Peace Watch, Vol. 1, No. 2, February 1995.

15. Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox:An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History, New York: Mentor Books, 1957, p. 7.

16. Rosner, p. C-1. See also Gray, "Villains, Victims, and Sheriffs," pp. 354, 357, and 363.

17. Gray, "Villains, Victims, and Sheriffs," pp. 354 and 357.

18. Ibid., p. 357.

19. Gary Wills, Confessions of a Conservative, New York: Penguin Books, Ltd.: 1979, pp. 216-217.

180 Wills, p. 217. See also Gaddis, "Coping With Victory," p. 50.

181 Wills, p. 219.

181. Gould, Time's Arrow. Time's Cycle, p. 196, Jervis, "Future of World
Politics," pp. 42-43, and Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature ofHistory, New York: Norton, 1989. See also Gray, "Strategic Sense, Strategic Nonsense," p. 16: "Defense planning, alas, is an art and not a science."

182 Leslie H. Gelb, "Quelling The Teacup Wars. The New World's Constant Challenge," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 73, No. 6, November/December 1994, p. 5. See also Catherine M. Kelleher, "Soldiering On: U.S. Public Opinion on the Use of Force," Brookings Review, Spring 1994, p. 28, who points out that there "is indeed an increasing trend supporting an interventionist, engaged America," and concludes (p. 29) that:

success at home and leadership abroad are not mutually exclusive, and building a new post-Cold War consensus may be easier than it is often portrayed. An increasingly well-informed public values preserving U.S. interests overseas, whether they be centered on economic stability or human rights, whether they involve the assumption of international obligations or national sacrifice.

On the eight factors ranging from Cold War leadership fatigue to cautious U.S. military leadership that lead to the "Self-Deterrence Phenomenon," see Sloan, pp. 20-28.

183 Cohen, "What To Do About National Defense," p. 28. "The main strategic challenge for the United States is. . . to stem civil wars without drowning in them." Gelb, p.6.

184 Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960, p. 7.

185 Jessica Mathews, "The Perils of Peacekeeping," Washington Post, December 5, 1994, p. A23. "Multilateralism, for good or ill, almost always requiring American leadership, has descended on the world. It is a fact not to be debated, but absorbed into American strategy." Gelb, p. 6. But see Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars. Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 275, who points out that it remains to be seen whether in the wake of the Gulf War, "those who momentarily agitated for collective security will work as assiduously as did the 'wise men' of the Cold War to put the Wilsonian genie back into the bottle, once it served their transitory purpose."

186 Appendix D., Julian S. Corbett, The Campaign of Trafalgar, London: Longmans and Green, 1910, pp. 447-449.

187 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I., ed. J. B. Bury, London: Methuen, 1909, pp. 85-86.

188 Uncertainty, Colin Gray points out, angers the "clear and present danger" crowd. Gray, "Strategic Sense, Strategic Nonsense," p. 17. See also Ibid., pp. 15-16 and Gray, "Villains, Victims, and Sheriffs," pp. 354 and 364.