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A nation must think before it acts.
Born in the shadow of World War I, Andrew Marshall lived through World War II, and contributed to the avoidance of World War III. His long life is a review of civil-military relations in the advanced countries over the past hundred years. The power of the German General Staff of World War I and the military-led “war party” of Japan in World War II are long gone. And by design the United States never had a military of comparable influence to these.
This long epoch — from militarism to the nuclear age and beyond — closely spans Marshall’s life. It offers a window into how big military institutions have shaped the modern world that many intellectual and academic accounts either ignore or choose to overlook . But Andrew Marshall was not one to ignore the power and significance of these lethal organizations. He knew that the world had been a very dangerous place, and that it still is today. He felt that in many ways it was even more dangerous because of the scale, spread, and complexity of poorly understood military technologies. The larger significance of Andrew Marshall’s career is the necessity to keep this in mind.
Most reviews of Andrew Marshall’s career focus on what he got right (which was a lot), and what he got wrong. He served as the Director of the Net Assessment Office in DoD from 1973 until his retirement in 2015. Before that he worked for Henry Kissinger in Richard Nixon’s White House doing similar kinds of assessment. Many accounts of his career also describe his behind the scenes influence on U.S. defense policy. This was considerable, both for presidents and secretaries of defense. These are all important dimensions of Marshall’s career and they have received good attention from observers both during his lifetime and after his death on March 26, 2019.
But it’s also important to see his career on an even larger stage. Now, with the return of great power rivalry this is especially the case. Because Andy’s career was most deeply shaped by the issue of war and rivalry among major powers. Two “maximum effort wars” nearly destroyed civilization in the first half of the twentieth century. And Marshall’s work to ensure that World War III wouldn’t actually do so was what he spent a good part of career focusing on, first at the RAND Corporation and later in the Pentagon. His early estimate that the economic rise of China was best understood as Asia’s return to history is a case in point. In Andy’s mind, Asia was part of history during World War II when Japan in a matter of months drove the western powers out of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He often asked about what would have happened had the United States not been there to reverse the victories of the dictatorships.
For Marshall, the economic rise of Japan, China, and later India presaged the end of decades of an American hegemony that was largely accepted by the big powers of Asia. However, the return of Asia to history didn’t replace the great power rivalry between Russia and the West in Europe. Rather, the new great power rivalry was now taking place on a vastly larger geographic scale than that of the Cold War. It seemed possible that new trust building structures could have obviated the rivalry that was building up. The UN and other international organizations were built to do this in the Cold War. In the 1990s new institutions were built. Globalization itself offered a theory of a “golden straitjacket.” This was a set of political, economic, and business institutions that would force countries into a narrow band of behavior if they wanted to participate in the world economy that was rapidly growing at the turn of the 21st century.
But Marshall was skeptical of these approaches. Not that he was opposed to them. Rather, he thought they simply were not working, and he saw little in the way of their performance that they would somehow become more effective. I recall a meeting with Andy soon after India tested five atomic weapons in May of 1998, where I described an academic conference with a prominent advocate of globalization who believed that it was a way to ensure peace and world order. The globalization enthusiast assured the audience that India would be forced to give up its atomic weapons because of U.S. sanctions imposed immediately after the nuclear tests. Standard & Poor’s had lowered India’s sovereign credit rating because of the U.S. sanctions. The sanctions, he assured us, would force India to pay so much more on its international debt that it simply couldn’t afford to do so. Delhi would have to give up its nuclear weapons and abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Marshall thought this illusioned thinking was exactly the kind of approach that would get the world into trouble. Now, in 2019, we see that India hasn’t given up its bombs. Far from it. India has a growing nuclear arsenal organized into a “strategic triad” of bombers, missiles, and SLBMs. Delhi is MIRVing its ICBMs and recently tested its very own anti-satellite weapon. And one no longer even hears about India signing the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. This all reinforces Marshall’s sense that history, indeed, has returned to Asia, now as a strategic competition involving several major powers, including the United States.
But this strategic landscape isn’t the only change facing the United States. For Marshall the return of great power rivalry was occurring at the same time as revolutionary changes in technology, and the reappearance of nationalism. The new advanced technologies, cyberwar, AI, and war in space were poorly understood. This was in two senses. The technologies themselves were poorly understood. They were like the introduction of tanks and airplanes in the early 20th century. One-hundred years ago the military did not really understand how to use these new weapons. It took some countries decades to figure this out. Some countries never did — and they paid for this failure dearly.
Another way advanced technologies were misunderstood was in terms of strategy. New technologies had the ability to transform the nature of war itself. Witness the suddenness of Blitzkrieg — or the way the hydrogen bomb affected the whole context of foreign and defense policy in the Cold War.
What should also be understood is that Marshall’s views about the rising military power in Asia occurred as nuclear weapons were returning as a source of influence and power in the world. For many people this wasn’t supposed to happen. With the end of the Cold War nuclear weapons were supposed to disappear into the dustbin of history. But Marshall saw something else. For India, Pakistan, North Korea and others nuclear arms were an attractive way to develop a cheap, asymmetric military offset to American conventional power. Seen this way, the spread of nuclear weapons was a natural development. There was no way other countries could quickly counterbalance the U.S. technological edge, an edge that until recently looked to be insurmountable.
For better or worse the trends that Marshall saw have shaped the world we find ourselves in. Many observers seem to frame the challenge of American defense in terms of optimistic or pessimistic predictions of what is to come. Some people think that current trends will lead to disaster. Others believe that recent developments are an aberration that will soon right itself. Still others feel that we should act as if things will turn out well, even if we don’t believe it. Otherwise a self-fulfilling prophecy is created.
I wouldn’t put Marshall in any of these categories. His view was that predictions were a dangerous foundation for national security and international order. There were just too many examples of getting things wrong, as World Wars I and II showed, and as so many examples in the Cold War and afterwards have borne out. This terrible record of forecasts was the reason Marshall sought other methodologies, like organizational behavior and scenario analysis. He didn’t want to predict the future. He wanted to raise the level of discussion about it, to include recognition that a wider band of scenarios of what could happen was needed. Most fundamental of all was Marshall’s often repeated statement that the big danger was thoughtlessness.
Andy’s century is about the way major powers have merged the powers of technology and the nation state. This created many positive opportunities that have improved the wealth and standard of living for billions of people. But Marshall saw that these powers also have a sinister side. In his view the positive and the negative were intertwined and inseparable. Given the history of the twentieth century there was a need to look into the dark side, most especially the dark places of human will and feeling which could be raised to exponential levels of disaster because of technology. He sought to prevent these forces from leading to cataclysm again.
There are not many people who have so thoughtfully analyzed the world situation from an understanding of the dark as well as the light sides of human nature. Andy Marshall’s century, then, is a warning: to always remember that this dark side exists. Removing it from our thoughts does not remove it from the world. Marshall’s career is a sober reminder that things may not have changed as much as we would like to believe. For this we should be grateful to Andy.
 See Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts, The Last Warrior, Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense (New York: Basic Books, 2015).