Eighty years ago, the world changed forever. In the early hours of December 7, 1941, Japanese warplanes launched from the decks of a fleet of Japanese Imperial Navy aircraft carriers that had surreptitiously departed Japan months before navigated a circuitous route across the North Pacific Ocean, toward the US Navy and Army Air Corps facilities on the Hawaiian Islands.
Their mission was to destroy America’s military presence in the Pacific Ocean. It was a daring plan that very nearly succeeded.
As the great historian Roberta Wohlstetter assessed in her review of the Pearl Harbor attack, US intelligence was aware of the rising threat toward the Americans in the Pacific posed by Japan. Yet the intelligence mosaic was never properly pieced together by policymakers in Washington, DC.
A similar pattern of failure persists today, despite the generous funding that the US intelligence community currently receives.
Three generations have passed since the Second World War jolted the US from its peaceful isolation and thrust it into the (unwanted) starring role on the world stage. Since that time, the country – and the world – has been profoundly changed.
New technologies, sociopolitical arrangements, and an all-volunteer military force have reshaped the US into a country that no one living in 1941 would have recognized. Yet the one thing that has remained consistent between 1941 and 2021 is the abject failure of America’s leaders to anticipate and avert a surprise attack from a strategic rival.
The fact is, the United States is ripe for another surprise attack.
The major powers, the United States, China and Russia, have all been jockeying for greater leverage over one another in cyberspace for at least a decade. Ever since the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 emanated from Wuhan, China, and caused a pandemic in 2020, hostilities among the world’s great powers have only increased.
World War III is already here
The brilliant Dr Pippa Malmgren, a technology investor and former US presidential adviser to George W Bush, has warned about the possibility of the Third World War having already started. Sean McFate of the National Defense Univeristy made similar claims in his magnificent 2019 book The New Rules of War.
Meanwhile, my colleague and friend David P Goldman has correctly cautioned audiences that the tug-of-war occurring between the United States and China over Taiwan might be the trigger for another great-power war.
Just as in 1914 and 1941, the United States is watching a world that is burning – and that conflagration could, at any moment, consume the US. But America is not ready for this fight. And there is a way to avoid the coming conflict without America sacrificing its power or ideals.
Russia and China are malign actors seeking to change fundamentally the international system away from the US-led order that has persisted since the collapse of the Soviet Union into something else entirely.
Few nations, other than the autocracies, desire this. But without an appealing alternative, the logic of power means that the smaller states in the world will pick sides – and if the autocrats are more powerful and appealing than the United States, they will naturally work to overturn the world order that Americans have become accustomed to.
China and Russia court war with US
Writing in 2018, I argued:
“These [current global] trends mirror what occurred in Europe leading up to the Great War between Germany and Great Britain. On this anniversary of the end of World War I, let us remember this basic truth: Whatever economic damage may be incurred, man’s desire to make war upon his neighbors in order to enhance his own position cannot be rooted out of him, certainly not by the science of economics.
“The West’s talent for deluding itself into believing no one seeks war for material gain is as great today as it was in Sir Norman Angell’s time.”
The probing actions that the great powers are subjecting one another to are as dangerous and destabilizing as any act of war that precipitated the great wars of the previous century.
The rising major powers are recklessly jockeying and innovating their technology while the status quo power, the United States, dithers. The US Navy is the smallest it has been since the 1920s. The US Air Force is struggling to maintain its fleet of warplanes. The US Army is a shambles after two decades of inconclusive counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East. And the Marines are mothballing their tanks.
Meanwhile, the newly created Space Force has sadly devolved into a sop for defense contractors and diversity officers peddling their snake oil to a desperate defense establishment.
Everywhere the US exudes weakness and, as the late Donald Rumsfeld once said, “Weakness is provocative. Strength deters.”
This year, US intelligence was not only surprised by a Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) test, but it was similarly “stunned” by a game-changing Chinese test of a hypersonic glide vehicle capable of wreaking devastation on the United States. American analysts were then shocked to learn that China was expanding its nuclear-weapons arsenal.
The attack on Pearl Harbor did not happen in a vacuum. It occurred because of the decisions of countless policymakers both in Washington and Tokyo.
In Washington, American leaders used a combination of onerous economic sanctions coupled with endless provocations in the Pacific by US submarines toward their Japanese rivals, all in attempt to stymie Japan’s rise. For the Japanese leaders in Tokyo, it was their unflinching quest to dominate their near-abroad by pushing all other rivals, especially the United States, out of the Pacific.
At the same time, the arrogance and ignorance of the two sides ensured that disaster would occur. Both sides viewed each other through racialist lenses.
The Americans continually underestimated Japan because of this. Similarly, the Japanese had believed the Americans were weak and decadent; that a knockout blow would force Washington into a negotiated settlement with Tokyo.
That, coupled with profound changes in military tactics and technology – namely the advent of the aircraft carrier – meant that a bolt-from-the-blue attack would precipitate a major conflict. And America’s victory in such a conflict was not assured.
Today, Washington’s policies toward its rivals in Beijing and Moscow have been both provocative and wholly ineffective. At the same time, both Moscow and Beijing overreact at every perceived American provocation or insult.
Everyone is spoiling for a fight no one can possibly win. It’s as though the major powers are running into a burning building, waving loaded guns around, waiting to see what happens next.
This is not responsible statecraft. This is great-state arsonism.
Technology and diplomacy can save the world
Hypersonic vehicles. ASAT weapons. Cyberwar. Information warfare. Electromagnetic warfare. Any of these technologies could be the aircraft carrier of our day. And whoever masters these technologies for warfare first, coupled with the great powers’ thirst for a decisive blow against their enemies, will have an unambiguous advantage over the other great powers – meaning that a surprise attack that triggers the next world war is coming soon.
The solution is not to court war; it is to delay it. The only thing the US can do is to rebuild itself over the next decade. It must make itself economically more dynamic and attractive to the rest of the world than it has ever been. It must stop getting mired in regional micturating contests with tinpot dictators or funding antiquated defense systems that only enrich the contractors that ring Washington, DC.
Instead, Washington must build actual space-based defenses and it must invest in its own hypersonic capabilities – all the meanwhile reaching out to both Moscow and Beijing potentially to create a new world order that is amenable to all sides (without sacrificing America’s moral position).
There is a pathway forward for ensuring America’s long-term dominance on the world stage. But that must be left primarily to the innovators and diplomats.
Pearl Harbor was the result of years of failed American and Japanese policies toward each other. Another surprise attack, followed on by a new world war, would come from similar failures – and given America’s current weakness, it is not guaranteed that the United States will win.
Another world war is an entirely avoidable event.
On the eve of the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we must learn from the mistakes that both American and Japanese leaders made that led to that attack and work over the long term to create a more dynamic and dominant United States. The US can defeat the autocrats the way it defeated the British Empire and the Soviet Union: bloodlessly, through diplomatic skill, clarity of purpose, and innovation.