In early 1999, before Bush popularized the phrase “Axis of Evil,” we posted the Axis 2001 scenario on Red Team Journal. In the scenario, we sketched a future in which self interest and opportunity draw together several U.S. competitors and potential adversaries. We are reposting the scenario now because some of the broad trends we posited now appear to be unfolding in real life. That said, the purpose of most scenario exercises is not to predict the future but to generate alternative contexts for planning. Nearly 10 years on, I hope we have prepared for something like the Axis 2001 scenario. If not, I hope we are preparing now.
Nearly 60 years ago, the three principal Axis powers–Germany, Japan, and Italy–entered into the Tripartite Pact. In practice, the pact fell far short of a model alliance. From the start, it was marred by mistrust and poor communication, flaws that grew even more pronounced as the war progressed. It did show, however, that opportunity and self-interest can bring together actors with widely divergent and even conflicting interests.
Today, a growing number of nations have begun to call for a strategic counterweight to U.S. power. These nations generally share few common interests; indeed, they may often be at odds among themselves. What they do share is a desire to thwart America’s continued global dominance.
The following scenario posits a future in which several nations seize upon the opportunity presented by a weakened United States. Like the Axis powers of World War II, they pursue their own agendas, serve their own interests, and coordinate their military operations infrequently. In short, all view the arrangement not as an enduring brotherhood, but simply as a chance to get what they want by pulling the Americans in many different directions.
Economics. For much of the 1990s, the United States enjoys a degree of prosperity unknown throughout most of the world. In fact, it comes to seem as if economic well-being has become a perpetual American entitlement. This season of abundance, however, veils a deep turbulence within the world’s financial markets.
At the close of the decade, a chain of currency devaluations and loan defaults triggers a global selloff. The force of the ensuing collapse is so great that even the freewheeling American economy succumbs. And like the once-bold Asian tigers, the United States finds itself unable to remake the easy affluence it so confidently enjoyed for so long.
The entire globe settles into an uneasy, all-inclusive depression. From Europe to Asia, the outlook is uniformly gray. Everyone howls for a new economic model; no one answers.
Politics. With hard times come self-doubt and recriminations. Nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the United States. Fractured by a divisive impeachment and demoralized by an apparent lack of vision within both parties, the American people grow increasingly agitated and quarrelsome. The polity begins to buckle beneath the stress.
But the United States is not the only nation beset with domestic discord. With a cheerless global forecast, upheaval, corruption, and crime surge. In many nations, weary and impoverished citizens submit to the growing lure of conquest.
World Affairs. As the ability of the United States to exercise effective leadership declines, crisis flourishes. Situations that might have once proved manageable explode. Others that might have never matured smolder, then quickly burst into flame.
Famine and war lead to more war and famine. Weapons flow more freely than relief. Through it all, the United States shuttles from crisis to crisis, overwhelmed and often unwelcome, shipping a few dollars here, some troops there. America’s predicament, however, does not go unnoticed. China, Russia, India, Iran–each understands the opportunity.
With each consecutive crisis, the United States finds itself increasingly isolated; in fact, with each crisis, the charges of hegemony grow sharper. As it soon discovers, the United States can no longer persuade and cajole as it did at the height of its power. It is a bitter tonic, one to which the Americans cannot seem to adjust.
As the new millennium dawns, the United States is strikingly unprepared for a long, varied, and difficult conflict against not one (or two) but a half-dozen foes — each unlike the other, each posing a different threat, each understanding only too well that the United States cannot defeat them all.
Military Affairs. The United States military stands alone as the single most powerful fighting force on the planet. No one else can project power globally on such a scale, nor has anyone else yet learned how to unite weapons, platforms, sensors, and command and control structures into such an effective whole. That said, the U.S. military faces several challenges:
- The lack of effective defenses against weapons of mass destruction, including the subset of missile defense;
- An increasing dependence on complex, expensive, and potentially vulnerable technologies;
- A steady decline in morale, readiness, and operational stocks that beset the force during the 1990s; and finally,
- The growing likelihood that the next adversary would in some way bring the war to U.S. territory.
In the minds of the American public, the U.S. military remains the same force that so handily won the 1991 Gulf War; it is not, nor is the threat an isolated dictator with an unmotivated, one-dimensional force.
Jan. 2000. An officer at China’s Academy of Military Sciences publishes a controversial paper titled “Closing the Door: A Case Study in Multi-Player Game Theory.” In it, he presents an analysis of global military strategy based on a mix of game theory and computer simulation. The research indicates that combinations of various actors could effectively stretch U.S. forces to critically thin levels. The article generates considerable attention, both within China and abroad. The Academy schedules an international conference in June to discuss the issue further.
May 2000. Several persistent crises worsen–anarchy in central Africa, economic turmoil in Asia, ancestral hatred in the Middle East. By the end of the month, more U.S. forces are deployed abroad than at any time since Desert Storm. The American public criticizes the cost; China and Russia condemn the insolence of this “New American Empire.”
June 2000. The Academy’s well-attended “Closed Door” conference opens with a panel discussion of the original paper. The panelists include officers and academics from a variety of former communist and neo-communist countries. With some irony, they resort to speaking English when the translation facilities prove inadequate.
The conference then moves to a wargaming exercise in which the participants attempt to unseat a global hegemonic power. A senior Chinese defense minister closes the event by urging the participants to return home and share with their colleagues the many lessons learned.
Aug 2000. In Russia, the newly elected president declares an era of Russian ascendance and promises to restore the glory of the lost empire. Relations with NATO worsen. Following a contrived showdown with the Polish government, Russian troops move into Belarus and deploy along the Polish border. Alarmed, the Polish government appeals directly to Washington for assistance. The United States calls for immediate NATO action and deploys additional troops and aircraft to Europe. The crisis subsides for now, though neither side agrees to yield.
Sep. 2000. While the Russians bluster in Europe, Iran embarks on a campaign of terror and intimidation in the Gulf. The aim is not to challenge U.S. forces directly, but to persuade the Americans’ hosts to send them home. The new Saudi government is the first to give way. It thanks the United States for its help and promptly rescinds all docking and basing rights.
Oct. 2000. While the administration rushes to respond in the Persian Gulf, a new crisis develops in the Pacific. Despite harsh warnings from the Chinese, the United States secretly permits Taiwan to participate in a regional missile defense system as a “technical associate.” The international press uncovers and exposes the arrangement. China is enraged. It announces its intention to reunify the island within six months. Quid pro quo, the United States bolsters its forces in the region. The President insists that China step down from the proposed reunification and meet to discuss peaceful alternatives. Talks begin, but go nowhere.
Nov. 2000. Immediately following the Presidential election, the United States launches an aggressive but unsuccessful diplomatic campaign in the Persian Gulf. The handful of remaining U.S. allies in the region are now under the constant threat of terrorist attack. The struggle culminates in a chemical attack on the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. Within days, U.S. forces are asked to leave the country.
China launches an assertive diplomatic campaign as well, hoping to muster world opinion against the Americans. The timing is perfect, the effort a surprising success. A series of open debates at the U.N. reveals a growing discontent, even among the more moderate states. Though America and Britain are able to block unfavorable action in the Security Council, this simply encourages China to pursue the matter elsewhere.
Dec. 2000. In central Africa, several hundred U.S. troops are exposed to an unfamiliar but extremely deadly virus. They are quickly enplaned for quarantine in Germany. The German government refuses to allow them to land, and they are rerouted directly to Fort Bragg. The virus proves difficult to contain and spills over into the surrounding community.
The incident angers much of NATO. Sensing an opportunity, Russia renews its dispute with Poland. Russian and Polish troops exchange fire in several risky border skirmishes. On the whole, NATO’s response is halfhearted.
Jan. 2001. Encouraged by recent events, the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences hosts a follow-on to the previous summer’s Closed Door conference. The attendees explore earlier themes and once again game the fall of a global hegemon. Though unofficial, the conference provides the participants a welcome forum in which to exchange ideas and strategies — so welcome, in fact, that they readily agree to a regular schedule of quarterly meetings.
The American press quickly dubs the group the “Millennium Pact” and dismisses it out of hand. In the words of one editorial, “this so-called ‘Pact’ is no more than a gang of misfits, more dangerous to themselves than to the rest of the world.” The public largely agrees.
The new administration is less certain. Faced with a disturbing number of potential conflicts, the President calls for an immediate and comprehensive review of U.S. capabilities and commitments. As part of the review, the Pentagon runs the original Closed Door scenarios through its own simulations. The results validate the author’s findings as published the previous year.
Feb. 2001. On the first day of the month, China bars all foreign naval traffic from the Taiwan Strait. Four days later, Russia moves additional forces into Belarus. The next day, Kuwait joins its neighbors in denying U.S. forces basing rights. Intelligence warns of imminent troubles in North Korea, the Balkans, and Iraq.
In heated council, the President and senior national leaders debate the course of U.S. strategy. Certainly the U.S. military can stare down the Russians–the Chinese as well–but at what price? And can it do so while holding the line everywhere else?
Many are quick to cite the growing list of domestic problems: swelling economic despair, a severe drought in the Northeast, the recent viral scare. Flag-waving is popular only up to a point, they caution. While the country may enjoy a good war dance, it’s just too tired for the real thing.
The response is equally passionate. Back down, the argument runs, and Atlas will indeed have shrugged. The consequences will be irrevocable and profound. America will become a nation under gradual siege, powerless to hold the confidence of its friends and the respect of its enemies.
The debate runs late into the night. Tempers rise and fall, but no solution is reached. The President retires weary and troubled, uncertain which course to pursue.