Review of A Handful of Bullets by Harlan K. Ullman (Naval Institute Press, 226 pages)
LONDON-On June 28, 1914, in the city of Sarajevo, a teenage Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie. Widely believed to have been a product of Serbian government intrigue, the assassinations led to an Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on that nation the following month. By end of the next week the continent’s rigid alliance structure had sucked every other major European country into the vortex of escalating hostilities that became World War I.
The conflict ended four years and four months later with 17 million dead. The Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires were shattered. The diplomatic order that emerged from the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars was no more. These were massive, almost incomprehensible, consequences that seemed incompatible in scale with the cause. Many wonder now, a century later, could such an almost accidental cataclysm happen again?
In A Handful of Bullets – the title is a reference to the Archduke’s assassination – Harlan K. Ullman catalogues dozens of potential “Princips and archdukes” for our age — that is, small and unexpected causes waiting to kick off major global upheavals. His survey makes for disturbing but thought provoking reading.
A graduate of the Naval Academy, Ullman has spent most of his professional life as a global strategist, both in the Navy and private business. Among other achievements, he devised the “Shock and Awe” military doctrine that succeeded so brilliantly in the first phase of the Iraq War. He currently serves as an advisor to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and The Atlantic Council.
Ullman notes that today’s global arena is all but unrecognizable from that of the Cold War era. For example, what he calls the “strategic paradigm” has shifted from “massive assured destruction to massive assured disruption.” The September 11, 2001 attacks and more recent cyber attacks are cases in point. None has had the annihilating capacity of a thermonuclear exchange, but each signals a new era of grave threats to the nation, threats that the United States has yet adequately to grasp, much less address.
One adjustment must be to the now all but universally recognized rise of non-state security threats. “While state-versus-state conflict cannot be ignored or dismissed,” he says, “the old Westphalian [state dominated international] system will not alone suffice as the basis for ensuring peace, prosperity, or stability in the international system.” Technology, particularly the Internet and its new kind of global communications, “provide critical means for empowering individuals and nonstate actors,” among them terror organizations like ISIS. All are potential Princips.
Making this new world more ominous are what Ullman terms the “four housemen” of the modern apocalypse: Failed or failing states, economic despair, disparity, and dislocation; radical ideologies, most prominently the cult of Islamicism; and environmental calamities such as climate change.
The most interesting of these “horsemen” is the first: failed or failing government, not for the idea of failed states itself, which, as with the idea of non-state security threats, is far from novel, but for the failing state on which he focuses almost exclusively: the United States, the ultimate archduke.
Ullman argues that for the last two decades the United States has not been up to the job of global leadership, or even of forthrightly addressing its own internal challenges. Gridlock in Congress is part of the problem. Inconvenient today, it could prove deadly tomorrow. “Even without sequestration cuts over ten years,” writes Ullman in his most arresting observation, “uncontrolled personnel, health care, weapons-systems, and pension costs, unchecked, will slash the buying power of the current defense budget by half before decade’s end.” But Capitol Hill paralysis is hardly the sole failure he finds contemporary American governance.
Since George H.W. Bush, we have not had a president enter office who possessed anything resembling the knowledge or experience required for global leadership. All Mr. Bush’s successors draw sharp criticism for poor judgment, indecision, and lack of even elementary strategic perspective. Ullman points to both George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion and Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia as significant blunders reflecting each man’s lack of preparation for the job. Say this for Ullman: in an age of hyper-partisanship, he is completely even handed. He finds the leaders from both political parties entirely lacking.
Similarly, he takes a refreshingly balanced approach as he criticizes American government for being dysfunctionally and even menacingly intrusive in the life of society. He says that surveillance of our citizens has gone too far – something with which liberals and libertarians will agree. He also charges that government shackles business and daily life and recommends repeal of the Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank laws, sure to delight conservatives. And in a surprising passage regarding an area largely unnoticed on either side of the political divide, he extends this criticism to the conduct of national defense, which has gone from warfare to what he calls “lawfare”, with numerous battlefield decisions subject to real-time legal sign-off before troops may act.
There is not enough space in a short review adequately to summarize Ullman’s comprehensive survey of the Princips and archdukes of our age, nor his extensive and frequently controversial list of remedies and reforms. But agree or disagree, every citizen who is serious about the nation’s global challenges should weigh the situation and strategy assessments of this iconoclastic and readable thinker.