WASHINGTON — The world is changing faster than our sluggish political leaders — let alone the public — can manage.
The COVID-19 virus and climate change move far more quickly than the international community, as we saw last week at the G-20 in Rome and the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Back home, rapid social shifts push many Americans to embrace fraudsters who promise to save them. The urgent need to upgrade our fraying democracy is blocked by GOP naysayers and Democratic Party infighting.
Above it all, science is advancing at warp speed while we humans progress at sludge speed, too oblivious to recognize that the changes from which we now recoil will be dwarfed by those of the next five or 10 years.
That reality was highlighted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Mark Milley, at the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday in Washington.
The general spoke of the uniqueness of the Chinese challenge, fueled by Beijing’s drive to surpass the United States in cyber capabilities and space. His real message was the need to recognize the urgency of this moment.
“We are witnessing one of the largest shifts in geopolitical power that the world has witnessed,” the general said. He was referring to China, of course, which in the last four decades has surged from a peasant economy and peasant army to the second-largest global economy with sophisticated capabilities in space and cybersecurity — on land, sea, air, and underwater.
The general stressed, however, that these changes happened within “a fundamental change in the character of war” spurred by vast technological changes. “The last big [shift, between World War I and World War II,] was the introduction of the airplane, mechanization, and the radio. Today, you’re seeing robotics, artificial intelligence, … and a wide variety of other technologies.
“If we, the United States military, don’t do a fundamental change ourselves in the coming 10 to 20 years, we’re going to be on the wrong side of a conflict.”
What the general was speaking about involves more than imprecise talk of a new Cold War between two unequal superpowers. The Soviet Union was a self-isolating country with lousy geography and a failing economy, whose power rested on a large arsenal of nuclear weapons and its energy supplies.
The new “tripolar war,” as the general labeled it, involves competition between the United States and a Chinese economic giant in hot pursuit of technological supremacy with America, trailed by a Russian economic midget still defined by oil, gas, and nukes.
Again, rapid advances in science are the key to defining the new era we live in. “Adding in all the technologies that are coming at us very quickly,” the general said, “we’re entering into a world that is potentially much more strategically unstable than the last 40 to 70 years.”
Space and cyber capabilities are the big new worry. As Milley pointed out, our economy, country, and military are entirely dependent on space and the satellites that provide local and global connectivity.
We are growing familiar with the mayhem cyber hackers — both governmental and criminal, or working in tandem -- can wreak on our systems, from banks to energy supplies to hospitals.
And we think we know about space wars, because we have been watching them for years in the movies. But a real space war, that knocked out military and commercial satellites (which run our daily life), would be nothing like competing with Darth Vader.
“Space today is a new domain of more conflict,” the general said. “We don’t want to have conflict in space. I would say that we are the number-one country on earth that has capabilities in space, but other countries are close behind. Space is becoming a very contested domain for the United States to operate in, and a lot of work remains to be done.”
Yet the progress in doing that “work that needs to be done” — in the political, military, health, and environmental spheres — doesn’t remotely compute with the rapidity that is demanded.
As other speakers at the forum pointed out, the United States has the resources to catch up. Private companies are now working more closely with the Pentagon on combating cyber threats, and American scientific talent is still the best in the world (if we don’t block the immigrant talent that has been so crucial to our breakthroughs).
Private-public partnerships are putting more satellites into space. The speedy emergence of safe COVID-19 vaccines proves that U.S. and international scientists can rise to new threats if they are funded and supported.
Yet, our political system seems incapable of upping its game. GOP leaders deny science and decry immigration while focusing on the Big Lie – even though Tuesday’s elections show that it isn’t fatal for the GOP to distance itself from Donald Trump.
President Biden and his team grasp the need for speed but are thwarted in its application.
The challenges Milley outlined — from China and technological change — won’t wait for legislators to pass the bills that would address them. As the general noted, the last Cold War with nukes involved a simple yes or no. A tired Soviet Union was not prepared to use them.
“That is a different world from cyberspace,” the general pointed out. The new world, and China, won’t wait around for us to speed up our response.