By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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This Week:


Much of the weblog this month is devoted to "mapping" the contours of a changing world. After a wide-ranging cover package from Wired, (see parts one and two in this weblog), the Atlantic Monthly's Headlines Over the Horizon feature is regrettably more predictable, focusing on global threats to national security. The feature is written by analysts for the RAND corporation, who  tend to reduce foreign affairs to identifying threats and growing the military; diplomacy and economic development hardly register in RAND's roundup. (The Atlantic's cover package does include Robert Kaplan's more balanced roundup of rules for the future of foreign policy; it's unavailable online but an interview with Kaplan is posted.) Still, since the purpose of the weblog this month (and always) is to recognize what should be on our front pages and newscasts but seldom is, at least four RAND headlines warrant attention.

  • Among the victims of the AIDS crisis ravaging Africa are soldiers, who are two to five times as likely to be infected as civilians. In some countries the rate of HIV and AIDS in the army is 50 percent or more; in South Africa, some units suffer infection rates of up to 90 percent, says RAND, which cites sexual promiscuity and drug use as the primary causes. RAND is worried about the effect this has on African nations' defense capacities, as fewer officers are around to control their ranks, more defense funds are spent on medical treatment, and the military is less capable of keeping the peace.

Unanswered Questions: RAND acknowledges that "African armies are often seen as problems, not as forces for good," but states that "in many cases only they have been able to ensure national and regional stability." How wrong-headed is our view that African armies contribute to political instability and violence as much as they prevent it? Could military depletion (tragic as the loss of life is) actually mean fewer military coups, or will it only encourage more uprisings? Will it make the U.S. more or less inclined to intervene with its own troops? And, finally, is there any chance this threat to armies' health will reduce their reliance on sexual predation as a military tactic?

  • Our nightmares of nuclear war are usually earth-bound; we dread the prospect of nations flinging missiles at each other. What might happen first, RAND reports, are nuclear attacks on satellites orbiting the earth. It's easier to shoot satellites than to send missiles to a distant city, and in five years as many as five problematic nations could be able to do it. Not only would such attacks destroy their targets, but they could also overheat the Van Allen radiation belts that envelop the earth, disrupting the satellites within them. Diplomacy needs to take into account this threat of indirect attack.
  • Throughout revolutions in military technology, the backbone of the armed forces continues to be an old standby: the aircraft carrier. And "old" is the operative word—four of the 12 U.S. carriers date back to the 1960s. Right now only eight of the carriers are deployable, and when we used five in the invasion of Iraq, it left the fleet thin. Should the U.S. need to mobilize in two different places, it may need to expand the fleet (although new carriers would take more than a decade to get ready).

Unanswered Questions: Here's where the conflict-of-interest red flags go up. The Navy, which wants more aircraft carriers, is on RAND's list of "major clients and sponsors," and Frank Carlucci, who sits on RAND's board of trustees, was Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Defense and now chairs the well-connected defense company The Carlyle Group (to which President Bush's father is a senior advisor). So when RAND advocates military expansion, take out your grain of salt. Meanwhile, other than the question of whether the $6 billion price tag for each new aircraft carrier should be a budget priority in a lousy economy (as RAND says it should), there's the practical question of personnel, which RAND mentions only in passing. With the U.S. relying more and more on reservists (see this article), how feasible would it be to staff an even larger fleet?

  • To understand the hostility between India and Pakistan (see fourth item here in earlier weblog), you have to understand the politics of water, RAND says. The two countries' struggle over the Indus River was eased by the Indus Water Treaty in 1960, but increased pollution and falling water levels in the Indus have left the treaty shakier than ever. India has already threatened to break the treaty and choke off Pakistan's water supply. Unlike the countries' tussle over Kashmir, a sparsely populated and seemingly insignificant region (see fifth item here from Wired), the future of the Indus Water Treaty affects the lifeline of people in both countries.
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