The United States has arrived at a precarious position in its pursuit of national security; finally the world’s predominant military power—a goal that took fifty years to achieve—it must face a new reality: the rest of the world has adapted and effectively changed the rules of the game.  The arms race is over.  The brains race is on. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) delivered by brainwashed, networked, religious radicals, or controlling another nation’s debt, are just two mind-based examples of new power strategies.

Today’s battles will be won or lost in new venues; in the hearts and minds of populations who have become free agents and/or the financial balance sheets of rivals.  In the development and distribution of clean fuels and/or the deployment of untraceable computer viruses.  Networked power is replacing the uniformed coercive power of states, and the US is stuck in an old, increasingly irrelevant narrative—debating troop levels and slinging invective in partisan debates; dithering or deliberation?  Freeing ourselves from our own trap will determine whether the US stays on top, or joins the short, albeit impressive list of former super powers.

The debate today ought to be about the questions not the answers. As the world adapts asymmetrically to America’s predominant power, will the decisions we make today make a difference?  As culturalist, Robert Wright, points out, should we “kill the terrorists” or “kill the terrorist meme?”[1]  Should we be investing in bigger bombs and more troops, or fuel independence and smarter networks?  We must rethink our debates and question all the old ‘givens’ from our Cold War mentality.

Our military industrial complex is obsolete. We must build an intelligence complex that is both effective and highly adaptive if we are to succeed in a world where the enemy is unseen and alliances are self-executing based on instantaneous calculations of relative benefit.  And, we must realize that the power of attraction now trumps the power of coercion in a new game of paper, rock, scissors, and fire.

[1] Robert Wright, “Who Created Major Hasan?” New York Times, November 22, 2009.