The following is an interview with Dr. T. X. Hammes about his book Deglobalization and International Security, which is part of the Rapid Communications in Conflict and Security (RCCS) Series (General Editor: Geoffrey R.H. Burn).
A central thesis of your book is that the fourth industrial revolution will lead to deglobalization. What does a deglobalized United States, to you, look like in the next few years? In the coming decades?
TH: Like previous industrial revolutions, the 4th will take time to evolve and will be subject to political actions. The onshoring of manufacturing and services was progressing well in 2015 and 2016 with record levels of foreign direct investment (FDI) flowing into the United States. Unfortunately, FDI fell dramatically in 2017 and has remained down since. The inconsistency of the Trump Administration’s tariff policies makes it very difficult for foreign investors to develop accurate cost predictions for manufacturing and export from the United States. However, the continuing improvement in robotics, 3D printing, low-cost natural gas, and artificial intelligence mean U.S. firms continue to repatriate manufacturing and services. While this brings more, higher-paying jobs to the country, factories employing advanced manufacturing need only a fraction of the people the old plants required. Thus a critical issue will be dealing with the labor dislocation inherent in industrial revolutions. Each previous revolution resulted in many more and better jobs but only after a period of dislocation as people acquired the skills needed in the new environment. A great unknown is how long that process will take for the fourth industrial revolution.
In your conclusion, you write about what Iran can do in the wake of the fourth industrial revolution. Do you have any further suggestions for Iran as the situation between Iran and the US escalates? How about for the US?
TH: In the last few months Iran has demonstrated clearly that the convergence of new technologies has created a family of relatively inexpensive, precision munitions. As stated in the book, smaller powers and even insurgent groups now have access to long-range precision strike. In October 2016, the Houthis insurgent group fired cruise missiles from Yemen at U.S. Navy ships patrolling offshore. In September, oil facilities located hundreds of miles inside Saudi Arabia were hit with drones and cruise missiles with 17 of 19 weapons hitting designated targets. The Yeminis claimed responsibility but the weapons were Iranian. In January 2020, Iranians fired 16 missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq. Twelve hit their targets. They have demonstrated that the limited number of U.S. anti-missile batteries simply cannot cover all the U.S. and Allied facilities within range of Iranian systems. In addition the narrow waters of the Strait of Hormuz provide confined space where Iranians might employ emerging naval and air swarm technology.
The United States can take advantage of the same advances to create its own family of small, smart, and cheap weapons. These can be used to reduce U.S. manpower and footprint requirements overseas. Most important they don’t require the large indefensible bases our current family of weapons does. In addition, they can be offered to allies to allow them affordable defense that can be coordinated with U.S. forces.
In a similar vein, how do you think that the technologies invented during the fourth industrial revolution will impact US-Iran relations?
TH: The new generation of weapons means any U.S. power projection efforts will face much more serious challenges than in the past. In the past, we relied on big, secure bases overseas to provide basing and logistics support. These bases were essentially invulnerable to enemy activity. As Iran has recently demonstrated that is no longer true. Iran will have increasingly viable military options against the U.S. — either through proxies like Hizbollah or directly as in the January missile attack. The mobility and ubiquity of these weapons make them extremely difficult to preempt.
On a positive note, the major changes in U.S. energy mix has reduced the pressure on U.S. administrations to “do something” about instability in the Middle East. Despite major disruptions and even the threat of major war, the OPEC Basket price of oil spiked only 5% before rapidly returning to pre-crisis level.
Of more concern, China understood these developments a decade ago and have built their “counter-intervention” concept (known as A2/AD in the U.S.) around the concept of long-range, precision, unmanned weapons. This concept specifically challenges the U.S. ability to support our allies in the Far East by threatening our air and logistics facilities with a mix of long-range drones, ballistic, cruise and hypervelocity missiles.
In the conclusion to your book, you note that “employment changes being driven by the revolution, the reduced reliance on overseas trade, the increasing cost of intervention, and budgetary pressures” will decrease the already low US public support for war. Do you think new technological nature of war will also impact public support for it? Why or why not?
TH: The book also discusses how the new generation of small, smart, and cheap weapons will raise the cost of any U.S. intervention significantly. The combination of lower perceived need for engagement, ambiguous benefit of almost 20 years of foreign wars, and higher cost of intervention will combine to reduce public support for conflict they don’t perceive as directly threatening the United States.
You conclude Deglobalization and International Securityby writing that “the alarming political dysfunction” of American politics perhaps poses the greatest threat to the country’s prosperity in the fourth industrial revolution. Given that, as you write, this dysfunction has plagued American politics for decades, could you point to ways that this dysfunction has already restricted our progress through this revolution?
TH: While political dysfunction has been an issue for decades, until recently parties agreed that international trade and the free flow of ideas and people was a good thing for the United States. For decades, much of our success came from attracting the best and brightest from all over the world to come to America to study and then stay to contribute to the rapidly expanding information economy. Developments from the information economy — robotics, AI, 3D printing — set the conditions for advanced manufacturing and services to return to the United States. This was reflected in foreign direct investment statistics until 2017. Then the uncertainty created by this Administration’s trade and tariff policies have made foreign businesses reluctant to invest in the United States. Compounding the problem, the recent severe restrictions on immigration have seriously damaged both our STEM education programs and made it much harder for the very people our economy most needs to come to the United States. The fourth industrial revolution is about brain power. Three hundred million Americans cannot outpace the world. But if we add ten million of the best minds in the world, we can. The exceptional success of foreign born entrepreneurs in the new economy clearly demonstrated the United States needs these people. We need to once again become their destination of choice.