[NOTE: comments are welcomed and may be incorporated with reference in future revisions.]
The core objective of national strategy is to insure the survival and prosperity of the nation -- "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in the words of the Declaration of Independence. For a number of years, Soviet missiles actually threatened our national survival, and this threat obviously had a natural priority - prosperity and the institutions behind it are meaningless if the nation fails to survive. During these years, prosperity was also assured by the preeminent economic position of the United States - with less than 5% of global population, the nation enjoyed some 25% of global wealth. Even the poor in America were better off than literally billions of people on subsistence worldwide.
This strategic situation has been transformed. The threat of nuclear devastation has receded dramatically, though some lesser nuclear threats maintain a high salience. Yet, the most significant threats of violence to the nation are no longer from hostile nation states, but from a loose collaboration of transnational criminals and terrorist elements, many motivated by radical Islamic beliefs, that threatens to disrupt the critical networks which underpin modern life. Military forces have limited utility against such threats of violence, while the nation faces a whole new range of threats of economic disruption. Nothing illustrates this blurring of the boundary between violence and environment better than the twin threats of bioterror and bird flu - essentially the same threat, but one intended as a violent attack and the other a purely natural phenomenon.
Our strategy, however, has been slow to recognize these fundamental shifts. It still focuses on military and force solutions and minimizes the economic and environmental challenges which are much more difficult to define and address. Our military has also been slow to adjust; we still have almost no forces designed for constabulary duties or to provide security for economic development in hostile territories. Recently Secretary of Defense Gates himself has called for substantial increases in spending for the State Department. Yet, our strategic vision is now measured in months or years, certainly not decades or centuries.
Most Americans are generally aware of earlier great powers which overextended themselves and then vanished, sometimes precipitously. Rome ruled for centuries and then the empire disintegrated. The Soviet Union dominated a large portion of Eurasia for 80 years and then collapsed in a few short months. Yet it is hard to appreciate the applicability of these historical lessons to our own situation, the need to apply the necessary resources to counter real and growing threats. The United States had been said to represent the "end of history," the culmination of governmental development in a free society with a free market economy. This is the model which could gradually spread to the whole world and bring peace, stability and prosperity. As the first major nation to achieve this status, we took for granted the continuing prosperity that came with it.
Unfortunately, there are some major problems with this assumption.
First, freedom at home is steadily eroding under the thrust of modernization against a background of terrorism. With the global internet bringing international criminal elements directly into our homes and terrorists exploiting our open society, new governmental restrictions are increasingly affecting our daily lives. Additionally, a burgeoning prison population plus millions of disenfranchised former prisoners and illegal aliens means that suffrage falls to an increasingly smaller percentage of the population, while gerrymandering, lobbyists and voter manipulation make elections less and less meaningful.
More troubling, free markets do not provide fair economic results. Despite extensive and increasingly complex (and costly) regulation, the domestic distribution of wealth has become more and more lopsided, dividing society into haves and have-nots. Millions of hard-working Americans can ill afford the simple necessities of life, not to mention health care and comfortable retirement. The problem is exacerbated by an aging population, by a looming crisis in energy, by a disruptive immigration situation, and by the growing amount of debt held by foreign individuals and nations. This constrained economic situation is creating a permanent underclass which breeds frustration, anger, and extremism. Globally, the problem is even more complex on two levels. First, large-scale flows of wealth greatly favor the industrialized world, with the United States at its head. Secondly, the internal distribution of wealth within poorer countries is often grossly distorted, with potentates of various sorts skimming fortunes from their unfortunate subjects. This large and growing global underclass is becoming increasingly aware of its situation, thanks partly to the global internet. And it is becoming increasingly politicized and radicalized. Current economic problems only exacerbate these challenges.
Against this background, developing challenges are already visible.
Global economic inequality is a major underlying basis of the terrorist threat challenging the developed world in general and the United States in particular. It fuels the frustrations within which radical ideologies flourish. It is the result of hundreds of years of economic development and cannot be solved quickly or with simple fixes. The United States remains heavily dependent on a smoothly functioning global economy, but can no longer exist as an island of prosperity in a world of deprivation. Globalization and internet are already bringing that era of economic dominance to a close. What will replace it is uncertain, but what is clear is that the United States has to face this challenge of global modernization or a burgeoning underclass, both domestically and internationally, will threaten its very existence. This is the major political challenge of the future; terrorism is a minor component which presently looms large in our short-term view, but would be just a small part of a future world in turmoil.
Economic globalization greatly complicates this situation. We are approaching a situation in which we have a flat world, a level economic playing field on which everyone can compete. Well, actually, not everyone. The poorest of the poor are still left out and the underclass continues to grow. Will some shreds of prosperity trickle down to them, or will the visibly improved status of favored groups simply intensify the tensions of global economic equality? This is obviously a question that only the future will answer. But in the present, the new competition is already affecting US jobs and US global competitiveness. The nation has been taking piecemeal efforts to address underlying problems - efforts to improve US education have so far had marginal results, as have efforts to reduce foreign energy dependence and a need for cheap imported labor.
If these inequalities and declines in competitiveness persist, it is easy to envision a world in which strife with disaffected domestic and international underclasses, global economic competition, and the pressures of energy shortages and overseas debt combine to bring a sharp drop in the US economy. This can not only drastically undermine prosperity and harmony, but will also undermine the national capability to maintain a strong defense.
Global warming is another major challenge visible on the horizon. Although the causes of this phenomenon remain controversial, there is much less debate about its occurrence. Globally temperatures are rising, glaciers are melting, and the ocean levels have already increased measurably in the last decades. Future impacts remain murky, but there is a clear possibility that the West Antarctic Ice Shelf will collapse sometime this century and that ice caps on Greenland and other Arctic areas will diminish considerably and some may even disappear. This is a worst case scenario, but we know major climate changes typically occur in spurts after years of relatively small shifts, so any long-range disaster planning needs to take such potentials into account. These sorts of changes could put under water all of Florida south of Lake Okeechobee and all of Louisiana south of Lake Pontchartrain, as well as major portions of all of our great port cities. Coupled with increasingly severe hurricanes, it could result in natural disasters dwarfing the 2005 Katrina catastrophe. At a minimum, tens of millions of people would be displaced and a large portion of the national building and industrial stock would be destroyed. This is a challenge of catastrophic proportions but uncertain probabilities; prudence demands contingency planning and preparations.
Effects of lesser magnitude are almost certain - ocean rises up to several feet, more severe storms, and major changes in cropland conditions and water availability. At a minimum, these will have a significant impact on the US and global economies and will certainly complicate the economic challenges discussed above. Some scientists dispute or minimize these possibilities, often relying on past patterns of regular fluctuations - warming this decade will assuredly be followed by cooling next decades, as it generally has been. Other scientists see continued deterioration in global environmental stability and identify carbon dioxide as a major contributor. Many of these scientists are not just looking at prior patterns but trying to understand what drives the changes and then model them. Their models are both disturbing and incomplete.
The Katrina catastrophe, relatively small compared to potential future scenarios, aptly demonstrated the difficulties of coping with a devastated city. Refugees were accepted willingly by neighboring and far-flung areas of the country. But helping even this modest flow of displaced Americans to find permanent homes and employment is proving much more troublesome. It is only a small foretaste of possible future problems. Yet there is no national planning visible at all in terms of what needs to be done if conditions force major economic and population realignments - a possible eventuality not only from global warming, but also from earthquakes, hostile strikes or terrorist radiation devices.
A global spread of democracy is seen as a solution to many of these ills -- our National Security Strategy stresses the importance of spreading democracy, noting that "free governments ... do not oppress their people or attack other free nations." The rise of democracies is indeed accompanied by a rise in peace. Certainly West Europe illustrates this vividly -- despite past centuries of internecine warfare, armed conflict between the major European states is now unthinkable. But democracy itself is not sufficient to insure peace. Mature democracies, with decades of experience compromising over divisive issues, are indeed averse to starting wars. But newer democracies are often bellicose and nationalistic - not surprisingly local politicians use popular themes to gain election, even when these themes are freighted with enmity - Hitler provides a prominent historical example, Milosevic a more current example, and Hamas a disturbing contemporary one. Moreover, emerging democracies can be exceedingly difficult to govern, with badly fragmented electorates squabbling over any progressive policies. It is no wonder that strong men often take control, typically promising order while amassing personal wealth and power, exacerbating underlying inequalities of wealth, but sometimes also building the resources the nation needs to move forward - South Korea, for example, owes its present prosperity to years of pseudo-democratic rule, strong governments which were unquestionably accepted by the United States. Even this very homogeneous society developing under UN protection took decades to construct a working democracy.
So, yes, we need democracies, and it can be encouraging to watch a spread of this form of government. But what we really need is not just democracies, but mature democracies, "effective democracies" in the words of the National Security Strategy, a goal requiring "the work of generations." As with a disruptive teenager, getting from here to there is not so easy and at a minimum takes time, time that can seem interminable while it is in process. Berating autocrats and counting purple fingers may be satisfying, but is at best a tiny step in the right direction. Saying that the "peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq have replaced tyrannies with democracies" is at best premature - they are certainly not effective democracies and will not be for a long time.
So while the United States stands ready to lead a "growing community of democracies," we have no clear concept of how to go about this, how to promote real democratization in a fragmented Iraq, a hostile Iran, or an autocratic China. Where new democracies have arisen - for example, in Haiti, Ukraine, Georgia or Macedonia - there has been little support for their struggling governments. A major failing in this regard was with Russia, a country with a minimal democratic tradition which nevertheless struggled for a decade to establish one, with such disappointing results that a strong man government now has widespread support and actively undermines democratic movements in neighboring nations. In our own backyard, demagogues flourish anew in Latin America. This is a global struggle for hearts and minds, or at least for desirability of democracy, but our own example of increasingly divisive democracy and lack of coordinated international communications efforts put the nation at a decided disadvantage. We are clearly engaged in a war of ideas and will be for a long time. Our strategy needs to include systematic and comprehensive efforts in this area also, and we must back up our rhetoric with our own example.
The unfortunate situation is that our national strategic plans are fixated on short-term actions and simplistic solutions. As the larger strategic challenges of engaging radical Islamic ideologies, spreading prosperity, addressing global warming and promoting real democratization come into closer view, America will face stresses which may indeed result in national collapse. Yet in the face of these menaces, we continue to put a large portion of strategic resources into programs which fail to address underlying problems or looming strategic challenges.
If the United States is to remain a global beacon of freedom and prosperity, changes need to begin at home, developing an economy which works for everyone. Without radical domestic changes, the nation will be unable to provide the global leadership needed to avert economic turmoil and promote the spread of truly effective democracy, democracy which provides for the needs of even the least of its citizens. America can become a muscle-bound pygmy, heavily armed but unable to adequately address the diffuse threats of violence and economic challenges which may literally be swamping it. Short-term challenges do have a natural priority, but long-term ones cannot be neglected or the nation will simply fail to adapt quickly enough to a rapidly changing world.
The problems we face are complex and long-standing, many of them ingrained in global politics. They are difficult to address and there are no real solutions in sight - at best we can move conditions in a more positive direction, trying to assess the impact of policies which may take decades to bear real fruit and adjusting them as we go forward. This is a daunting challenge for democracies where constituencies have little appetite for developing long-term programs and entrenched interests fight to preserve privileges and perks. The challenge is even harder for the United States for two reasons. First, a sizable portion of our citizenry has never been out of the country, speaks no foreign languages, and has little appreciation for how dependent the United States is on a smoothly functioning global economy. Second, our government is organized along functional lines; additionally many responsibilities are split between Federal, state, and local officials. As Katrina vividly illustrated, it is very difficult to address issues which require an integrated response, while the current economic recession illustrates how difficult it is for Congress to address broad issues which lack clear causes and offer no rapid solutions.
So it is tempting to promote short-term policies which promise solutions to easily described challenges, but the major challenges we face are ambiguous and amorphous and call for patient, long-term approaches. This requires national leadership inspired by a vision of a more distant future and having the foresight to plan for it. Without such a vision the nation is in real danger of drifting into an economic dead end. Economic stagnation may do what the Soviets were never able to do - undermine our prosperity and consign us to join the Romans in the dustbin of history. Our strategy cannot afford to be so short-sighted that it ignores the large, long-term challenges which we face.
The core problem is that there is no system for producing a National Strategy. The National Security Strategy naturally focuses on threats of violence. While it acknowledges the need for integrated federal responses, it fails to recognize economic and environmental challenges as security issues, even though these are precisely the issues which have a potential to destroy the nation. One result is that a very large percentage of the resources available for external activities are expended on a relatively narrow range of short-term military threats because there is no system for looking at a broader strategy, a strategy which encompasses the most critical threats and challenges facing the nation. Neither Rome nor the Soviet Union were defeated by external powers. They both collapsed from within when they could no longer sustain the economic and social structures they had created. This is the core threat our nation faces, an inability to adapt to its changing environment. Addressing this requires first of all developing a true National Strategy which can identify and prioritize the most critical programs needed.