Reliable Security Information

US Strategic Objectives

US national strategy is myopic - short sighted and fragmented. It rests on overall US strategic objectives that are broad and dated. The most authoritative statement is in President George W. Bush's introductory letter to the last National Security Strategy, published in March 2006. He gives two pillars of national strategy: to promote effective democracies while expanding global prosperity and to lead a growing community of democracies. Promoting freedom is the core of this strategy which recognizes that it cannot be imposed but must be chosen; the struggle with terrorism is a battle of ideas. The nation's ultimate security depends on creating a world of democratic, well-governed states that can meet the needs of their citizens. This National Security Strategy is based on the Department of Defense's Quadrennial Defense Review (the latest version is now in progress); the Department of State has recently begun a parallel Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. But both of these reviews are departmental efforts. There is no government element responsible for developing an overall national strategy, and so no authoritative overall statement of national strategic objectives. The National Security Strategy with the subordinate National Defense Strategy naturally focuses on the government's Constitutional responsibility to "provide for the common defense."

The Constitution is indeed a good starting point. It has the people of the United States joining together "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." By setting multiple objectives, the Constitution inevitably sets the stage for struggles when objectives need to be balanced and priorities need to be set. Then honest men can honestly disagree, as has been vividly demonstrated by the debate on terror interrogations where the principles of justice and liberty had been balanced against the requirements of defense. US foreign policy must inevitably balance both defense and the general welfare. Defense does have a natural priority - if the nation cannot defend itself, other considerations become moot. But defense and prosperity are intertwined, as it is the prosperity of the nation which provides the defense establishment the physical and human resources it requires and it is the prosperity of the nation that defense protects.

For over a century, US physical protection was insured by two oceans and a general strategy of isolationism. But two world wars drew the United States into international activism. The United States came to the defense of beleaguered democracies to avoid having to face alone a foe dominating Eurasia, and then led a struggle against totalitarian Communism. And suddenly, with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the twentieth century, a nation that had lived most of its life in isolation found itself as the sole global superpower, as well as the preeminent economic power.

Even in its earlier periods of isolationism, international trade had been an important element of US prosperity. Through the twentieth century, the United States received raw materials from the developing world at attractive rates, while the prices of their agricultural products and manufactured goods reflected subsistence wages in faraway places. Although the United States had not set up these colonial advantages, it benefited greatly from the system. Within the western hemisphere, economic arrangements paralleled the global arrangements; the United States, as the Colossus of the North, was both resented and envied. US international trade grew immensely during this century, as did the daily flow of people traveling worldwide.

Coming into the twenty-first century, these traditional arrangements have suddenly been replaced by something akin to chaos. The large international flow of goods and people is now dwarfed by the international flow of information. The world might not be quite flat, in Thomas Friedman's evocative phrase, but people in any corner of the globe can now compete directly with people anywhere else. For the United States, this globalization is profoundly challenging. An assured flow of cheap raw materials (including oil) has been replaced with a global market in which the United States must compete with China, India, and a slew of other nations for increasingly scarce materials. Concomitantly, the US industrial base has become a global industrial complex in which the United States plays a diminishing role. These developments are challenging and unstoppable. American workers need to adapt to a new world in which individual capabilities and flexibility will be crucial. The West in general, and the United States in particular, will no longer be able to benefit from an automatic bias in favor of the developed world.

As the recent economic recession has vividly demonstrated, this new world has two critical characteristics:

  • Everyone is interconnected. Actions in one corner of the globe can rapidly affect elements thousands of miles away. An economic crisis for one is a crisis for all. There is no safe refuge.

  • Complexity brings fragility. No single person can understand, much less manage, the workings of the system. One faulty electrical switch can disrupt a national electric grid. An infectious disease can spread globally before it is even recognized. A hostile group, or even a single disruptive individual, can have a totally disproportionate impact - a bomb threat caller with a quarter and some good timing can cause many thousands of dollars of damage. Now an invisible hacker, somewhere in cyberspace, can grind a major activity to a halt.

The interconnections, and tension, between defense and economics burgeoned, as well demonstrated by the tie between oil and strategy. By late in the twentieth century, assuring stability in the Middle East had become a core national interest. The US armed forces were structured partly to defend these interests, and support for democracies was trumped by the need for Middle East stability as the United States propped up regimes considered vital in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran. Now in the twenty-first century, these entanglements have become much more complex and unpredictable. China well illustrates this new situation. It is a potential military opponent and a major economic competitor, yet it is also a major economic partner. Although it holds trillions of dollars of US debt, this gives it surprisingly little leverage because its own economy is now dependent on a smoothly functioning US economy. It still has an authoritarian leadership, hostile to many basic US principles. Although there are many areas of mutual interest, there are also potential flashpoints, such as Taiwan, and it is impossible to predict how the leadership might react to some internal turmoil. Can developing economic and political ties eventually lead to amity, or will a hostile political system and divergent strategic interests lead to enmity. Europe's history shows the potential for peaceful evolution. There warring tribes coalesced into nation states, then warring nation states coalesced into the European Union. Now war between France and Germany, for example, is almost unthinkable. It is a challenge to US diplomacy to avoid a situation where a military action by one side calls out a response from the other and a vicious circle undermines growing socio-economic ties. The challenge coming into the twenty-first century is to promote the same sort of interdependence on a global scale which would make war, especially major armed conflicts, if not unthinkable, at least unlikely. And then to work at strengthening ties so that it does become unthinkable on a global basis.

But, even as the United States seeks a stable position in this new globalized world and struggles to find a good balance in its relations with China, Russia, and other major nations, turmoil waits in the wings. Globally, conflict looms over resource disputes, particularly involving water, food and refugee flows. Present trends, including population growth, make this inevitable. There are already significant refugee flows; global warming will exacerbate these pressures and could result in catastrophic situations, both from a security point of view, as well as from a humanitarian point of view. The situation is worsened by political rivalries between the United States, China, and Russia, as well as with the European Union and Latin America.

Sovereignty issues complicate the picture. Traditionally, nations answered to no one on how they conducted their internal affairs. Following World War II, there have been international demands placed on nations, including the UN convention on genocide. More recently, a notion of Responsibility to Protect has posited a responsibility of the international community to protect citizens anywhere from excesses of their governments. Authoritarian regimes, such as China and Russia, have strongly resisted such pressures as they are naturally reluctant to give legitimacy to any external evaluations of their internal policies. But the United States has also resisted pressures to make it accountable to international bodies, declining, for example, to join the World Court or the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The US public strongly resists the notion that any international body could tell the United States what it must do. Partly this is due to the US experience with the United Nations where a raucous General Assembly with many ill-governed countries tries to set international rules. But it is difficult for the United States to insist that other states live up to global standards when it refuses to accept some itself.

Governance is a crucial element, but it difficult to define and assess. Since 1996, the World Bank has had a systematic effort to develop Worldwide Governance Indicators measuring six dimensions of governance: Voice and Accountability, Political Stability and Absence of Violence/Terrorism, Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law, and Control of Corruption. These aggregate indicators are based on hundreds of individual variables provided by 33 different organizations, so they provide a good measure of credibility. The World Bank posts values for 112 countries on each of the six indicators, but does not produce any overall ranking. On the Political Stability and Absence of Violence indicator, for example, the United States is rated at 0.59, virtually the same as the United Kingdom at 0.62. Norway rates at 1.33, while Afghanistan has a -2.84, only slightly worse than Pakistan at -2.61. Using these sorts of indicators, aid and support can be directed to governments which show good governance traits. Indeed, the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), using its own indicators, has been doing this now for several years. The MCC has demonstrated that it is feasible to use aid as a lever to induce positive changes in governance while building capacity.

The key point is that in the coming decades, the United States faces an entirely new type of challenge to its security and well being, the threat of global turmoil disrupting the economic network on which the US economy, and ultimately its defense establishment, depends. This is particularly true with the spread of economic globalization, including the dispersal of industrial facilities worldwide. As summarized by Thomas Fingar, the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, "the United States depends on a smooth-functioning international system ensuring the flow of trade and market access to critical raw materials." And global problems may be significantly exacerbated by the domestic impacts of global warming. A prosperous United States cannot exist in a world of upheaval, and military strength can do little to address the challenge. In fact, failure to adapt to external environment has been the underlying cause of the collapse of numerous prior societies. While a total collapse of the United States seems unlikely, the world could devolve into a squabbling and warring collection of nations and subnational groups in which no nation could maintain stability or prosperity. Lester Brown has vividly outlined how food shortages could bring down civilization, even without any major impacts from global warming. So, for example, Kenya right now is experiencing a recurring food crisis partly due to a non-sustainable agricultural system.

So the situation shaping up for mid-century provides an opportunity to organize a stable, interdependent world in which major conflicts are unlikely and also provides a challenge of building global capacity to address the looming disputes over water, food and resource. The most feasible long-term option is to promote a world of prosperity in which nations have the capacity and resilience to address unforeseen situations. Creating a stable and prosperous world will be the major challenge facing the nation in the twenty-first century. If this challenge is not met, the United States will be unable to maintain its standard of living and will face growing hostility from competitors such as China. On the other hand, such a positive central strategic objective would be worthy of a superpower - it is long term, positive, and demands a productive use of resources. It would also be compatible with the solid American ideals incorporated in President Bush's prior strategy. It could mobilize support and enthusiasm both at home and abroad.

The United States obviously cannot do this alone, but there is no other nation capable of supplying the leadership needed to accomplish this. The good news is that population growth and global warming, the key drivers of potential turmoil, are both gradual effects, allowing some time to build new capacity. Some time, but not a lot of time. Prosperity, like democracy, cannot be forced. But it can be encouraged, promoted, and supported, as shown by the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The task is to promote wide ranging cooperative and intergovernmental programs now which can provide rational approaches to existing problems of water and agriculture and a framework for addressing the more taxing problems which will surely arise. This will require an integrated application of the entire range of US national assets and coordination of global efforts to improve governance. It will also require the United States to work harder to improve its own society, both to build the consensus needed for such a broad, long-term effort and also to set an example for the rest of the world.

A major complicating factor is the Clash of Civilizations, eloquently postulated by Samuel Huntington in 1993. He foresaw world politics as entering a new phase, in which the great divisions among humankind and the overwhelming source of international conflict would be cultural. This clash of civilizations would dominate global politics, with the fault lines between civilizations being the battle lines of the future. The West needs to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations so that a world of different civilizations can learn to coexist with each other.

The gulf between the West and the Muslim world has been widened by inept policies. The United States spoke of democracy, yet supported tyrants; that was the core problem with Iran and underlies our present difficulties there. The Muslim world also has a sense of being exploited by the West; its ancient heritage of scientific and cultural achievements smothered under poverty and autocracy for the sake of oil. More recently, the obvious underclass status of Muslim immigrants in West Europe and US military actions against Islamic elements in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan has further worsened Muslim perceptions. The information revolution has made this imbalance visible to all, naturally creating a sense of inferiority and frustration which has been skillfully manipulated by radical fundamentalists who insist that their Muslim brethren accept a medieval view of Islamic purity. The fanatic dedication of the core cadre has inspired thousands to partake in holy war against the West. Suicide bombers vividly exemplify their willingness to die for their beliefs. Just as a lone serial killer can terrorize an entire metropolitan area, a handful of dedicated, brutal jihadists can terrorize an entire region. Widespread instability would be a perfect breeding ground for such extremism, adding another dimension to an already complicated situation.

So the nation now faces challenges like it has never faced before. Globalization raises the potential for disruption and chaos on a global scale. The United States is the one country in a position to lead the world in addressing this challenge by building prosperity and competence globally. The alternative will be a world of turmoil in which all nations face violence, upheavals and deprivation.

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