Reliable Security Information

The Firewall Approach to Global Security?

From today's World Politics Review column:

Historically, when faced with severe financial and resource constraints, major powers have begun a process of shrinking commitments and making very clear distinctions between vital interests and secondary ones. ... Yet official Washington is loath to undertake this process. Reducing U.S. obligations abroad in order to rebuild America's economic and technological base of strength at home is a goal that candidates often cite on the campaign trail and one that enjoys tremendous popular support. But it is quickly forgotten once zealous campaigners have become officeholders comfortably ensconced in Washington. Time and again, the U.S. has demonstrated its unwillingness to prioritize its foreign policy interests. By claiming that all our interests are in one form or another vital, we render the very word itself meaningless. ...

the United States has no clear successor to which it can pass along some of its global security responsibilities, along the lines of the British handoff to the U.S. following World War II. The U.S. does not yet have a sufficiently well-developed relationship with either Brazil or India, for instance, to engage in such a transition in the southern Atlantic and Indian oceans. Vice President Joe Biden, currently in China to take the temperature of Xi Jinping, the country's presumptive next president, might declare, "There's no more important relationship that we need to establish on the part of the United States than the close relationship with China." But it is unlikely that Beijing will play a collaborative role with Washington in terms of international security anytime soon.

But the biggest problem facing the U.S. national security community is its embrace of a particular version of the "butterfly effect," by which any situation anywhere in the world can be considered a threat to U.S. vital interests. This fuels the belief that unless the United States intervenes to deal with "small problems" in "remote areas," they will inevitably metastasize into major security threats to the U.S. homeland. ...

Moving forward, one way to avoid the Scylla of hyper-interventionism on one hand and the Charybdis of isolationism on the other is to redefine the U.S. global security role from being the world's "first responder" to being its trusted back-up partner. As my colleague Derek Reveron has observed, "Expansionist interpretations of U.S. military strategy fail to take into account the supporting role the U.S. provides friends, allies and almost every country in the world." By strengthening the capabilities of partner states, we could create a series of regional "firewalls" to hem in various threats.

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