Chuck Hagel is a principled realist in an unprincipled realist world.
The president’s nominee to become the nation’s twenty-fourth secretary of defense has been a tenacious combatant, on and off the battlefield. While enthusiasts focus on his courage and critics dwell on his words, Hagel’s success will hinge on how he responds to the challenges that await him. In dealing with different audiences, from the president, cabinet and service chiefs, to Congress, allies and adversaries, Hagel’s mission should be to preserve both U.S. interests and its preeminent armed forces.
Since our founding, the United States has never sustained a purely realistic or purely idealistic national security policy. Rather, we have always settled on a combination of the two, a hybrid foreign policy that blends the values of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as well as those of Henry Kissinger and Woodrow Wilson.
Senator Hagel’s record and rhetoric speak to this kind of pragmatic centrism. He believes in America’s pivotal role in the world, but he is more honest than most regarding the limits of U.S. power. Some discern in this an excessive degree of pessimism. Yet Hagel, speaking on the eve of the U.S invasion of Iraq, was right to warn about “the traps of hubris and imperial temptation.” He was right, furthermore, that America can’t remake the world in its image; but it must not shirk from trying to make the world a better place. He is not an isolationist and understands the need to hasten slowly.
Hagel has been a consistent advocate of clear political objectives prior to the use of force. One should expect nothing less from someone who has seen the face of war first hand. Military means should advance definable, achievable and vital interests. Such an elementary idea is deeply rooted in both military strategic thinking (war is the continuation of policy by other means) and Just War tradition (the benefits from the use of force should outweigh its horrendous consequences).
These well-worn principles prompt Hagel to ask awkward questions, to think holistically about U.S. policy tools, and to search for durable solutions. He has not challenged America’s use of force from a position of pacifism, but from a conviction, gleaned from the wisdom of the ages, that great powers are defined as much by their restraint as by their action. Just as silence can lend gravity to one’s words, so, too, can the judicious non-use of force underscore the potency of one’s military might.
Yet an enlightened America does not alter an unenlightened world. While there is much good in humanity, it is hard not to be impressed by the resiliency of global disorder. Globalization, economic interdependence and soft power have barely dampened the intolerance of Islamist terrorists, the duplicity of determined nuclear proliferators and the nationalist ardor of rising powers.
Terrorist campaigns meet their demise, but terrorism persists and changes. Al Qaeda’s core has been weakened, but the recent actions of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb demonstrate a dangerous metamorphosis. This is particularly so as Islamist terrorists find fertile soil not just in old ungoverned spaces (such as Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas) but also newly fragile states (especially in North Africa and the Middle East). This threat will demand that a Secretary Hagel craft a strategy that uses both military and nonmilitary means in a concerted and comprehensive plan.
Nor should the new secretary be complacent about the persistent efforts of Iran and North Korea to advance nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. The fact that nuclear deterrence held through the Cold War, while important, is far from predictive. Lethal military systems empower rogue regimes to sow mischief short of catastrophic use, and not so short of it, as in the case of Syria’s apparent resort to chemical warfare against its own people. Forward presence, stronger regional partners, and tailored deterrence and defense will be more rather than less important in the coming years.
Realism stresses questions about major-power relations. Unfortunately, the high degree of fragmentation and competition among major powers offers scant comfort for U.S. policymakers. While Western powers teeter under the weight of debt and dysfunction, rising powers are hardly reassuring. Russia’s resurgence is predicated on realpolitik, although at least Vladimir Putin tells us what he really thinks. China’s leadership, on the other hand, offers soothing words, even while it clings to one-party rule, rapidly modernizes its military forces, and expands its covert reach through the use of cyber warfare. Asian nationalism is palpable between China and Japan in the East China Sea, and China and India appear to be on a similar trajectory across the Indo-Pacific later in this century. Engagement among major powers will be difficult, but infinitely more so if America loses its economic foundation and military primacy.
In the midst of this maelstrom, Chuck Hagel will be asked to demonstrate America’s enduring role in the world, retain America’s military might and oversee the effective use of force. His record will be measured by how well he fends off the world’s darker forces, and whether in so doing he simultaneously preserves U.S. interests and influence.