U.S. Strategy: Evolve or Perish

Thomas Jefferson's 21st century man cannot forever wear the clothes of his younger, 20th century self.

The answer we give to three questions will largely determine whether the United States will flourish or decline in the 21st century. First, will we anticipate events or merely react to them? Second, will we form new alliances to address new realities? Third, how rapidly will we adapt to transformational change?

These questions share an assumption: the world is changing and it is changing fast. Our national predisposition, however, has been to rely on traditional institutions and policies and to use them to address unfolding history on our own timetable.

We also are inclined to employ a simple, all-encompassing, central organizing principle as a substitute for a national strategy. During the second half of the twentieth century that principle was containment of communism. After 9/11 it became war on terrorism. Unfortunately, the period in between, the largely peaceful and prosperous 1990s, was not used to develop a comprehensive strategic approach to an almost totally different new century that was emerging.

One lone effort represents the exception. The U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century produced a road map for national security for the first quarter of the century. It was almost totally ignored and of its fifty specific recommendations only one, the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, has been adopted a decade later.

There are reasons for our lassitude, false sense of security, and reliance on reaction. Between 1812 and 2001 our continental home was not attacked. And because we are a large island nation, we have felt ourselves to be invulnerable. Our economic expansion between the end of World War II and the first oil embargo of 1974 created a very large, productive, and secure middle class. We have possessed economic and military superiority for well over a half-century. And for most of our history, strategic thinking and planning, especially on the grand scale, has been an enterprise confined largely to the academy. Instead, our policy makers would deal with events as they arose.

NO LONGER. Multiple revolutions will continue to remake the world for decades to come. Globalization—the internationalization of finance, commerce, and markets—is making national boundaries economically redundant. Information has replaced manufacturing as the economic base of our nation, and it is further integrating global networks. Both globalization and information are eroding the sovereignty of nation-states. And this erosion has contributed to the transformation of war and the changing nature of conflict.

In large part because of these multiple political, economic, and social revolutions, a host of new realities characterize the 21st century. These include failed and failing states, mass south-north migrations, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the rise of ethnic nationalism and religious fundamentalism, the emergence of tribes, clans, and gangs as alternatives to the nation-state, the threat of pandemics, energy interdependence, the threat of global warming, and many other new phenomena.

It might be argued that this plethora of new realities suggests a wholly pragmatic, case-by-case response. It might better be argued, however, that now more than ever the United States requires a grand strategy that seeks to consistently apply its powers and resources to the achievement of its large purposes over time. For these new realities share two qualities: they cannot be adequately addressed by military means, and they cannot be solved by one nation alone.

Further, as events accelerate response times shorten. Deliberation, formation of ad hoc responses and coalitions, and sifting through alternatives, once a threat is immediate, all become luxuries. In this century events and their repercussions will not wait for us to organize ourselves and our allies. A strategy of ad hoc reaction will not work.

This being true, deduction alone dictates a strategy that is internationalist, one that appeals to the common interests of the like-minded (that is to say democratic) nations, one that anticipates, and one that requires burden-sharing among those who occupy a global commons. For it is the notion of a global commons, both actual and virtual, that must characterize America’s 21st century grand strategy.

THREE GUIDING principles might structure such a strategy: economic innovation; networked sovereignty; and integrated security.

First, the United States cannot play a constructive global leadership role without a fundamentally restructured economy. Global diplomatic engagement and international security cannot be financed with borrowed money. Neither true security nor leadership can be founded on debt. The only way for the United States to reliably pay for its international engagement and its security is by revenue it generates through its own creative economic activity.

For the time being the United States will remain superior in economic, political, and military terms. But it can maintain its leadership position over time only through economic innovation. We cannot continue to finance our military establishment with its far-flung operations by borrowing money from the Chinese and future generations. Though it is becoming a somewhat worn theme, it is nonetheless true: we must invest in science and technology, our universities and laboratories, corporate research, and multiple facets of innovation both to drive our own economic expansion and to market our innovations to the world.