Rethinking American National Strategy for the 21st Century

"The United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, should continue to take the lead in sustaining and extending a rule based international order."

Foreign policy and national security seem likely to play a significant role in the 2016 presidential election campaign. Candidates from both parties will probably try to distinguish their approaches from that of the current administration. Recent events, most notably Russian aggression in Ukraine, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the continued proliferation of other violent extremist groups throughout the Middle East, South Asia and much of Africa have created concern that current American responses are still inadequate. Cyber security, climate change, and the increasing power of China are also growing national preoccupations. While some criticize the Obama administration for weak and indecisive leadership, significant voices on both sides of the political spectrum argue for even greater restraint, lower resource commitments and reduced engagement in addressing at least some of these issues.

Defining national strategy was easier when the country faced a single overarching threat. During the Cold War it was possible to relate almost any endeavor to a genuinely existential competition with the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and disappearance of the Soviet Union, the expansion of Western values and institutions into this space became the initial focus of American policy. In the aftermath of 9/11, the global war on terror became the organizing principle for American engagement with partners and against adversaries in every corner of the world. These oversimplifications led the United States down some costly and unnecessary paths but such easy to grasp rationales nevertheless succeeded in mobilizing domestic and international support for strong action and costly commitments.

Today the United States faces no existential threat; rather it confronts an unusually wide and diverse array of challenges. Russia has reemerged as an aggressor state. China has become more hard line at home and more powerful abroad. Al Qaeda has spawned offshoots and imitators more powerful and even more radical than itself. Global warming has advanced, and predictions of climate related disasters have become more ominous, more imminent and more credible. Cyberspace has emerged as a new battleground between the forces of order and disorder. Expansion of international travel makes the emergence of new communicable diseases like Ebola more dangerous. The last few years have been a reminder that stability is not the natural state of the international environment, that peace is not self-perpetuating, and that whole regions can suddenly descend into anarchy.

The world is more dangerous than it was a few years ago and the mounting chaos in the Middle East has fed wider, more exaggerated anxieties. Many feel that the pace of technological change is quickening, that the international order is disintegrating, that power is shifting from national governments to individuals and non-state actors, and that America’s capacity to lead is waning. These portends of disaster and decline are overstated. Certainly computers and the internet are driving rapid change, but the pace is not more rapid or revolutionary than that following the introduction of electricity, radio, telephones, internal combustion engines, airplanes and the atomic bomb. The Middle East is in turmoil, but even taking account of the chaos in that region, inter and intra state conflicts continue to decline, as do the casualties and destruction these produce. States are being challenged by terrorists and insurgent groups in the Middle East, as they once were in Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Balkans, but governments are actually more capable today in those other once turbulent regions, and they remain so in Europe, East Asia and North America. The Chinese economy has grown compared to the United States, but the United States has for many years been growing faster than most of Europe, Russia and much of East Asia. Russia is misbehaving, but nothing on the scale of the former Soviet Union.