Strategic Myopia

Strategic Myopia

OUR NATION'S ability to foresee and respond to increasingly complex and networked threats is handicapped by an archaic and compartmentalized interagency system that dates from the Cold War. While the current system is already hard-put to keep up with ongoing and near-term matters, it is especially deficient in planning for major, long-range contingencies. Some of these contingencies may seem remote, but they arguably have the power to shake the United States to its core. They demand our attention by virtue of their consequences.

The current organizational basis for conducting national security affairs is a legacy from the early Cold War. Because we now face a radically different constellation of problems, it follows that the strategy and management systems we use for dealing with them must be significantly readjusted.

During the Soviet period, the problem we faced was essentially confined to a point-source: the threat to our national existence presented by the conventional and nuclear forces of the USSR. This is a vast simplification, of course, but there was an underlying truth to it. The implications were profound. Because of our perception of a unitary Soviet threat, we prioritized the national security agenda around it into a hierarchy, and, associated with that hierarchy, we developed a pyramidal approach to the management of national security. Information about the nature of the Soviet threat existed within a relatively narrow and specialized domain, and the management of our response to that threat radiated from the president to the international security cabinet officers and out through the command system.

If we look at America's security agenda in the post-Cold War world, the pattern is much different for the foreseeable future. The problems we face are more likely to be approximately equal in magnitude, meaning that we cannot afford to divert our attention from any one of them for long and that designating one issue as dominant could be a serious mistake. The global environment is a major case in point. If in fact we have entered a final period when discretionary action might avert an epochal disturbance to climate, our attention is required now, not later. Information regarding these new issues is complex and sometimes very interactive. The expertise required to track these problems has broadened. Today, it is necessary to deploy parallel analytic and policymaking resources to deal with concerns such as terrorism, the above-mentioned environmental issues and pandemic disease. In other words, the very concept of national security must be expanded.

With that expansion comes a major challenge to the organizations upon which we rely for management of national policy. The menu of issues, the range of knowledge and the need for attention to the complex interactions among different clusters of problems exceed what can be handled by the vertically structured management system we presently employ. In the 21st century the security of the United States can no longer be preserved as a consequence of military power alone. National security is now a compound function of how well the United States manages all of its assets and with how much foresight we invest them in our future. We need to expand the operational definition of national security from its core interest in physical protection towards a comprehensive definition that embraces the sources and realities of power in the 21st century.

There are many examples of how previously distinct issues must now be viewed and managed as interrelated. Fiscal policy is an important example. We have arrived at levels of debt that can threaten domestic stability, even as they limit our ability to sustain the costs of our international position. Trade is another example. How can the United States remain the world's last remaining superpower if its industrial base is lost? How are our economic stability and our military strength compatible with increasing dependency on energy supplies that can be interrupted by producers, terrorists or natural causes? The destruction wreaked by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma give us a foretaste of environmental damage at a strategic level--what happens next time around? How will the United States retain its technological edge if its education system fails to produce sufficient numbers of engineers and scientists? Demographic questions, immigration and health care may all be domestic issues, but their impact on our financial, social and economic status is destined to be massive and possibly unsustainable.

At present, our processes of government are still tuned to distinctions between domestic and foreign policy; domestic and international economic issues; external and internal security; and near-term and long-range planning. These distinctions may be comforting to those who grew up with them, but they are major impediments to a full understanding of our circumstances and to comprehensive action for dealing with them. Sacrosanct substantive and bureaucratic boundaries must be effaced. The divide between domestic and external policy has to be bridged. The linkages between economic and traditional forms of security must be addressed.

In particular, the habit of heavily discounting the future in favor of the near-term must be abandoned, for the simple reason that the future--defined here as the rate of incidence of major social change--is accelerating. That acceleration represents, in turn, the dramatically quickened pace of science and technology, translated into ethical, political, economic and social consequences. If we are overtaken and swamped by the accelerating rate of change, then it is likely that our society will fail to grasp major opportunities for advancement and forfeit them to others who are more alert. We will also fail to take action in time to mitigate the societal impact of major, abrupt dislocations.

It is especially important to keep our eye on dislocations so extreme as to represent a permanent, new phase of existence for which previous experience offers little guidance. The detonation of a nuclear weapon in a U.S. city or the impact on the nation of a man-made or natural pandemic are examples. So, too, would be abrupt climate change or a phenomenon associated with it, such as the collapse of an oceanic circulatory system vital for moderating weather on a continental scale. The shift of economic power to Asia could become one of history's great geopolitical events, with major and permanent changes of fortune for the United States and Europe. Converging advances in genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence can challenge humanity's self-image and even our role in the evolution of life. These contingencies are not fantasies. They are now as much within the range of the possible as was the possibility of general nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

The challenges we face as a society are marked by complex interactions that link, rather than divide, streams of events in the present and the future. Government may by default remain linear, but life can no longer be understood or dealt with in such terms.

IN A GENERAL sense, foresight in governance is the responsibility of all citizens, because its exercise entails trade-offs that can only be sustained by public support. But the specific role of conceptual and political leadership falls directly and pointedly on governance and on political leaders. Efforts have been made to create a more integrated approach to governance. The Clinton-Gore team designed the National Economic Council (NEC) for the purpose of coordinating economic policy among cabinet departments and executive agencies, and to help work out difficult trade-offs between domestic and international issues, including many that crossed over into matters of national security.

The NEC did not have time to develop into a full institutional co-equal of the NSC, while under the current administration the NSC itself has been substantially weakened by a massive reversion of authority back to the cabinet agencies and to the Office of the Vice President. The cabinet appears to be an important locus for policy management, but it is more a photo-op than a governing institution. Its members do not meet for the purpose of creating policy, but only to affirm it. They do not orchestrate the execution of policy as a whole, but only those portions of policy that are legally applicable to their departments. The Executive Branch in its current incarnation is not able to deal effectively with complex, interlocking issues that are major challenges to the future power position of the United States and the well-being of its people.

Congress is worse. If the Executive Branch now faces the 21st century with systems developed in the 19th and 20th, Congress makes do with structures originating in the 18th. It is not only internally dysfunctional, but is also locked into a dysfunctional relationship with the Executive Branch. Congress lacks the means to internalize the demands of complex policy formation and management. It lacks the means to exercise foresight, and in some cases it has dismantled offices with the ability to foresee on its behalf--such as the Office of Technology and Assessment. Congressional oversight should be vigorous, but under today's circumstances of one-party dominance, that has not been the case. Multiple and overlapping congressional jurisdictions effectively sap energy out of the executive agencies, with no commensurate value added. If Congress cannot reform its own operations, it will continue its decline as an independent branch of the government, and it will frustrate initiatives to modernize that might arise in the Executive Branch.

Essay Types: Essay