The Transformation of National Security

The Transformation of National Security

Mini Teaser: The Bush Administration's National Security Strategy is based on five critical redefinitions of international politics--and not a moment too soon.

by Author(s): Philip Zelikow

Perhaps the key question of international politics and U.S. national security policy today is whether a genuinely new era has dawned since the end of the Cold War. It has. The attacks of September 11, 2001 did not create the new era, but they were a catalytic moment in our recognition of it. Like previous shocks to the United States in June 1940, December 1941 or June 1950, this shock gave emerging trends a form, brought them into mass consciousness, and forced upon us the task of defining a comprehensive national response.

Such a definition appears in the Bush Administration's recently published National Security Strategy of the United States. This essay draws out some of the ideas that appear to undergird the administration's emerging strategy. It focuses on five essential redefinitions of what national security means for the United States in the 21st century-but first a note about the rhetoric of empire that has come to dominate much current discussion.

The Distraction of Empire

All national security strategies start with a mental image of the world. The image of the new era is properly that of a modern and truly pluralistic international system. In the traditional world, populations, governance, commerce, culture and habits of life evolved slowly and changed gradually. The break point between this traditional world and that of modernity arrives, at different times for different societies, when social and technological change severs the links that had defined the relationships between humanity and the physical resources of the earth; shatters the hitherto ageless ceilings on productivity enforced by the physical limits of humans, animals, wind and water; and transforms our ability to communicate across distances, communities and nations.

These transformations acquired momentum in the 18th century and spread in the 19th until, by the year 1900, the modern world extended to Europe, North America and to their limited veins of settlement and commerce stretched out over the rest of the planet. The 20th century saw the further, nearly global extension of modernity and wrenching, worldwide efforts to adjust to its impact. Indeed, such has been the shock to many societies that the last century has been dominated by great contests over how to conceive, organize and provide moral justification and political order for modern industrial nations.

Those great contests have now subsided. The world is no longer so broken and divided. The militant utopias of class, nation and race have been defeated and discredited. Modernity means that change itself becomes the constant, and the challenge of change has not disappeared. Its pressures have instead been internalized within every society trying to adapt to a quickening pace of change. In other words, today's battle lines are less international and more transnational.

In dealing with these pressures, some see the United States as a new source of world order-fearing or welcoming that prospect. This accounts in part for the current popularity of "empire" as a reigning metaphor for America's ambitions. The metaphor is seductive, yet vicious.

What is an empire? Once upon a time, "empire" was casually applied as a positive expression, as with Jefferson's "empire of liberty." In recent years "empire" has been used to describe-often with an edge-any circumstance where a powerful country exerts influence over lesser powers, whether direct or indirect, physical, cultural or commercial. This shallow equation of all sorts of economic and cultural influences with "imperialism" was first popularized about a hundred years ago by writers reacting to Britain's war against the Boers in South Africa. John Atkinson Hobson, for example, who had an immense influence on Vladimir Lenin, condemned economic imperialism as a ruling force in the world. Hobson also worked a strong element of his anti-Semitism into his theories, seeing a cabal of Jewish bankers and merchants lurking behind Britain's excesses.

The same distasteful mixture of bad thinking was prominent after World War I. Many writers in Europe, especially in the defeated nations, decried the new "Anglo-Saxon empire" that they accused Britain and America-and the Jews, of course-of having created. The same fetid intellectual waters seep from this old gutter into much anti-American commentary today.

Sadly, even some American conservatives have joined the new anti-imperialists in seeing the United States as the metropole of a world empire. The appeal is understandable. After all, there is a certain gratification in imagining that one is the successor to emperors and proconsuls of past ages, a certain pleasure in opening such a dusty, venerable chest of ideas about how to sort out the affairs of faraway peoples.

But these imperial metaphors, of whatever provenance, do not enrich our understanding; they impoverish it. They use a metaphor of how to rule others when the problem is how to persuade and lead them. Real imperial power is sovereign power. Sovereigns rule, and a ruler is not just the most powerful among diverse interest groups. Sovereignty means a direct monopoly control over the organization and use of armed might. It means direct control over the administration of justice and the definition thereof. It means control over what is bought and sold, the terms of trade and the permission to trade, to the limit of the ruler's desires and capacities.

In the modern, pluralistic world of the 21st century, the United States does not have anything like such direct authority over other countries, nor does it seek it. Even its informal influence in the political economy of neighboring Mexico, for instance, is far more modest than, say, the influence the British could exert over Argentina a hundred years ago.

The purveyors of imperial metaphors suffer from a lack of imagination, and more, from a lack of appreciation for the new conditions under which we now live. It is easier in many respects to communicate images in a cybernetic world, so that a very powerful United States does exert a range of influences that is quite striking. But this does not negate the proliferating pluralism of global society, nor does it suggest a will to imperial power in Washington. The proliferation of loose empire metaphors thus distorts into banal nonsense the only precise meaning of the term imperialism that we have.

The United States is central in world politics today, not omnipotent. Nor is the U.S. Federal government organized in such a fashion that would allow it to wield durable imperial power around the world-it has trouble enough fashioning coherent policies within the fifty United States. Rather than exhibiting a confident will to power, we instinctively tend, as David Brooks has put it, to "enter every conflict with the might of a muscleman and the mentality of a wimp." We must speak of American power and of responsible ways to wield it; let us stop talking of American empire, for there is and there will be no such thing.

Five Redefinitions

The United States does have unique responsibilities as the greatest power in this pluralistic world, however. Those responsibilities have moved the Bush Administration to rethink the meaning of America's national security, and it is a process of thinking that transcends yesterday's partisan differences. Both conservative and liberal orthodoxies are being challenged. To attain lasting influence, these new ideas must pass into the vocabulary and assumptions of many in both parties-just as happened with strategies of "containment" in the late 1940s and early 1950s-even as political conflict continues around the edges of this new vision.

* This vision is redefining the geography of national security.
* It is redefining the nexus between principles and power.
* It is redefining the structure of international security.
* It is redefining multilateralism.
* And it is redefining national security threats in the dimension of time.

The New Geography of National Security

In the past, the geography of national security was defined by foreign frontiers. Dangerous enemies had to possess mass and scale as they first accumulated armies, navies or air forces and then deployed them. Today the frontiers of national security can be everywhere. The point is so obvious in the case of mass-casualty terrorism that it needs no elaboration.

Less obvious is the way the Bush Administration, following on but surpassing the Clinton Administration, has consistently identified poverty, pandemic disease, biological and genetic dangers, and environmental degradation as significant national security threats. All of these dangers have a transnational character, their social origins resting within the turmoil of modern and modernizing societies. In other words, national security threats in the new era are defined more by the fault-lines within societies than by the territorial borders between them. The decisive clashes in this phase of history are not therefore between civilizations but inside them.

The implications of this redefinition touch every major institution of national security in the U.S. government. We are witness to the largest Executive Branch transformation in half a century with the new Department of Homeland Security, the largest reorganization of the FBI in a generation, significant overhauling of the U.S. intelligence community, the creation of an entirely new unified command and other dramatic restructuring in the Department of Defense. Fundamental relationships between Federal, state, regional and local agencies-and the private sector-must change, and are changing, as well. These transformations are just getting under way, but they are already breaking down the core paradigm of the American national security system created in the 1940s and 1950s.

The geographical redefinition of national security profoundly affects the entire U.S. foreign policy agenda. Whether dealing with terrorism or public health, the division of security policy into domestic and foreign compartments is breaking down. U.S. foreign and security policies must delve into societies, into problems from law enforcement to medical care, in novel ways-challenging international institutions and the principles that define them to adapt. More fundamentally, if the United States is to develop national security policies that are aimed at the fault-lines within societies, those policies must transcend physical and material dimensions. They must include positions about fundamental principles.

The New Centrality of Moral Principles

During and after World War II, a conventional image of American interests developed that posed a dichotomy between realism and idealism. Practically every thinker on foreign policy alive today has grown up under the influence of this dichotomy. Realism was usually identified as a cold-eyed focus on calculations of power. Idealism embraced a pre-eminent concern for human rights, global poverty or other facets of human welfare. These two images became a convenient shorthand for labeling political factions or individual leaders. But those stereotypes, overly simple to begin with, no longer even remotely suit our times. They do not capture the nature of the controversies within the present administration, nor do they comprehend the new fusion of power and principle that is now guiding U.S. policy.

The administration's concept of a "balance of power that favors freedom"-to note the marquee concept of the National Security Strategy-applies calculations of power to the worldwide capacity to support beneficial principles affecting both relations among states and conditions within them. The administration thus emphasizes both power and a readiness to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong. The administration takes to heart the observation of John Courtney Murray that policy is the meeting-place of the world of power and the world of morality, in which there takes place the concrete reconciliation of the duty of success that rests upon the statesman, and the duty of justice that rests upon the civilized nation that he serves.

The administration drives power and principle together around a remarkably straightforward statement of the "nonnegotiable demands of human dignity." Seven of these demands, all originally appearing in the President's January 2002 State of the Union message, are listed in the strategy document: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance. All seven focus on the relationship of individuals to the state. None deals directly with the form or processes of government to produce these relationships: There is no mention here of democracy. Far from being an assertion of American exceptionalism, therefore, or a call for others to emulate the example of our "city on a hill", both the strategy document and President Bush have stressed that these are universal principles that apply everywhere. This is not an affirmation of the Scottish Enlightenment, but of human civilization itself.

Such a stance is critical in an age that seems to contradict or qualify every universal truth, preferring instead to cultivate irony as the essential human sensibility. The Bush Administration has defined one constant as the essential complement to modernity, what the National Security Strategy calls a "single, sustainable model for national success." That model features a linked conception of respect for human dignity and regard for liberating human potential. If modernity implies constant change, then greater personal and economic freedom is the perpetual safety valve, the constant source of adaptation and thus the very source of structural resilience that enables different societies to organize themselves in different successful forms. Influenced by his experiences in the Balkan crises, Tony Blair put the matter well in his October 1, 2002 speech to the Labour Party conference in Blackpool:

"Our values aren't Western values. They're human values and anywhere, anytime people are given the chance, they embrace them. Around these values, we build our global partnership. Europe and America together. Russia treated as a friend and equal. China and India seeking not rivalry but cooperation and for all nations the basis of our partnership-not power alone but a common will based on common values, applied in an even-handed way."

The Bush Administration's similar emphasis on moral reasoning, on uncomfortable (to some) judgments about good and evil, challenges some conservatives and liberals alike. The challenge to conservatives flows from the fact that traditional conservatism is founded on a cultural pessimism, on an abiding skepticism about human improvement. But President Bush (and many of his key advisors) are cultural optimists who, in their own lifetimes, have witnessed great and positive upheaval-not least the successful end to the Cold War. Indeed, President Bush's whole education reform agenda ("Leave no child behind!") epitomizes the break with traditional conservatism, and it is an attitude that carries over to world affairs. His administration's efforts on HIV/AIDs, for example, have not bothered with the Clinton Administration's convoluted effort to justify attention to global disease in traditional national security terms. The danger is not dressed up as a threat to "stability" but is portrayed for what it really is: a moral obligation to act when tens of millions face preventable death.

The administration's rhetoric is broader still: "Including all of the world's poor in an expanding circle of development-and opportunity", the National Security Strategy states, "is a moral imperative . . . one of the top priorities of U.S. international policy." Hence the proposal for a 50 percent increase in development assistance, the largest proposed by any administration since that of John F. Kennedy. President Bush is gambling that a notoriously broken foreign aid system can be reformed to make such investments politically saleable, and perhaps thereby legitimize an even greater effort in the future.

The challenge to liberals has been more interesting, if somewhat depressing in its manifestations. The American Left in its various hues once defined itself by its fierce belief in values, a readiness to judge and to act on those judgments. It is now too often defined by dedication to a consensus that disclaims any right to make moral judgments at all-except those that condemn the U.S. government. The Left's "knowing" attitude about America's own failings has evolved into the chronic suspicion of any expression of patriotism, and into the instinctive assumption that anyone who uses words like "evil" must be some Bible-thumping rube pronouncing naive moral judgments. And to think that such a person is President of the United States!

But many liberal Democrats are now wisely pressing for a return to the ancient virtues. What, then, is the net result? One old contrarian of the Left, Christopher Hitchens wrote of it in the October 20, 2002 Washington Post:

"As someone who has done a good deal of marching and public speaking about Vietnam, Chile, South Africa, Palestine, and East Timor in his time (and would do it all again), I can only hint at how much I despise a Left that thinks of Osama Bin Laden as a slightly misguided anti-imperialist, or a Left that can think of Milosevic and Saddam as victims. Instead of internationalism, we find among the Left now a sort of affectless, neutralist, smirking isolationism. In this moral universe, the views of the corrupt and conservative Jacques Chirac-who built Saddam Hussein a nuclear reactor, knowing what he wanted it for-carry more weight than that of persecuted Iraqi democrats."

Of course, the Bush Administration's emphasis on moral judgment is vulnerable to criticisms. One is simply aesthetic. The image of the preachy American abroad, short on talent and long on sanctimony, inspires enough resentment already, and few foreign diplomats want to encourage more such Americans to sally forth. But there are more substantive problems, too. One concerns the so-called slippery slope-and it is slippery. Yet it is hard to explain why, because one cannot right wrongs everywhere, one should not try to right them anywhere. If the United States simply deals and trades with all countries as we find them, then how, in an age when the frontiers of national security are increasingly defined by issues inside societies, can the United States take stands on the battle lines that matter most?

Then there is the problem of hypocrisy and double standards. (Saudi Arabia is of late the usual friendly villain hauled into the dock for illustration.) Here the administration's goals and rhetoric do bring with them a real burden. Whether it chooses to be reticent or outspoken, whether its reflections are offered in private or in public, any administration that stresses moral judgment is obliged to display a basic honesty about the character of other governments. And it assumes the burden of a consistent regard for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity, no matter the pull of other interests or the nation's accounts. Sometimes other strategic equities will win pride of place, and the administration should not lie to itself about the tradeoffs-either their difficulty or their durability-that will have to be made.

Confronting a messy world full of frustrating choices, President Bush might draw comfort from the remarks of another wartime president, Franklin Roosevelt:

"I am everlastingly angry only at those who assert vociferously that the four freedoms and the Atlantic Charter are nonsense because they are unattainable. If those people had lived a century and a half ago they would have sneered and said that the Declaration of Independence was utter piffle. If they had lived nearly a thousand years ago they would have laughed uproariously at the ideals of Magna Carta. And if they had lived several thousand years ago they would have derided Moses when he came from the Mountain with the Ten Commandments."

We concede that these great teachings are not perfectly lived up to today, but I would rather be a builder than a wrecker, hoping always that the structure of life is growing-not dying.

The New Structure of World Politics

Another reason for thinking hard about the centrality of moral judgment in redefining American national security is because of the way the Bush Administration, following on the work of its predecessors, is trying to integrate universal principles into great power politics. For centuries the structure of world politics has been defined by the rivalry of great powers. It is now possible instead for the United States to form active agendas of cooperation with every major center of global power, founded on imperfect yet extraordinary degrees of agreement about underlying principles in the organization of society.

A circumstance of unprecedented great power harmony is neither an immutable fact nor a deterministic prediction. It is a contingency over which we have limited but not inconsiderable influence. Great power rivalry could return to the foreground, so present circumstances ought to be viewed as an opportunity. It is an opportunity that can be lost, however, if the Bush Administration and its successors allow serious agendas of cooperation to drift into routinized gestures and petty fractiousness. These agendas, moreover, will never be built entirely out of the bilateral relationships between the United States and other great powers. Instead, the United States must challenge its present and future partners to join in common tasks that transcend narrow concerns, offering the networks of American allies in Europe and Asia real opportunities to share the responsibilities of global leadership.

In this regard, the United States and its traditional allies have already given considerable attention to Russia and China as potential great powers in transition. India, set to become not only the most populous country in the world but also its largest and most diverse democracy, deserves comparable notice. If India can balance these attributes with sustained growth and stability, the world must bring that nation, and the distinct and ancient civilization it represents, into every inner circle of global power. That would include at the least permanent representation on the United Nations Security Council and in the Group of Eight.

Varieties of Multilateralism

The cartoon version of America's international policy dilemma poses a choice between unilateralism versus multilateralism, the wild cowboy versus the cooperative diplomat. This depiction is false.

Everything that America does in the world is done multilaterally. That emphatically includes the policies the Bush Administration considers most important, and even those that are the most "military" in character. The global war against terrorism is being conducted through an elaborate, often hidden, network of multilateral cooperation among scores of governments. A large number of players are interacting on intelligence, law enforcement, military action, air transportation, shipping, financial controls and more. Ongoing military operations in Afghanistan involve several countries, and were multilateral even at the height of American military activity, as the United States relied heavily on relationships with Pakistan, Russia, three Central Asian governments and a variety of Afghan factions.
The caricature of the administration's unilateralism usually rests on the recitation of a by now standard list of diplomatic actions that some other governments did not like (Kyoto, the International Criminal Court and so on).

Some of these disagreements were handled in a style and manner that seemed insensitive or simply maladroit. Unfortunately, too, the caricature of the administration's unilateralism is willingly fed by some U.S. officials and unofficial advisers who relish the chance to play the role of the truth teller lancing foreign obfuscations. Sometimes they overplay the part, sensing the license they get from working for a plain-spoken president.

President Bush, however, is more sensitive to foreign opinion than some who act in his name. He knows that, to much of the world, "I'm the toxic Texan, right?" He recognizes that "if you want to hear resentment, just listen to the word unilateralism. I mean, that's resentment. If somebody wants to try to say something ugly about us, 'Bush is a unilateralist, America is unilateral.' You know, which I find amusing."

He finds it amusing because he meets and works with foreign dignitaries almost every day, and sees himself as a "pretty good diplomat"-though he smilingly concedes that "nobody else does." From the time Bush first started making decisions about the Iraq issue, for example, he has worked at every turn through international coalitions, noting how much he had enjoyed building one for the war in Afghanistan.

Europeans, of course, rush to play the part of the cosmopolitan professional who rolls his eyes and offers wittily barbed observations about American innocents abroad. Sometimes they, too, overplay the part. But all this is a very old genre of diplomatic theater; John Adams and the Comte de Vergennes set the archetypes more than two hundred years ago. It has since been performed on many stages with a wonderful variety of scripts and sets. No doubt it will be played often in future, as well.

Beyond problems of tone and execution, the real differences in the multilateral strategies of the Bush Administration and other friendly states are not about "unilateralism" versus "multilateralism." They have to do instead with five contrasting ways of conceiving and operationalizing multilateral action.

First, the Bush Administration prefers an inductive method that draws ideas from many sources and adapts them to specific conditions. Alternative deductive strategies develop abstract principles and develop them into generic, universal solutions. For instance, the painstakingly crafted individual agreement drawn up for handling war crimes in Sierra Leone, blending local and foreign judicial traditions, is preferable to the one-size-fits-all approach taken in designing the International Criminal Court. The former is designed to solve real problems and get real results on a case-by-case basis. The latter, unfortunately, aims at more rarefied ambitions.

Second, the administration prefers international institutions that judge performance and stress accountability rather than those that maintain a detached neutrality in order to preserve a friendly consensus. Too often, for example, the institutions charged with preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction seemed to choose courtesy over candor. The history of IAEA inspections in Iraq- going back to the 1970s-is exemplary.

Third, the administration prefers multilateral strategies that rely on the sovereign accountability of states instead of strategies that limit sovereignty in order to link states together in a common enterprise-but which thereby dissipate responsibility. As the European Union attempts to develop a "common foreign and security policy", it can hardly avoid a lowest common denominator approach, for example.

Fourth, the administration takes a view of international law that emphasizes democratic accountability, plainly linking the authority of international officials to constitutional sources of political authority that are essentially national in character. Other nations contemplate and encourage much broader delegation of sovereign powers, where only the initial delegation need occur through a democratic process, so that international officials can have greater freedom of action. Hence the U.S. government believes that the International Criminal Court, as a permanent yet essentially stateless entity, might grow ever more distant from the democratic sources of legitimacy that are an essential source for its claimed right to administer global justice.

Fifth, the administration prefers functional institutions that produce concrete results instead of symbolic measures that might rally more support for an ideal, but at the cost of not doing much to further its attainment. Sometimes, as in the case of the Kyoto Accords, well-meaning but dysfunctional efforts can be worse than useless if they complicate attempts to develop a more effective and sustainable solution. We cannot afford such indulgences in a world that in some ways is more threatening today than it was during the Cold War.

Redefining National Security as a Function of Time

Imagine threats as having a cadence-rhythm plus speed. In the past, threats tended to emerge slowly, often visibly, as weapons were forged, armies were conscripted, units were trained and deployed, and enemy forces were massed in position to move. The greatest threats, too, came from large states that could raise and equip the mass armies of the industrial age. Precisely because of their size and elaborate structures, these large states had much to lose in a war. Doctrines of deterrence were developed to confront such states, first in the pre-nuclear and then in the nuclear age.

In today's world, threats can emerge more quickly, without having to accumulate a mass of men and metal. Nor do the greatest threats necessarily come from large states that have much to lose. It is thus hard to quarrel with the essential premise of the Bush Administration's open willingness to consider pre-emption, which is that the strategic military doctrines developed for the Cold War must be adapted to the circumstances of the 21st century.
Note, too, the interaction of the new cadence of threat with the new geography of national security. The fault-lines are now inside societies, where even small political factions might have access to weapons of unprecedented destructiveness. The line between internal and international security becomes blurry in parallel with the acceleration of the cadence of threat.

The basic critique of the Bush strategy of pre-emption is that it is better to wait until threats are so acute and universally apparent that a consensus can form in favor of forceful action against them. The flaw in this argument is that there is today a kind of inverse continuum of threat and vulnerability. As a potential enemy's WMD capability becomes more threatening, it becomes less vulnerable to military disruption. Such programs are most vulnerable when they are immature, but that is when the threats they pose are so ambiguous that it is harder to rally allies to act against them. Yet at the point where such threats are so evident that coalitions readily arise, it may be too late-weapons will have already been used, programs will be difficult or impossible to destroy, or outsiders will be themselves deterred by their fear of retaliation.

There is a long tradition in American history of keeping dangerous threats at bay, if necessary by pre-emptive action. Defending Andrew Jackson's pre-emptive invasion of Spanish Florida, his occupation of Pensacola and his execution of individuals inciting Seminole and Creek raids against the United States, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams informed the Spanish government that "by all the laws of neutrality and of war, as well as of prudence and humanity, [Jackson] was warranted in anticipating his enemy by the amicable and, that being refused, by the forcible occupation. . . . There will need no citations from printed treatises on international law to prove the correctness of this principle. It is engraved in adamant on the common sense of mankind. No writer upon the laws of nations ever pretended to contradict it. None, of any reputation or authority, ever omitted to assert it."

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