U.S. Strategy: Evolve or Perish

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.

Through the realignment of fiscal incentives and disincentives, the United States must transform itself from a debtor, consuming nation to a creditor, producing nation. Governments and peoples around the world will find an economically creative U.S. an attractive model to follow. That attraction ensures U.S. international leadership. That leadership can organize the security of the global commons.

Second, organizing America’s role in the world around the notion of a global commons requires identifying common threats before they become toxic and common interests requiring common pursuits in advance of threats. The primary resistant to the notion of a global commons is national sovereignty. But, as NATO proved following World War II and throughout the Cold War, shared security is not a threat to national identities and notions of self-governance.

There are a number of illustrations of how the security of the commons might work:

* The public health services of advanced nations can be networked by common databases and communications systems to identify and quarantine viral pandemics before they spread and to organize regional stockpiles of immunization agents to facilitate containment;

* An international constabulary force can be created, possibly under NATO auspices, to manage failing states and tribal conflicts while diplomats negotiate restructuring agreements. Rwanda, Darfur, and Kosovo in the past and Somalia, Sudan, and Libya today all suggest conflicts that could have been anticipated and might be managed with much less loss of life;

* The existing International Atomic Energy Agency could be strengthened to become the indispensable agency for inspection of suspected manufacturing and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction. Its mandate should be enforced and expanded, as it was not in Iraq, by the U.S. and the international community;

* It is not too soon to design an administrative and enforcement mechanism for an international treaty on carbon reduction: a climate treaty will not be self-enforcing.;

* The most unstable region of the world, the Persian Gulf, is the source of a quarter of U.S. oil imports and a substantial amount of the importing world’s supplies. Currently, the U.S. is the de facto guarantor of those oil supplies as well as the broader sea lanes of communications. As a loose consortium of nations with shipping interests now seek to control piracy off the Somali coast, so a more tightly-knit consortium should share responsibility for policing the Persian Gulf and guaranteeing all importing nations’ oil supplies.

All these issues, and many more, represent the world of the 21st century, much more a global commons than a hodge-podge of fractious nations and percolating conflicts in constant tension. Stable nations will increasingly find common cause in reducing and where possible eliminating local conflicts before they fester and spread. Nations, especially powerful nations, will continue to arm themselves. But they will find it appealing, politically and financially, to network their military assets in pursuit of common security interests. As NATO represents the triumph of collective security in a Cold War century, so new realities now require new alliances beyond the capabilities and mandate that NATO represents in a new and different century.

Forming new alliances with emerging regional power centers offers several advantages. Regional powers can be made partners rather than antagonists or rivals. Identifying mutual and collective security interests with the U.S. and formalizing a collective approach to securing these interests empowers regional leaders further and signals that the U.S. respects their legitimate concerns. Formal regional security alliances create diplomatic and administrative structures that anticipate, rather than react to, new realities and threats in their respective regions.

Thus, a third pillar of America’s 21st century strategy is integrated security. While a creative economy provides the resources, we pursue our global security in and through the global commons which we lead. A strong consortium of twenty to thirty nations can anticipate and minimize threats from non-military realities and can confine local conflicts before they become viral.

Nations not sharing democratic principles and institutions will find it profitable to begin to adopt these principles and institutions as the price of shelter beneath the security umbrella of the global commons. Political accommodation to enter the commons will more than pay for itself in enhanced shared security, including protection from pandemics, control of dangerous weapons, climate stabilization, isolation of terrorism, guaranteed oil supplies, and stabilization of disintegrating states.