These cases suggest that deterrence, like security, is in the eye of the beholder. Those whom we hope to deter are, in their own way “rational,” but we need to understand their frame of rationality, not impute on to them our own or assume that they would or should respond as we would in the same context. And we need to have this understanding before drawing “red lines,” which either compel action on our part or leave in their wake questions of American resolve. As a rule, the President should never threaten anything that he or she does not intend to carry out; hence, it is all the more important that one have a clear understanding of both the intended and unintended consequences of drawing that red line.
However we may define our strategic objectives, they will be fundamentally political in nature. Military and economic instruments may be useful to shape others’ calculus about risk, but—short of all out war—persuasion, not coercion, is the more likely path to success. Effective persuasion, in turn, requires an understanding of others’ interests, values, priorities, and limits, and such an understanding requires continuous engagement with those with whom we must deal.
It has become the habit to suggest that diplomatic engagement with those who do not share our values or interests and of whom we disapprove should be the “carrot” held out as a reward for making concessions. The U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Iran or North Korea, and, until recently, did not have relations with Cuba. It is difficult to see what benefits the U.S. has derived from not having a diplomatic presence in these countries; it is, on the other hand, evident that the U.S. has had a more difficult time understanding the internal political dynamics of those countries precisely because there has not been the opportunity for continuous engagement on various working levels. During the Cold War, U.S.-Soviet relations persisted at the political and diplomatic levels, as well as through scientific and other contacts, which arguably enabled both countries to manage crises that could otherwise spell catastrophe.
Preserving a continuous line of communication and diplomatic interaction with governments is an important means for understanding how that government and its society view the world. Without such insight, devising a strategy for dealing with that state is severely handicapped, and the potential for strategic miscalculation—on all sides—is substantially increased.
5. Especially in a democracy, “process” and the rule of law matter.
Professor Edward Corwin, an eminent legal and political scholar, wrote that the U.S. Constitution is an “invitation to struggle”—an invitation to struggle among competing ideas, among competing centers of power, and among competing responsibilities in the exercise of governmental authority. If there is anything “exceptional” about the United States, it derives from its historical foundations as a constitutional republic that balances, on the one hand, the need for strong government, and, on the other hand, the necessity of checking that government through various institutional means.
In foreign and national security policy, the Constitution obliges both the President and the Congress to share power, even if the respective boundaries of power are blurred. Treaties that bind the United States need to be subject to appropriate advice and consent of the Senate, but members of the Congress should not arrogate to themselves the role of unilateral or collective representatives of the state and undermine the role of the Executive Branch to negotiate with other states. It is difficult enough for the United States to engage with foreign powers when there is a constitutional sharing of power between the executive and the legislature. It is chaos when the political system is so polarized that the only way government can act is by one branch taking unilateral action that challenges its constitutional limits, while the other branch refuses to take action and thereby abdicates its constitutional responsibilities.
In war powers, the Constitution likewise offers no clear boundaries between the President’s authority as commander-in-chief and the Congress’ right to declare war. Notwithstanding the ambiguity of these boundaries, the logic of our founders was that the responsibility for wielding the powers of deciding war and peace should be shared.
Historically, Congress has declared war on eleven occasions, and, in another eleven occasions, authorized the use of military force without a declaration of war. Yet, the pendulum has swung from attempts—following Vietnam, through the War Powers Resolution—to limit the President’s ability to wage war unilaterally, to the post-9.11 reality in which the President enjoys an unconstrained authority “to use all necessary and appropriate force to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States....” In 2015, it was—ironically—the President who asked Congress to repeal this September 2001 authorization to use military force, but Congress has declined to act.
Nowhere does the tension between “security” and “liberty” come into sharper focus than in questions of war and peace. This is the classic clash between security of the whole—the general welfare—versus freedom of individuals. Today, “war” is a much more pervasive and ill-defined concept. Our Constitution is designed around a system of checks and balances, even if the language is deliberately vague and ambiguous. Once an institutional check is lifted, it is extremely difficult to restore it. As much as we are both inclined to give the President latitude on the use of military force, we fear Congress has abdicated its responsibilities in this regard by preserving an open-ended authority that has few, of any, boundaries.
The rule of law is important not only for our domestic governance, but for preserving the rules-based international system for which the U.S. was the principal architect. As much as international law relies on a “self-help” enforcement principle, it has evolved over the centuries because states exercise their sovereign right to conform to norms out of self-interest and reciprocity. The U.S. respects its treaty obligations so we can hold others to the same standards. The U.S. abides by the Geneva Convention with respect to the treatment of combatant prisoners because it expects others to treat our own fighting men and women according to the same rules. The U.S. subscribes to the laws of armed conflict because it expects others to do so as well.
For the United States, the rule of law—at home and abroad—is not optional. If the U.S. is to exercise moral authority within the international community, we need to demonstrate our own commitment to the rule of law. To be sure, there will be mistakes—by men and women both in and out of uniform and by those in the lowest to the highest rank. In every case, there must be accountability, or there will be no legitimacy if we seek to hold others accountable as well.
Shaping policy within the framework of U.S. interests, values, and the rule of law requires a process that serves the broad interests of the Republic and embodies its own integrity, predictability, and transparency. National security policy transcends the traditional boundary between “foreign” and “domestic” policy and engages the bureaucratic domains of a growing number of executive departments and agencies. Marshaling the resources of government to frame a consistent and effective national security strategy requires that the National Security Council staff be a credible “honest broker” in ensuring that the most senior decision makers in government have the fullest possible understanding both of the issues being addressed and the benefits and risks associated with policy options.
Following the Iran-Contra crisis, the Tower Commission recommended that the National Security Advisor and the NSC staff “focus on advice and management, not implementation and execution ... [which are] the responsibility and strength of the departments and agencies.” The NSC staff should be empowered to do that job, but not so large or compartmented that it no longer can take a holistic view of U.S. policy. Most of all, it must be above politics. National security policy must reflect the best that government can muster, beyond the competition of partisan politics or institutional prerogatives.
America’s pursuit of enlightened national security interests, consistent with the best of American values, has been possible when it rested on a broad political foundation, in which competing government bureaucracies and institutions worked to shape a solid consensus, offered to the rest of the world both a united front and a vision of a better future, and committed the resources and shaped the policy instruments that made it possible.
None of this is possible within a system that is institutionally paralyzed and in a society that is politically polarized. This may be the greatest national security threat that we face as a country.
Applying the principles: diplomacy, military force, and the limits of power.
Defense Secretary Bob Gates was famous for being an advocate of soft power, complaining that there was a serious misalignment of priorities when the Department of Defense had more men and women in military bands than the Department of State had diplomats. In a commencement address at Notre Dame in May 2011, he highlighted “the critical importance of diplomacy and development as fundamental components of our foreign policy and national security.” But Gates went on to stress that “the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators and terrorists in the twenty first century, as in the twentieth century, is hard power—the size, strength and global reach of the United States military.”