Rethinking American National Strategy for the 21st Century

July 24, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: United StatesU.S. Grand Strategy

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."


The ways of dealing with threats from strong states are conceptually well developed, if expensive and demanding in application. These include diplomacy, economic pressure, deterrence, containment and collective defense.

The ways of dealing with threats emanating from weak states include counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations combined with state and nation building.

Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns can disrupt extremist movements, but only the establishment of states willing to adhere to and capable of enforcing international norms will allow such campaigns to be concluded. State and nation-building are long term, resource-intensive enterprises, but at least they have a defined end state. Counter-terrorist operations do not.

American participation will be essential to the resolution of these challenges but it is seldom sufficient. Slowing global warming is only the most extreme example. Deterring or turning back aggression almost always requires collective defense. State and nation building requires support from neighbors and near neighbors, from the societies that have the most at stake and possess the most influence by reason of their proximity, and commercial, criminal, religious and cultural connections. Partnerships are essential. Coalitions are the norm. And one cannot afford to be too choosy about the company one keeps. Russia is needed to help prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. China is needed to restrain North Korea. Iran is needed to fight ISIS. Both Russia and Iran will be needed to end the war in Syria. Stemming global warming will require almost universal efforts. Partnerships in this era are thus not just about defending friends and confronting enemies.

State building will remain an essential mission for the United States. More government may or may not be the answer to America’s domestic problems, but it is certainly essential to meet most of its external challenges.


As a proportion of national income, the American defense budget is headed for its lowest level in some 50 years. Yet with the continued rise of China, the emergence of ISIS and intensified Russian belligerence, the United States now faces the need to fight, or at least deploy forces sufficient to fight, on three fronts against at least three different opponents. The current budget and envisaged force structure are inadequate to this task as successive Secretaries of Defense have themselves acknowledged.

During the Cold War, the United States sized and organized its military establishment to be able to fight and win two major wars at once, one in Asia and one in Europe. In recent decades this requirement has been nominally sustained, but the scale of each envisaged conflict has been reduced, reflecting both a diminished threat and reduced American capacity. The current standard is to defeat one regional adversary and deny the objective of, or impose unacceptable costs on, a different aggressor in another region. Additionally, discouraged by the results of its efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has decided not to require the U.S. armed forces to be ready to conduct large-scale, protracted stability or counterinsurgency operations, and it has cut the size of the Army and Marine Corps accordingly. Meanwhile, many modernization programs have been slowed or truncated and readiness has eroded due to reduced levels of defense funding.

These trends are clearly incompatible with the three-theater challenge the United States now faces. The current international environment does not permit the United States to continue to transfer its time, attention and national resources from West to East. Further military reductions from Europe, the Middle East and South Asia to East Asia are not prudent. The current decline in the U.S. defense budget, and the national security budget more generally must be slowed and all three theaters need to be adequately resourced.


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. It should promote the development of new norms in domains where these do not yet exists, like cyber and climate. States are the essential building blocks in any such system. Challenges come from strong states that break the rules, and weak ones that cannot enforce them. Both of these challenges need to be addressed. A focus on defense, deterrence and dissuasion is essential but it is not enough. State capacity needs to keep pace with the growing capacity for disruption by individuals and groups. The most successful eras of American statecraft have been periods of construction, the birth of new institutions, the reconstruction of shattered nations, the establishment of new norms for international behavior. The United States needs to combine its defense of existing institutions and norms with a rededication to such a positive agenda.

There remains a sizeable constituency in the Congress as in the country in favor of a well-resourced foreign and security policy agenda, but it spans both parties and dominates neither. This constituency can prevail only if there is willingness on both sides to cross party lines and support sensible policies. As long as the two parties remain dug in behind the ramparts of “no new taxes” and “no cuts to entitlements,” America’s external problems will mount, as new challenges pile in on top of old ones which have not been met. As a result the global order will indeed begin to erode, and fundamental American interests will suffer.

James Dobbins, senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, is the lead author of "Choices for America in a Turbulent World," first of a series of RAND publications rethinking strategic options for the United States.

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