There are no forever wars, war is forever or at least until such time as U.S. adversaries cease to challenge us or, as Abraham Lincoln suggested, we make friends of them. In America’s present reality this means, in effect, that war will be part of the human condition for the foreseeable future. Why can’t we accept this reality?
In democracies, politicians are compelled to assert comfortable untruths about the nature of war as in “Don’t worry, I will have the boys and girls home by Christmas.” The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the boys and girls will always be out there on the frontier staring down danger and defending America’s way of life—a blinding flash of the obvious. Unfortunately, the embrace of this reality is political suicide in democracies. Nevertheless, these boys and girls have been in Korea since 1951 and in Germany and Japan since World War II. Why?
These “just” wars had bipartisan approval, the support of the American people, and did not occur in a media-frenzied world in what is now called “war” (battles and skirmishes actually), which is waged in soundbites and frozen images that are spread at the speed of light by algorithms whose sole purpose is to keep people engaged and enraged so that revenues continue to rise. But there was another, more important, more basic reason, these actual wars were conducted in defense of territory. Good guys were on the U.S. side of the line and bad guys were on the other side. For centuries armies fought to gain or defend territory. It’s easy to see and easy to understand. The frontier was a well-defined place and the adversaries were in plain sight. As John F. Kennedy remarked to the graduating class of the U.S. Naval Academy in 1963, “When there is a visible enemy to fight in open combat, many serve, all applaud and the tide of patriotism runs high, but when there is a long slow struggle, with no immediate, visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed.” Americas is in the midst of that long slow struggle in which conflict, or “war” as generations have come to know it, is seemingly forever, making choices hard indeed.
In this struggle today U.S. territory is increasingly harder to define as is its frontiers, which used to signify the boundary of the nation and its culture. These are exceedingly amorphous because U.S. prosperity and the American way of life are no longer primarily the product of ingenious indigenous labor fashioning materials at hand. Instead, the extraordinary wealth of the United States is the sum of an intricate and mostly balanced global exchange of goods, services, and ideas among democracies, multinationals, and even some autocracies. This process now faces systemic and existential challenges in great-power competition, due to decreasing governance and rising instability in more parts of the world, which lead to mass migration, and the now ever-present scourge of global terrorism which feeds and grows within this new dynamic.
Since the end of World War II, the United States more than any other country became wealthier, more developed, and even freer than ever because of global interaction enabled by the benevolent geo-strategic exercise of American power. In the process, America built a global network of Allies and partners who share the U.S. prosperity and way of life and upon whom America now must rely. The combination of America’s inability to forge foreign policy consensus or even try its inbred isolationist bent and the multiple systemic challenges requiring concerted international action demand it. These Allies and partners need to know that despite America’s belief in its exceptionalism they can trust Americans. They can count on America and that its citizens will work together with them to forge a way forward. Why? Because the global economic system, which is the foundation of Western and American wealth and way of life, requires the world to work this way. In the twenty-first century struggle, America and its Allies must defend their prosperity with all the vigor they mustered to defend their territory in the twentieth century—lest they lose both.
In a globalized world in which prosperity is interdependent but unevenly distributed, in which competing systems of government and radical ideologies offer a way of life vastly different than America’s way of life, and in which national interests are harder to define and seemingly unfashionable to embrace, knowing where prosperity begins and ends, and therefore what and where to defend, are incredibly difficult tasks. But these tasks have never been more important. Identifying the strategic high ground and marking the frontier are essential today as America must defend its prosperity for upon our wealth our way of life depends. A portion of that prosperity, whatever is necessary, should therefore be allocated to its defense. The Constitution obligates us to it: Provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. In other words, defend our prosperity and way of life now and for our descendants.
America should defend its prosperity wherever it is challenged and with whatever means necessary. There is a human and economic impact of terrorism globally which is dangerous for America’s way of life and disruptive to U.S. prosperity, therefore, investing in long-term efforts to combat its origins and manage its effects is warranted. Weak, failing and failed states drive migrants toward America’s borders, and are playgrounds for terrorists, drug cartels, and illicit traffickers, all of which require a significant expenditure of resources by the developed world to hold at bay. Autocratic nations are now challenging the rules-based world order undercutting and abusing the regulations governing economic activity and intimidating and sometimes impoverishing weaker nations, which also diminishes U.S. economic possibilities and imposes costs on the better sensibilities of Americans. In this context, the presence of the United States and its NATO Allies and Partners in Afghanistan went a long way toward defending our way of life out on the strategic high ground at the frontier of our prosperity. It was a hard choice to stay there for so long, but it was the right choice because it reduced terrorism’s reach, it stabilized a key crossroads in great-power competition, and signaled our multinational resolve to autocratic competitors that we will be present on the free world’s frontier even if it’s in their backyard.
Armies are always on the frontier. Defending the frontier is why they exist. To know where the frontier is today just find where the army is operating and recall that it’s operating there because it has to do so. That’s the Army’s job. Korea, Japan, Germany, the Baltics, the Balkans, Syria, Iraq, Djibouti, Somalia, the Sahel, and most recently Afghanistan are quite evidently the frontier of U.S. prosperity and way of life. To support the Army and to secure the global commons, the Navy is at sea and the Air Force is in the air around the world twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This is not the territorial border of the United States or even the inclusive border of our Allies and partners. It is the non-contiguous frontier of their common prosperity and way of life. When America starts to use these two constitutional obligations, the common defense of the general welfare and the imperative of securing the blessings of liberty, in other words defending our prosperity and the U.S. way of life, as its principal planning factors in determining its national security strategy, it will start to make better choices. It will finally make the right choices in the collective defense of its western and national interests.
In today’s society, overcome as it is by an abundance of information but a paucity of truth, by instantaneous communication, but irreconcilable division, by unparalleled knowledge, but expanding ignorance, Americans must focus on simple, obvious truths. First, their way of life is possible because of the country’s prosperity. Second, that prosperity defines the country’s interests. Third, while Americans do not choose to fight to defend their interests when conflict is thrust upon them, they choose to win. Fourth, conflict is a continuum, which means winning a battle is not winning a war, nor does losing a battle mean the war is lost. Fifth, winning the peace is more important than winning the war, as it was in Germany, Japan, and Korea. Again, as Lincoln said “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
The choice is not either/or, either fighting or friendship, but rather both. By choosing to be postured and prepared to fight, battling when necessary, friendship becomes an option as making friends is then your adversaries’ best and only alternative. When the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev collapsed, pushed into ruin by President Ronald Reagan’s posturing, Russia under Boris Yeltsin became America’s friend. Sadly, the shortsightedness and inattention of U.S. leaders squandered that opportunity because, unlike Germany, Japan, and South Korea, they failed to see that ensuring the prosperity of Russia would eventually enhance America’s prosperity while creating a safer less threatening world. How long would that take? A long time, perhaps forever, but the journey would have changed the world for the better. Winning peace is more important than winning a war. Perspective matters.