May 2, 2024


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Take National Security Off Auto-Pilot

Boeing C-17 and many military families at a US Air Force Exhibition at the Berlin Air Show, 2016.

American foreign policy has been lurching along for decades now, ever since the end of the Cold War, without sufficient clarity. What are our goals as a nation, and how might we best achieve them? There have been times in the course of American history when the nation had genuine strategic clarity, such as when it went to war against the Axis following the attack at Pearl Harbor. In that instance, the United States properly assessed what it wanted to achieve   — the unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers — how it might best go about achieving that end, and proceeded to marshal its resources to ensure success. Clearly, the use of military force is warranted when critical US interests are at stake, such as when an aggressive rival hegemon (like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan) threatens to dominate a key region, and there are no alternatives to using force. Problems have arisen when the United States has used significant military force in cases when important US interests are not at stake, or in instances when non-military means could have been used.

In his now-famous “Long Telegram” and Foreign Affairs article entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” American diplomat and strategist George F. Kennan sought to provide similar clarity for the Cold War with the Soviet Union. His notion of “containment” served as the bedrock for US grand strategy for the next forty-five years, though US implementation of containment became far more militaristic and expansive than Kennan’s original conception. Kennan never advocated for military means as a primary means to contain the Soviets, nor did he ever resign himself to an inevitable war with the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, US foreign policy has been on autopilot, lurching along as though not much had changed since the Soviet Union collapsed — the United States still has almost 170,000 active-duty service members stationed at 750 military bases in 80 countries around the world. We badly need a blueprint for a new American grand strategy that puts American national interests at its center.

During the 1990s, the so-called “Unipolar Moment” when there was no other great power to check the United States, we had the luxury of trying to maintain regional stability and assert US primacy around the world, rather than pulling back from Cold War military deployments and enjoying the peace dividend that the end of the Cold War could have brought. The September 11 attacks ushered in the Global War on Terror, the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and militarized counterterrorism at home and abroad on a global scale.

We now face increasing calls for a new cold war with China. Do such calls really best serve the nation’s interests? Given that the United States — guarded by vast oceans, a strong nuclear deterrent, and the most powerful and advanced conventional military capabilities in the world — is remarkably safe, what are those national interests? Why is there such a dearth of strategic clarity surrounding what US national interests are and how we might construct a grand strategy and a foreign policy that best serve those interests?

Briefly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Clinton administration had a vague desire to strengthen regional stability. After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration wanted to end the threat posed by al-Qaeda and international Salafist jihadism. Those are both reactive strategies. In more recent administrations, we have not even had that.

We need something else to replace Kennan’s vision of containment that serves the national interest and does not overreach or require us to vast expenditures (the post-9/11 wars alone have cost over $8 trillion and more than 7,000 American servicemembers’ lives). Most importantly, our actions must not run counter to the nation’s interests.

The most recent National Security Strategy (October 2022) actually defines American national interests cogently: “Our strategy is rooted in our national interests: to protect the security of the American people; to expand economic prosperity and opportunity; and to realize and defend the democratic values at the heart of the American way of life.” This is a simple statement of core national interests that, if followed, would provide a solid bedrock for governing US foreign policy.

The problem is that the US military has been, and continues to be, used to conduct operations that far exceed this statement of national interests; indeed, it seems clear that many activities undertaken by the US military not only far exceed this narrow articulation of national interests but actually run counter to those interests. The invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation not only was unnecessary and cost vast amounts of treasure and lives, but it also destabilized the region, led to the creation of ISIS, and opened the door for much greater influence by Iran throughout the Shia Crescent (as one glaring example from recent history). US national interests would have been much better served in that case by simply taking no action in 2003 and beyond.

Today, the United States maintains more than 30,000 troops throughout the Middle East. While these deployments have been celebrated as a means for projecting US power, US military outposts are also traps that can be threatened and attacked by adversaries, as demonstrated in Jordan in January 2024. Such vulnerabilities risk drawing the United States further into conflicts that do not serve its interests. Likewise, the United States has sent additional forces to Europe since the start of the war in Ukraine, and recently announced that US forces would be permanently stationed in Taiwan for the first time. It is hard to justify these kinds of military deployments on the grounds that they serve vital national interests, especially given that these forces can be held at risk by enemies, or even precipitate a conflict by their very presence.

And, for the first time in living memory, American largesse to its security dependents has forced it to make significant tradeoffs with the key military systems needed to provide for its own security and others. Recently the United States has had to purchase Patriot missiles from Japan to replenish its supply that has been expended in Ukraine, and is running low on artillery shells and anti-tank munitions. The status quo cannot persist.

The aim of a new strategic vision should be simple: to keep Americans safe at home, preserve and shore up our system of laws and society, and enhance our material abundance and prosperity. We no longer have the luxury of trying to provide security throughout the world, and we have a dismal track record in almost all our attempts. We have squandered our own scarce resources, bred animosity overseas, and frequently made existing conditions and conflicts worse.

The relative wealth of the United States has dwindled post-WWII — it peaked at about 40 percent of global GDP in 1960, fell to 21 percent in 1980, and is now about 15 percent of global GDP — and our fiscal health has certainly declined. We are now $34.4 trillion in debt and our annual deficit has reached $1.6 trillion and is expected to grow substantially into the indefinite future. Annual servicing of the interest on the national debt will soon surpass the already-bloated defense budget. While the United States remains prosperous for now, that status cannot endure forever if nothing is done. The prospect of ever-accelerating defense spending and continued military presence throughout most regions of the world increases the potential for military conflict with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, among other states.

We should follow Kennan’s advice: avoid unnecessary wars, defend and maintain our constitutional order, and ensure that every American has the opportunity to achieve economic prosperity. We can do that, placing the national interest at the core of everything we do as a nation, and remain perfectly secure — our vast military capabilities, the deterrent effect of our nuclear arsenal, and the stopping power of the vast oceans that separate us from possible adversaries will ensure that.

The US military must be shifted away from a force structure and posture designed to project US military power over intercontinental distances for nebulous purposes. We must be able to maintain international trade routes, but invading other countries repeatedly over the last three decades has not brought Americans peace and prosperity; quite the opposite. We have wasted our resources and are, ironically, less safe than if we had done nothing. This must end. Before committing US military power and other resources in service of unclear objectives, policymakers must ask themselves, does taking this action serve the national interest, narrowly defined? If not, it might be best to take no action at all.