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The “Do Everything” Strategy

May 31, 2010

The new National Security Strategy is out. As several astute thinkers have noted, this is not really a strategy so much as an affirmation of American ideals and perspectives on foreign policy, along with an exhaustive wish-list of goals and measures. The main problem with the document is not that it is some radical departure from any previous NSS or American policy, but that it underscores their shortcomings. As Patrick Porter points out, the recent trend in Western strategy is to substitute the affirmation of values and technical superiority for a clear assessment of interests, goals, methods, and resources. The NSS attempts to do so, but in making everything an imperative for American leadership, and making everything reinforcing or integral to everything else, obfuscates what we are actually supposed to do.

A proper strategy would firstly identify American interests in terms with clear geographies, time frames, and some degree of priority. It would explain how, when, and where the US would apply its efforts to further these interests. It would then explain how organizations would distribute resources to conduct those tasks. Now, the new NSS does identify interests, but it defines them so broadly and ambiguously that we cannot seriously believe they are all equally vital. Is international order as important as immediate security? Are promoting universal values as important as ensuring wider prosperity? Theres are all legitimate questions that intelligent people could answer either way. But instead of getting an explanation of how to resolve these dilemmas and what it will take to do so, we get the argument that everything is a vital component of everything else. We cannot have security without values or prosperity without order, and of course, anything that seems to advance one at the expense of the other is a false choice.

When all things are important, and each is necessary to the other, then all things necessary for each become vital. Despite an acknowledgement of limited means, the NSS identifies few areas where America can realistically reduce its burden. Even Iraq, which should be the most obvious area for a reduction in profile, still requires active American involvement. Our engagement across the world for a plethora of objectives will still require financial and military underwriting to maintain the credibility of our diplomacy and political leverage. The solution for “renewing American leadership,” and national security,  of course, is a series of domestic measures designated vital to national security. So essentially, we have “securitized” the President’s economic agenda, all the while stating that we will reduce deficits and fiscal irresponsibility in general. Even were this simultaneous glut in domestic investment and increased foreign engagement both necessary and possible, would the former really significantly contribute to the advancement of our security? Obviously the US needs a dynamic, growing economy to maintain primacy and its military and diplomatic advantages in the long run. It is foolish, however, to imply that the American economy, with the addition of the administration’s policies, of course, can grow its way into security. So too is it dangerous to imply that practicing American values can substitute for actual strategic efforts to reconcile means and ends through diplomacy and force. Not all interests and values are shared.

Of course, my perspective is probably biased towards realist views of international politics, which discounts the ability of complex interdependence and multilateral institutions under a rule-based order to advance our national interests and provide security. Nevertheless, it is a strategic error to assume that reinforcing international institutions will automatically accomplish other strategic goals, or that American leadership is actually strong and persuasive enough to compel others to sacrifice their interests for ours. Many countries have views and interests contradicting our own, and as the Turkey-Brazil nuclear deal with Iran demonstrates, allowing them their due influence in a rules-based order might not serve US interests. Harnessing other states through organizations as force multipliers means either grafting a series of rules that primarily benefit American interests onto other countries, or creating a more balanced, but constraining rule set that the US will likely ignore when necessary. These are counterproductive forms of engagement, though the NSS does not seem to acknowledge that US engagement could ever be so, or even have diminishing returns. I have previously worried about the dichotomy between the Obama administration’s aspirations to a principled, rule-based strategy against al Qaeda and the dubious legality of its methods, such as drone strikes. Now, the UN will condemn the CIA’s extrajudicial killings, which may not need justification in a world of power politics, but certainly do in one of international law. Proponents of liberal internationalism have acknowledged the disconnect here, but I imagine problems like these will only become more pervasive if the US increases efforts to legitimize its actions through international institutions without actually changing its policies. I do not think it is particularly wise to substitute a globalized, institutional notion of rule-based order for strategic allocation of resources with a clear hierarchy and geography of interests, but that is a general problem with American strategy. However, if we are going to substitute rule-based order under American leadership for a clear strategy, we should at least try not to undermine those rules from the outset.

There is also a question of burden-sharing, and how that works when we take into account “emerging centers of influence.” Burden-sharing, in a meaningful sense that involves significant military, economic, and diplomatic commitment, cannot rely on the old Cold War allies of NATO and Japan. Leaving aside the question of whether the US is in significant relative decline, it should be quite obvious that Europe and Japan are not the powerful entities they once were. Even if they can overcome their demographic and economic problems, it is unclear the degree to which they can meaningfully project power or underwrite global security. If the US wants to reduce the material costs of its commitments, this means letting emerging powers assert themselves in their regions. Galrahn at Information Dissemination points out that developments such as China’s String of Pearls and naval expansion strategy are not just legitimate, but perhaps desirable under the framework of the NSS. Of course, we cannot abolish the security dilemma overnight, and as we ask countries to contribute to global security, the material and diplomatic efforts that result will threaten their neighbors and our other partners. The difference between a strategy of regional preponderance or expansion and one of contributing to global security is primarily one of intentions, though the capabilities are similar. Other countries will be increasing their capabilities regardless of whether the NSS welcomes it nor not; whether American leadership, with its ambiguous priorities, resources, rules and commitments, can preserve a concordance of intentions through that process is an open and vital question.

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