Friday, April 29, 2011

The Reality Of Adults Versus The Fantasies Of Children

I originally thought a rough overview of "Mr. Y"'s "A National Security Narrative" would be possible. After a few reads-through, however, I cannot possibly do it justice without taking time to linger over various points. I am not suggesting I agree with every detail, or even some of it. Rather, I think a piece of this seriousness, thoughtfulness, and intelligence at the very least deserves to be treated with some respect.

The very first page, indeed, is presented so well, it deserves a few moments to consider what Mr. Y has written. As a summary of the position offered, they write:
The primary approach this Strategic Narrative advocates to achieve sustainable prosperity and security, is through the application of credible influence and strength, the pursuit of fair competition, acknowledgement (sic) of interdependencies (sic) and converging interests, and adaptation to complex, dynamic systems - all bounded by our national values.
This single sentence is a challenge to the view offered by the National Security and Defense strategy of the Bush years.
For an official document of the U.S. government (in accordance with the Goldwater - Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act of 1986), the Bush National Security Strategy of 2002 is disturbingly insubstantial, ideological, and, at times, disingenuous. All together, it betrays a remarkably casual attitude toward matters of grave concern to Americans and many people around the globe.


Prototypically, a national security strategy is a place to spell out national interests, threats to those interests, and the organization and allocation of national resources to pursue and defend those interests. In neorealist international relations theory nation states are seen a "amoral" units which are expected to pursue their national interests internationally. National cultural values are seen as subordinate components of national interests. What is outstanding in the new national strategy is the notion that American values stand outside of American national interests and that this quality is a distinctive American virtue.

How do these values stand outside American national interests? In the Preface President Bush puts it this way: "These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society..." and represent a "single sustainable model for national success." Later the document says: "...this path is not America's alone. It is open to all." (p. 1) This is an invitation open to all who will follow the path laid out by the United States! It pays no heed to the reality that other states will have different interests. By giving little consideration to the national interests of other states the Bush administration risks being ineffective in the pursuit of U.S. national interests.


To the extent that the Bush strategists are attracted to a culture of friendship among select nations their approach seems immature at best. In practice they seem loathe to identify with others or to equate their interests with international interests, while at the same time they explicitly call on their friends to adopt U.S. security interests as their own. These characteristics remind me of the behavior of children in their earliest friendships. At an older age they are characteristics of the phony friendships of a bully.
This criticism, leveled at the release of the 2002 National Security Strategy, sums up far better than I could, the most disturbing legacy of the Bush years, far beyond the failed economy and death and destruction of our wars of choice (which Obama seems eager to continue, despite his campaign promises to the contrary). At the heart of too much discussion of national security strategy is this whole idea that there can be no challenge to American preeminence and power. Any such challenge is not just competition, but a direct challenge to the interests and security of the United States.

Mr. Y, on the other hand, simply removes any such thoughts from how we understand national security strategy moving forward in the 21st century.
America's national strategy in the second half of the last century was anchored in the belief that our global environment is a closed system to be controlled by mankind - through technology, power, and determination - to achieve security and prosperity. From that perspective, anything that challenged our national interests was perceived as a threat or a risk to be managed. For forty years our nation prospered and was kept secure through a strategy of containment [emphasis in original]. That strategy relied on control, deterrence, and the conviction that given the choice, people the world over share our vision for a better tomorrow. America emerged from the Twentieth Century as the most powerful nation on earth. But we failed to recognize that dominance, like fossil fuel, is not a sustainable source of energy. The new century brought with it a reminder that the world, in fact, is a complex, open system - constantly changing. And change brings with it uncertainty. What we really failed to recognize, is that in uncertainty and change, there is opportunity and hope. . . . [emphasis added]

We must recognize that security means more than defense, and sustaining security requires adaptation and evolution, the leverage of converging interests and interdependencies [sic]. To grow we must accept that competitors are not necessarily adversaries, and that a winner does not demand a loser.[emphases in original] We must regain our credibility as a leader among peers, a beacon of hope, rather than an island fortress. It is only by balancing our interests with our principles that we can truly hope to sustain our growth as a nation and to restore our credibility as a world leader.
This is a direct challenge to the view offered during the Bush years that national security rested on a combination of moral and military force, the iron fist in the steel glove. By granting to reality the status of something to be taken seriously, Mr. Y has done policy planners a huge favor. Even if we can quibble over important matters, including whether or not deterrence was, indeed, our national security strategy during the Cold War; to what extent deterrence, as it emerged in the mid-1960's as a wholly nuclear doctrine with the acronym MAD (after flirting with, first, massive retaliation and then flexible response, which foresaw the use of American nuclear weapons in certain contingencies), was a sensible policy given the size and destructive power as well as fragility of the balance between the US and USSR (as well as mental acuity of national leaders on both sides). By making what should be the banal point that the world is a complicated place, and the US is "a" world leader rather than "the" world leader (the difference in article here is almost revolutionary), Mr. Y is offering up as context the simple fact that we are no longer "the superpower".

That's a marvelous place to start any discussion of national security strategy.

Virtual Tin Cup

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