Thursday, April 28, 2011

Telling A New Story I

If we lived in a more sane land, with a media less obsessed with birth certificates and phony budget plans, the release of a radically new view of American national security policy (.pdf document) would be the source of much discussion, argument, and debate. Alas, since our current moment seems dominated by nonsense - the President is too smart to be President! - the silence around this astounding offer of a vision for moving forward on national security strategy is deafening.

The article is introduced with a brief outline and summary by Anne-Marie Slaughter, identified as Bert G. Kerstetter University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, who also serves, or has served, as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department since the beginning of the Obama Administration. The summary is succinct, and important in and for itself. Slaughter's context-setting - the authors are identified only as "Mr. Y", as opposed to George Kennan's "X" - makes clear their intention to move past the floundering sterility of the past two decades, in which a post-Cold War United States continued to act as if it were 1947.

There are some points with which I disagree with Ms. Slaughter's framing. She writes the following:
The authors argue that Kennan's strategy of containment was designed for a closed system, in which we assumed that we could control events through deterrence, defense, and dominance of the international system. The 21st century is an open system, in which unpredictable external events/phenomena are constantly disturbing and disrupting the system. In this world control is impossible; the best we can do is to build credible influence - the ability to shape and guide global trends in the direction that serves our values and interests (prosperity and security) within an interdependent strategic ecosystem. In other words, the Us.S. should stop trying to dominate and direct global events. The best we can do is to build our capital so that we can influence events as they arise.
The time when the US dominated events was actually quite short. By the time southeast Asia began to rile with anti-colonial violence, in the 1950's, with a sheen of communist rhetoric, such control should have been understood as gone. Instead, we reacted - as one of Kennan's more important critics, Henry Kissinger, noted was a major flaw in containment; it created conditions wherein the US reacted to an ever-shifting set of conditions, rather than taking the diplomatic initiative - within the already distorted lenses of a militarized containment policy (Kennan always insisted his view was that containment should be a political diplomatic project, rather than military).

In the decades since Vietnam, the number of "unpredictable external events" has skyrocketed. From the rise of OPEC to the stirrings of Islamic radicalism to the growing power of China and India, we have found ourselves facing missed chances and shifting demands upon our energy and resources for which containment was not designed. Any move away from keeping the Soviet threat not just our major but sole national security focus made these events unintelligible, leaving us forming ad hoc responses that, in the end, have left us far more vulnerable than might otherwise have been the case. In many ways, a strategy that grants both the "open" system and that events are going to occur that are unexpected is less a novel approach than granting to an existing reality the status of something we need to recognize.

When during the Bush Administration a national security strategy was developed that insisted the US continue to be the dominant global superpower well in to the 21st century, few people that I can recall called such an announcement nonsensical, practically impossible, and a recipe for fiscal and economic disaster. Now, however, we have a reasoned, articulate proposal for a national security strategy that recognizes the reality we have faced for close to four decades, offering a role for the US that is sustainable, realistic, and in tune with our deepest values.

Tomorrow, an appraisal of Mr. Y.

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