The Turning Point: From "National Security" to "National Prosperity and Security"

origami peace cranes

Thanks to Steve Beckow.

On April 18, the Pentagon released a report that could revolutionize its very purpose. Even this old, cynical peace activist must admit, A National Strategic Narrative, from the Woodrow Wilson Center, filled me with at least the first hesitant tendrils of excitement. To imagine that we could actually reconfigure the massive U.S. military engine that is now fighting three wars at once while occupying over 700 bases world wide and untold above and below ground bases in the U.S.; to imagine that we could actually both notice and shrink this elephant in the room that takes more than 50% of our taxes, and turn it from its hellbent course; to realize that at least three people (the authors plus the woman who wrote the Preface) in “the corridors of power” actually dare to not only question the “full spectrum dominance” of “key regions, lines of communication and the ‘global commons’ of international waters, airspace, space and cyberspace” as spelled out in the 2004 National Military Policy document, but to offer a much saner vision for the future, is astonishing. I think so much of this document that I retyped the preface for easy reading.

On the other hand, had the document emphasized cooperation over competition, it would have been even more revolutionary. Plus, the ultimate approach would be to dissolve nation states and their need for individual security in favor of a global initiative that elevates the sustainability of Mother Earth into our primary collective value. See the remarkable Bolivian initiative that incorporates indigenous values, now at the U.N.

And yet of course, to think in terms of “one world” also raises the spectre of total Illuminati control. So until that even-bigger-elephant-in-the-room has dissolved, the approach that this document takes can at least begin to pave the way towards human harmony.


With a Preface by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University

The Preface

The United States needs a national strategic narrative. We have a national security strategy, which sets forth four core national interests and outlines a number of dimensions of an overarching strategy to advance those interests in the 21st century world. But that is a document written by specialists for specialists. It does not answer a fundamental question that more and more Americans are asking. Where is the United States going in the world? How can we get there? What are the guiding stars that will illuminate the path along the way? We need a story with a beginning, middle and projected happy ending that will transcend our political divisions, orient us a s a nation, and give us both a common direction and the confidence and commitment to get to our destination.

These answers require new answers because of the universal awareness that we are living through a time of rapid and universal change. The assumptions of the 20th century, of the U.S. As a bulwark first against fascism and then against communism, make little sense in a world in which World War II and its aftermath is a distant to young generations today as the War of 1870 was to the men who designed the United Nations and the international order in the late 1940s.

Consider the description of the U.S. President as “the leader of the free world,” a phrase that encapsulated U.S. Power and the structure of the global order for decades. Yet anyone under thirty today, a majority of the world’s population, likely has no idea what it means. Moreover, the U.S. Is experiencing its latest round of “declinism,” the periodic certainty that we are losing all the things that have made us a great nation. In National Journal poll conducted in 2010, 47% of Americans rated China’s economy as the world’s strongest economy, even though today the U.S. Economy is still 2.5 times larger than the Chinese economy with only 1/6 of the population. Our crumbling roads and bridges reflect a crumbling self-confidence. Our education reformers often seem to despair that we can ever educate new generations effectively for the 21st century economy. Our health care system lags increasingly behind that of other developed nations — even behind British National Health in terms of the respective overall health of the British and American populations.

Against this backdrop, Captain Porter’s and Colonel Mykleby’s “Y” article could not come at a more propitious time. In 1947 George Kennan published “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym X, so as not to reveal his identity as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. The X article gave us an intellectual framework within which to understand the rise and eventual fall of the Soviet Union and a strategy to hasten that objective. Based on that foundation, the strategic narrative of the Cold War was that the United States was the leader of the free world against the communism world; that we would invest in containing the Soviet Union and limiting its expansion while building a dynamic economy and a just, and prosperous society as possible.

We often departed from that narrative in practice, as George Kennan was one of the first to recognize. But it was a narrative that fit the facts of the world we perceived well enough to create a maintain a loose bipartisan national concensus for forty years.

Porter and Mykleby give us a non-partisan blueprint for understanding and reacting to the changes of the 21st century world. In one sentence, the strategic narrative of the United States in the 21st century is that we want to become the strongest competitor and most influential player in a deeply inter-connected global system, which requires that we invest less in defense and more in sustainable prosperity and the tools of effective global engagement.

At first reading, this sentence may not seem to mark much of a change. But look closer. The Y article narrative responds directly to five major transitions in the global system:

  1. From control in a closed system to credible influence in an open system. 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 deterence, 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 beuild 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 U.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.
  2. From containment to sustainment. The move from control to credible influence as a fundamental stratetic goal requires a shift from containment to sustainment (sustainability). Instead of trying to contain others (the Soviet Union, terrorists, China, etc), we need to focus on sustaining ourselves in ways that build our strengths and underpin credible influence. That shift in turn means that the starting point for our strategy should be internal rather than external. The 2010 National Security Strategy did indeed focus on national renewal and global leadership, but this account makes an even stronger case for why we have to focus first and foremost on investing our resources domestically in those national resources that can be sustained, such as our youth and our natural resources (ranging from crops, livestock, and potable water to sources of energy and materials for industry). We can and must still engage internationally, of course, but only after a careful weighing of costs and benefits and with as many partners as possible. Credible influence also requires that we model the behavior we recommend for others, and that we pay close attention to the gap between our words and our deeds.
  1. From deterrence and defense to civilian engagement and competition. Here in many ways is the hard nub of this narrative. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen has already said publicly that the U.S. Deficit is our biggest national security threat. He and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have also given speeches and written articles calling for “demilitarizing American foreign policy” and investing more in the tools of civilian engagements — diplomacy and defense. As we modernize our military and cut spending the tools of 20th century warfare, we must also invest in a security complex that includes all domestic and foreign policy assets. Our credibility requires a willingness to compete with others. Instead of defeatism and protectionism, we must embrace competition as a way to make ourselves stronger and better (e.g., Ford today, now competing with Toyota on electric cars). A willingness to compete means a new narrative on trade and a new willingness to invest the skills, education, energy sources, and infrastructure necessary to make our products competitive.
  1. From zero sum to positive sum global politics/developments. An interdependent world creates many converging interests and opportunities for positive-sum rather than zero-sum competition. The threats that come from interdependence (economic instability, global pandemics, global terrorist and criminal networks) also create common interests in countering those threats domestically and internationally. President Obama has often emphasized the significance of moving toward positive-sum politics. To take only one example, the rise of China as a major economic power has been overall very positive for the U.S. Economy and the prosperity and stability of East Asia. The United States must be careful to guard our interests and those of our allies, but we miss great opportunities if we assume that the rise of some necessarily means the decline of others.
  2. From national security to national prosperity and security. The piece closes with a call for a National Prosperity and Security Act to replace the National Security Act of 1947. The term “national security” only entered the foreign policy lexicon after 1947 to reflect the merger of defense and foreign affairs. Today our security lies as much or more in our prosperity as in our military capabilities. Our vocabulary, our institutions, and our assumptions must reflect that shift. “National security” has become a trump card, justifying military spending even as the domestic foundations of our national strength are crumbling. “National prosperity and security” reminds us where our true security begins. Foreign policy pundits have long called for an overhaul of NSC 68, the blueprint for the national security state that accompanied the grand strategy of containment. If we are truly to become the strongest competitor and most influential player in a deeply interconnected world of the 21st century, then we need a new blueprint.A narrative is a story. A national strategic narrative must be a story that all Americans can understand and identify with in their own lives. America’s national story has always see-sawed between exceptionalism and universalism. We think that we are an exceptional nation, but a core part of that exceptionalism is a commitment to universal values — to the equality of all human beings not just within the borders of the United States, but around the world. We should thus embrace the rise of other nations when that rise is powered by expanded prosperity, opportunity, and dignity for their peoples. In such a world we do not need to see ourselves as the automatic leader of any bloc of nations. We should be prepared instead to earn our influence through our ability to compete with other nations, the evident prosperity and wellbeing of our people, and our ability to engage not just with states but with societies in all their richness and complexity. We do not want to be the sole superpower that billions of people around the world have learned to hate from fear of our military might. We seek instead to be th nation other nations listen to, rely on and emulate out of respect and admiration.

The Y article is the first step down that new path. It is written by two military men who have put their lives on the line in the defense of their country and who are non-partisan by profession and conviction. Their insights and ideas should spark a national conversation. All it takes is for politicians, pundits, journalists, businesspeople, civic leaders, and engaged citizens across the country to read and respond.

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