A New Strategy for the US: From the Control Paradigm to Sustainable Security

Schuyler Null | The New Security Beat | May 2011

Issues:Climate change, Competition over resources, Global militarisation, Marginalisation

The United States needs a new national security narrative, agreed a diverse panel of high-level discussants last week during a new Wilson Center initiative, “The National Conversation at the Woodrow Wilson Center.” Hosted by new Wilson Center President and CEO, Jane Harman, and moderated by The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, the inaugural event was based on a white paper by two active military officers writing under the pseudonym “Mr. Y” (echoing George Kennan’s “X” article). In “A National Strategic Narrative,” Captain Wayne Porter (USN) and Colonel Mark Mykleby (USMC) argue that the United States needs to move away from an outmoded 20th century model of containment, deterrence, and control towards a “strategy of sustainability.” 

Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, who wrote the white paper’s preface, summarized it for the panel, which included Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President Ford and President H.W. Bush; Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.); Steve Clemons, founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation; and Robert Kagan, senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

Framing a 21st Century Vision

We can no longer expect to control events, but we can influence them, Slaughter said. “In an interconnected world, the United States should be the strongest competitor and the greatest source of credible influence – the nation that is most able to influence what happens in the international sphere – while standing for security, prosperity, and justice at home and abroad.”

“My generation has had our whole foreign policy world defined as national security,” said Slaughter, “but ‘national security’ only entered the national lexicon in the late 1940s; it was a way of combining defense and foreign affairs, in the context of a post-World War II rising Soviet Union.”

As opposed to a strategy document, their intention, write Porter and Mykleby, was to create a narrative through which to frame U.S. national policy decisions and discussions well into this century.

“America emerged from the Twentieth Century as the most powerful nation on earth,” the “Mr. Y” authors write. “But we failed to recognize that dominance, like fossil fuel, is not a sustainable source of energy.”

It is time for America to re-focus our national interests and principles through a long lens on the global environment of tomorrow. It is time to move beyond a strategy of containment to a strategy of sustainment (sustainability); from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion, to a proactive posture of engagement. We must recognize that security means more than defense, and sustaining security requires adaptation and evolution, the leverage of converging interests and interdependencies. 

Prosperity and Security a Matter of Sustainability

The “Mr. Y” paper is similar in some respects to other strategic documents that have promoted a more holistic understanding of security, such as the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which was partially authored by Slaughter during her time in State’s Policy Planning Office. But there’s a markedly heavy focus on economics and moving beyond the “national security” framework in Porter and Mykleby’s white paper. They outline three “sustainable” investment priorities:

1) Human capital: refocus on education, health, and social infrastructure;
2) Sustainable security: use a more holistic, whole-of-government approach to security; essentially, expand the roles of civilian agencies and promote stability as much as ensuring defense; and,
3) Natural resources: invest in long-range, sustainable management of natural resources, in the context of expanding global demand (via population growth and consumption).

“These issues have come in and out of the security debates since the end of the Cold War, but they have not been incorporated well into a single national security narrative,” Geoff Dabelko, director of the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, told The New Security Beat. “This piece is a positive step toward achieving a coherent and inclusive national security narrative for the United States.”

To provide a “blueprint” for this transition, Porter and Mykleby call for the drafting of a “National Prosperity and Security Act” to replace the national security framework laid by the National Security Act of 1947 (NSA 47) and followed by subsequent NSAs.

A New Geostrategic Model?

The panel unanimously praised the white paper’s intentions, if not its exact method of analysis and proposed solutions. All agreed that globalization and technology have helped create a more interconnected and complex world than current foreign policy and national security institutions are designed to deal with. Scowcroft called the 20th century “the epitome of the nation-state system” and said he expects an erosion of nation-state power, especially in light of integrated challenges like climate change and global health.

Kagan disagreed, saying he’s less convinced that the nation-state is fading away. “If anything, I would say since the 1990s, the nation-state has made a kind of comeback,” he said, adding that the paper lacks “a description of how the world works, in the sense of ‘do we still believe in a core realist point that power interaction among nation states is still important?’” In that sense, he said, “I’m not at all convinced we’ve left either the 20th century or the 19th century, in terms of some fundamental issues having to do with power.”

“I think there are three things that really are new,” said Slaughter. “The first [is the] super-empowered individual…the ability of individuals to do things that only states could.” We saw that with 9/11, with individuals attacking a nation, and we’re seeing that with communications as well, she said. “I can tell you, Twitter and the State Department’s reporting system, they’re pretty comparable and Twitter’s probably ahead, in terms of how much information you can get.”

Second, there is a “whole other dimension of power that simply did not exist before and that is how connected you are,” Slaughter said. “The person who is the most connected has the most power, because they’re the person who can mobilize, like Wael Ghonim in Egypt.”

Third, there are a greater number of responsible stakeholders. “What President Obama keeps telling other nations is ‘you want to be a great power? It’s not enough to have a big economy and a big army and a big territory, you have to take responsibility for enforcing the norms of a global order,’” Slaughter said. Qatar’s willingness to participate in the international community’s intervention in Libya, she said, was in part an example of a country responding to that challenge and stepping up into a role it had not previously played.

These new dimensions to power and security don’t entirely replace the old model but do make it more complex. “It’s on top of what was,” Slaughter said, and “we have to adapt to it.”


 This article originally appeared on The New Security Beat. 


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