Why the United States needs to get out of the 'indispensable nation' business.
Senator McCain is pushing Gen. Dempsey to get the United States into the fight in Syria. NSA chief Keith Alexander announces the creation of 40 new cyberwarrior teams, 13 of which are dedicated to the development of offensive cyberweapons. The urge to advance America’s national security agenda around the globe, using the military instrument, continues unabated despite a defense drawdown, the potential for the defense budget to drop another $52 billion below what the administration asked for next year, and Secretary Hagel’s warnings that the going is going to get tougher.
It makes me wonder if it is not time to rethink our assumptions in a fundamental way. In the 1990s, when I worked in the White House doing defense and foreign policy budgets, the Clinton staff regularly asked with wonder, "Why do we spend so much on the military?" Pretty senior people, not just the young whippersnappers like George Stephanopoulos or Rahm Emmanuel.
After a while I got to expect the question, so I would routinely carry with me a set of briefing graphics that described the U.S. defense posture and its budget. The graphics told a story about what the U.S. military did and where they did it. They weren’t about waste or out of control "back office" administrative costs, or runaway pricing of weapons programs. Those all contribute to the size of the budget.
But at the heart, I would explain, we had and have a huge military establishment because, at the very core of our foreign and national security policy, we assume that the U.S. military, the United States as a whole, is responsible for everything and the military needs to be everywhere.
When I walked people through the briefing, I would point out that the American soldier, sailor, and pilot is everywhere. The U.S. military was then (and continues to be today) the only one in the world with a truly global presence. No other country has global military communications, global logistics, global intelligence operations, global basing, global transportation. No other military can deploy forces anywhere in the world, by sea or by air, fly in any airspace (in principle), sail to any part of the world. No other military even tried — not then, not today.
It’s not just about the costs of overseas basing; it’s about having the personnel, equipment, and capability to do that anywhere in the world. To put a fine point on it, we have, for decades, asserted and executed the role of global system integrator. And our defense budget is expensive, fundamentally, because the military is the primary instrument for ensuring we can play that role.
This assumption is as common to our discourse as the water we drink and the air we breathe. It is hardly questioned. Just listen to the politicians’ speeches and the policymakers’ declarations. If there is a failing state in Syria, we must start planning to use the military to deal with it. If there is a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the U.S. military is needed to provide assistance. If there is a bad guy oppressing his people, we need to step in with swift regime-change justice. If there are untreated illnesses on the Latin American coast, the American military has to sail a hospital ship in to comfort them. If there is an Islamic extremist surge in Mali, the U.S. military has to engage at least to the extent of supplying intelligence, transportation, and fuel, and then bulk up training programs for African militaries, along with our own military presence on that continent.
The assumption is very broad; it affects much of American statecraft and foreign policy. The success of our diplomacy and the global trading system depend on our global military presence. Our global diplomacy will fail, some argue, if the United States does not have a global military to back it up. The U.S. military is the bedrock "guarantor" of security in every region. Terrorist organizations can only be confronted by the United States, primarily through military operations.
The global "commons" depends on the U.S. military to ensure that the seas are safe, the airspace is used peacefully, outer space is not militarized (though we send much of our military communications through space-based assets). And, increasingly, the global cybercommons, it is argued, is a responsibility of U.S. Cyber Command, the leader of which is currently dual-hatted with the job of leading the National Security Agency, responsible for all that global listening and data gathering we are hearing about.
This huge capability, operating on a global basis, is rarely questioned. When it is, or when a major combat deployment on land ends, as I pointed out last week, the military "shrinks" a bit to some more normal state (especially the ground forces), awaiting some new assignment of responsibility for an event or challenge somewhere around the globe. Meanwhile, we pursue "stealth globalism," forces and intelligence operatives who work more in the dark — as they did in the 1950s, the 1980s, and today.
All kinds of signals are now appearing that this global role is unsustainable, even counterproductive, and out of touch with the dramatic changes taking place in the world. Yet we push on, as if the assumption is still tenable.
The explosions in the Middle East reflect historical realities which we did not create and which we cannot control, yet political leaders like Sen. McCain still bluster that we can and ought to use our military to do so. And yet our very global presence seems to exacerbate the problem; the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha found, in a June opinion survey of 14 countries, that the United States and Israel were considered "the largest threats to Arab national security."
The finding is consistent with the conclusion drawn by CIA counterterrorism operative Michael Scheuer 10 years ago in his book Imperial Hubris, that what sustained support for al Qaeda in the region was not anti-American values or cultural reaction, but resistance to America’s presence and policy in the region.
The rise of China, which the military’s "Asian Pivot" is designed to contain or resist, is not something we caused. But it is inevitable, and the expansion of the U.S. military presence in the region is a double-edged sword. It may appear to reassure some of China’s neighbors; it may also exacerbate precisely the military confrontation it is intended to prevent. But it is clearly built on the global assumption: Regional powers cannot resolve contentious security issues, so we must be there with a major military presence.
For decades the security assumption in Europe was that the American military presence ensured not only the deterrence of the Soviet Union, but also provided the sinews that bound the security of the European countries together. Yet, for the past 20, nay, even for the past 50 years, the United States has pushed the Europeans to bulk up their militaries; they have not only failed to do so, but their military budgets have plummeted as the Europeans make their own choices about their security interests, impervious to U.S. global demands.
And today, having learned that the global intelligence apparatus of the United States was not only gathering military and security secrets, but tapping into such un-terrorist locations as the offices of the European Union, the Europeans are asking themselves what is the cost to their security of such deep intrusion by the big brother across the Atlantic.
And despite the rhetoric about the global commons, today ships sail without naval protection (don’t talk to me about pirates — a nit on the seas compared to the global naval traffic). Aircraft fly under rules negotiated by diplomats and technical experts; they are not accompanied, each, by an American fighter jet. Aside from military communications, space is full of commercial enterprise, guaranteed by commercial rules and international agreements. And I have just noted the down-side of making the NSA responsible for policing cyberspace.
I despair, I confess, of any expectation that the Washington assumption will be reexamined. But it is worth raising the flag, because persisting in the illusion that we should, and can, be the indispensible nation, the guarantor of the system, the protector of the commons, is unsustainable, counterproductive, and even dangerous.
In a world where virtually no problem can be solved without the cooperation of all, especially inevitably rising powers like Turkey, South Africa, Brazil, India, Iran, China, and even Russia, the assumption that we have the answers and are the indispensible manager is just plain wrong; it passed its sell-by date a long time ago.
And being wrong, it can be counterproductive. We walk in with the answer, send the forces to execute the answer, and discover that we are not as beloved as we think we are.
And not being beloved, we become the force to resist, which frustrates the very purpose we set out to accomplish.
Plus, today, the entire global mission is unaffordable. No amount of increase in defense spending is going to reverse the trends I have identified. As defense resources decline, and they will decline with our fiscal and economic troubles and the end of the misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, we will still have the world’s only global military. But it is going to have to be matched with our non-military, civilian wits, because using the military tool is not buying us the security we once thought it did.
It is time to rethink the assumptions, because the price of not doing so is too high; its ineffectiveness too obvious, and the blowback too threatening to our long-term security.