What Obama’s New Strategy Leaves Out

Why smart growth is good for U.S. national security.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Delivering the 2010 commencement address at West Point, President Obama articulated the challenge of his presidency, saying, "Our future will be defined by what we build."

This week the White House unveiled its National Security Strategy — the formal expression of the president’s foreign-policy vision. For Obama, emerging from the crisis-management mode of his first 16 months in office, the question of how to provide for the common defense is now inextricably intertwined with providing for the general welfare. "At the center of our efforts is a commitment to renew our economy, which serves as the wellspring of American power," the report says.

Some will undoubtedly dismiss this formulation as a platitude, or overly political at a time when Obama’s party is heading into a midterm election likely to be dominated by economic issues. But by reconnecting economic strength to national security, a prominent theme within the National Security Strategy, Obama has opened an important national debate about the correlation of America’s economic engine to its overarching national interests over the coming decades. Indeed, no other correlation of means to ends will determine America’s prospects so much as this one.

In both World War II and the Cold War, there was no question that America’s economic engine had to do the heavy lifting; both Franklin Roosevelt’s "arsenal of democracy" and Truman and Eisenhower’s "containment" grand strategies relied on the U.S. economy to outperform those of its adversaries. Bill Clinton, the first post-Cold War president, believed that the Western consumer economies could peacefully integrate China and its expanding Asian neighbors in the same way Washington wove post-war European and Japanese industrial integration decades earlier. But integrating more than 2 billion Asian workers into the Western economy of 1 billion people was asking for major imbalances. Unlike their Cold War predecessors, who actively shaped European and Japanese integration, the Clinton and Bush administrations left that process of Asian integration to the invisible hand of the economy. In 2008, a decade of poor regulation and rising imbalances produced the Great Recession.

Unfortunately, the problems associated with economic inclusion are significantly underplayed in the new national security strategy. In fact, the challenges shaping the actions of the other big players in world affairs — China, India, Europe, Brazil, Japan, and Russia — are two: how to rapidly include the 4 billion people still outside the formal sector of the global economy, and how to do so in a way that is environmentally sustainable. China and India will together add approximately 750 million people to their cities by 2030, a project their political systems and global supply chains are not presently capable of handling. Managed poorly, the world looks like 2007: high prices for energy, food, and basic materials that create great economic pain and volatility. Meanwhile, climate change and other forms of ecosystem depletion will be transforming food production, urban freshwater supplies, and increasing the severity of weather patterns and storms.

The National Security Strategy is right to assert that America’s core interests are security, prosperity, values, and international order. But the challenge of American statecraft is to shape the global conditions that will maximize those interests. Unfortunately, the conditions America must promote — environmental sustainability, orderly economic inclusion, and increased resilience of global systems — are obscured in the new strategy.

Anyone who has been to a Brazilian, Chinese, or Indian city in recent years has seen airports, highways, and high-speed trains that make U.S. urban areas look dowdy by comparison. But step outside downtown, and you’ll find these countries are decades the West behind in providing services and healthy environments for their citizens.

For now. To secure its interests, the United States must harness its $14 trillion economy, still 25 percent of global GDP, and set it to these tasks while restoring the American dream. The president’s strategy asserts that a focus on education, science, innovation, a new energy economy, affordable health care, and a reduced deficit will provide a sufficiently prosperous, balanced, and sustainable economy. If we were talking in 1970, 1980, or 1990, perhaps that would be true. Set against the manufacturing power and building-led economic growth of the rising Asian economies, this economic engine is just not strong enough.

What the president’s plan is missing is a strategy for literally building American prosperity. That strategy is called smart growth; changing how Americans design, build, and rebuild our physical communities. Metropolitan areas from conservative Salt Lake City, Utah, to liberal Portland, Oregon, have transformed their local economies by changing how they grow and by building cities, towns, and neighborhoods that involve less energy and materials and shorter commutes while they increase mobility, connectivity, and quality of life.

The desire to live in a better house in a better neighborhood is the essence of the American dream. Today, it’s also the United States’ deepest pool of domestic demand. Eighty-eight percent of Americans would rather have the 200 hours a year they spend commuting to spend with their families or exercising. Forty-six percent of Americans simply do not like where they live, and at least 10 percent of Americans move every year. Harnessing this force in an intelligent way can turn domestic demand into domestic strength and underwrite the rebalancing and sustainability the president rightly seeks.

Strategy is ultimately the correlation of means to ends. After two decades in which the strength of the U.S. economy was taken for granted in security planning, the administration’s attention to the subject is itself a major breakthrough. But attention alone is not enough. To promote the general welfare and provide for the common defense, Obama needs a plan that can actually do the job.

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