Why the new Defense Guidance is still interventionist

I’m prepping for an overseas trip and am pressed for time, but I did get a chance to take a quick look at the new Defense Guidance (DG), available here. I didn’t do a Talmudic reading — which would probably be pointless anyway, but I did have a few reactions that I wanted to pass ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Ernesto Hernandez Fonte/NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan via Getty Images
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Ernesto Hernandez Fonte/NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan via Getty Images
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Ernesto Hernandez Fonte/NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan via Getty Images

I'm prepping for an overseas trip and am pressed for time, but I did get a chance to take a quick look at the new Defense Guidance (DG), available here. I didn't do a Talmudic reading -- which would probably be pointless anyway, but I did have a few reactions that I wanted to pass along.

First, and most obviously, an offshore balancer like me can find certain things to like in this document, and one could even argue that some of its central elements correspond to positions that I've been articulating here and elsewhere. My advocacy didn't have anything to do with these decisions, of course; both my analysis and the Pentagon's decisions reflect some pretty obvious underlying forces. But the pivot towards Asia, the downgrading of Europe, and the clear de-emphasis on counter-insurgency and nation-building (e.g., "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations") are measures I can only applaud. Ditto the emphasis on "innovative, low-cost and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security goals."

Second, as I mentioned in my previous post, these changes do not herald a philosophical shift away from a highly interventionist outlook. The new DG says the United States will still "take an active approach to countering [terrorist] threats," meaning continued drone strikes, night raids, and various forms of covert action. The decision to "invest as required to ensure [our] ability to operate in anti-access and area denial environments" tells you that the U.S. intends to retain the capability to use force just about anywhere it decides it wants to. And although it declares that the U.S. "will continue to promote a rules-based international order," we will undoubtedly reserve the right to ignore any of those rules if they prove to be inconvenient.

I’m prepping for an overseas trip and am pressed for time, but I did get a chance to take a quick look at the new Defense Guidance (DG), available here. I didn’t do a Talmudic reading — which would probably be pointless anyway, but I did have a few reactions that I wanted to pass along.

First, and most obviously, an offshore balancer like me can find certain things to like in this document, and one could even argue that some of its central elements correspond to positions that I’ve been articulating here and elsewhere. My advocacy didn’t have anything to do with these decisions, of course; both my analysis and the Pentagon’s decisions reflect some pretty obvious underlying forces. But the pivot towards Asia, the downgrading of Europe, and the clear de-emphasis on counter-insurgency and nation-building (e.g., "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations") are measures I can only applaud. Ditto the emphasis on "innovative, low-cost and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security goals."

Second, as I mentioned in my previous post, these changes do not herald a philosophical shift away from a highly interventionist outlook. The new DG says the United States will still "take an active approach to countering [terrorist] threats," meaning continued drone strikes, night raids, and various forms of covert action. The decision to "invest as required to ensure [our] ability to operate in anti-access and area denial environments" tells you that the U.S. intends to retain the capability to use force just about anywhere it decides it wants to. And although it declares that the U.S. "will continue to promote a rules-based international order," we will undoubtedly reserve the right to ignore any of those rules if they prove to be inconvenient.

Third, as is usually the case with such documents, they sound better when viewed from an American-centric perspective than from the perspective of other powers. We assume that our role in Asia provides "a vital foundation for Asia-Pacific security," for example, but I suspect a few Asian countries (e.g., China, North Korea, and maybe Pakistan) do not quite see it that way. What’s missing here is the whole idea of a "security dilemma," whereby measures that we take to strengthen our position and enhance our security inevitably undermine somebody’s else’s position and make them feel less secure.

Similarly, the DG calls for the U.S. to maintain a "safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent," while hinting that "it is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force." On the one hand, to even hint at that possibility is almost bold; on the other hand, to say that it is "possible" we could deter with less is as obvious as saying that the Sun will rise tomorrow. Remember that many American experts believe Iran would suddenly get tremendous bargaining leverage and a robust ability to deter us if it were to get a handful of nuclear weapons. If that is the case, then the thousands of warheads currently in our own arsenal are vastly more than we would need to deter. Sadly, the drafters of this document didn’t feel quite empowered enough to make this obvious point.

Finally, no document of this sort would be complete without a few unsubstantiated bits of boilerplate. It invokes the familiar but still unconvincing claim that we must win in Afghanistan to deny al Qaeda a "safe haven," while acknowledging that al Qaeda is far less capable" and that future counter-terrorism efforts "will become more widely distributed." As I’ve said all along, the outcome in Afghanistan won’t have a big impact on the threat from al Qaeda, and it’s still a mistake to confuse the two.

Despite these various objections, the new DG (and the budget it implies) should be seen as a step in the right direction (even if not an especially bold one). But a final word of warning: the Defense Guidance is not a strategy; it is a political framework that is intended to inform the budget planning process that lead to the creation of forces and the development of specific capabilities. By itself, it doesn’t tell you how those forces will ultimately be used. That will depend on what happens in the world at large, and I dare say on what happens next November.

Note: I will be traveling in the Middle East and Southeast Asia over the next ten days, and internet access and time to blog are likely to be scarce. I have some guest posts lined up for the hiatus and I’ll try to chime in when I can, but feel free to spend some time with the people on my blogroll instead.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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