Channeling Ike

The national security memo that Eisenhower would write Hagel.

National Archives
National Archives

With President Obama’s nomination of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense, some have argued that Hagel’s views parallel those of another former service member who went into politics: Dwight Eisenhower. Both are skeptics of military adventurism who appreciate the limits of power in a messy world. Hagel has stated an explicit admiration for Eisenhower, his worldview and leadership style, in such cases as the 1956 Suez crisis.

Eisenhower prioritized correcting what he saw as the Truman administration’s version of containment, whose unqualified, wide-ranging global commitments he considered extreme and unaffordable, especially in the wake of the exhausting Korean War. Our similar moment today — of constrained resources, excessive commitments, and national desire for a post-war reset — seems custom-built for an Ike-like recalibration.

But beyond the thematic parallels, how might someone channeling Eisenhower view the present strategic moment? What specific principles might they bring to bear to shape a more constrained paradigm?

Eisenhower isn’t around to tell us, so it’s impossible to know for sure. But Eisenhower’s approach to the strategic challenges he faced give some clue, as do his writings and a number of especially notable National Security Council memos from his time in office (such as NSC 162/2 of October 30, 1953 and NSC 5602/1 of March 15, 1956). These essential planning documents reflected the Eisenhower administration’s basic national security policy — what would become known as the "New Look," the core principle of which was keeping the health of the domestic economy and society in balance with foreign commitments. The doctrine is best known for its reliance on nuclear weapons to achieve these efficiencies, but this was only one of a number of strategies to sustain a strong and credible U.S. role at lower cost.

What follows is a thought experiment laying out some of the concepts that could guide a way forward inspired by some aspects of Eisenhower’s brand of thinking, in the form of a theoretical NSC document. It can only very crudely approximate some of the original memos, which run to many pages of densely-worded text. It reflects just a few of the many principles of leadership that Eisenhower favored. And to be very clear: I am not suggesting that every phrase or idea in the invented document below would reflect Eisenhower’s mindset (or that Senator Hagel necessarily subscribes to these). The notion is merely to give a rough sense of what a similar sensibility would have to say about our current ends-means gap.

Report to the National Security Council by the Strategic Studies Directorate

WASHINGTON, January 30, 2013


For most of the last half-century, the United States has been in the position of a hegemonic power dealing with fairly predictable and straightforward threats that were believed to place our way of life at imminent risk. We dealt with these problems in part by possible contingencies and the requirements for military forces necessary to prevail in them, and by drawing in allies who shared our fundamental perception of the security problem. And we devoted the necessary resources to underwrite this approach with an overwhelming military posture.

Our central strategic challenge today stems from the fact that each of these variables has become invalid. Today’s core security problems, from fragile states to radicalism leading to terrorism to the risk of nationalism-fueled peer competitors, are highly complex. We cannot amass overwhelming force against them; indeed force will seldom be the answer. Other tools of statecraft, such as civilian capabilities to stabilize failing states, are poorly developed — and even if they were better resourced, have poor track records of generating measurable results. A contingency-planning approach will constantly frustrate when (a) we cannot accurately define the contingencies and (b) we cannot afford the requirements they generate. And the constraints on our security posture have made the resource demands of the existing concept insupportable. We now require a strategy for a constrained power facing nonlinear challenges in a world of shared authority. Our study of this over-arching challenge, the current security context, and possible responses has generated a number of principles to guide a strategic answer, as well as specific implications.

1. The Vitality of Our Domestic Economy and Society is the Indispensable Foundation for National Security.

In an era of globalized economic rivalry and competition, national strength, weakness, and vulnerability will primarily be a function of economic vitality, innovation, productivity, investment, fiscal solvency, and financial stability, as well as effective governance, maintenance of an equitable and meritocratic society, and other measures of broad-based economic, social, and political competitiveness. In particular, persistent slow growth or recurring economic or financial crises would undermine our ability to sustain the international system, whose essential attractive force is built on economic dynamism through shared prosperity.

The key implication of this principle is that we must develop a defense program that does not require expenditures of a scale that would trade off against domestic priorities in a manner that would seriously weaken the U.S. economy or society.

2. Time is On Our Side.

Over the long haul, liberal values are likely to spread to most countries. Authoritarian states are likely to liberalize. The leadership of most countries is likely to see the value of living under shared international norms. Moreover, over the medium-term, there is at least a potential for a social, political, economic, and demographic renewal in America that — combined with likely social, economic, and political disturbances in emerging countries, especially China — could counteract some proportion of the current perceived trend toward relative U.S. decline.

One implication of this principle is that the fundamental spirit of our security strategy must be to manage events while underlying factors work in our favor, rather than to create unnecessary risk (and commit unaffordable levels of national treasure) by pushing on the levers of history with reckless force, or applying norms or principles in an unqualified manner. This guideline applies equally to issues such as responses to civil wars and failed states and to scenarios surrounding alleged short-term credibility tests such as Taiwan, the Republic of Georgia, or Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

A second implication is that helping to underwrite the steady accumulation of global norms — the persistence and indeed strengthening of the international system constructed under the shadow of U.S. power and influence in the wake of World War II — will remain a central purpose for U.S. national security policy going forward. There is some unavoidable tension between this implication and the previous one: patience can be a general watchword, but U.S. leadership still underwrites global stability, and shoring up the international order will demand determining those occasional moments when a decisive impatience is called for.

In fact a major risk of the current strategic moment is the gradual unraveling of that order. There are many reasons for this accumulating risk — the rise of alternative centers of power, the multidimensionality of power in the international system, the fact that key security issues (failed states, terrorism, extremism, global organized crime) are less amenable to existing instruments of national power. We ourselves help to delegitimize global norms and institutions when we take actions (e.g., targeted strike actions) inconsistent with our stated values, or when we refuse to accede to treaties (e.g., the International Criminal Court and the Law of the Sea) that reflect our stated principles and desire for enhanced norms.

3. Every Policy and Action Should Be Grounded in an Awareness of the Limitations of Our Power.

A leading hallmark of the American mindset over the last half century has been to underestimate the inherent resistance of a complex, organic, nonlinear international system to efforts to control outcomes, and to overestimate our ability to impose our will on events. That mindset has already been responsible for many of the pathologies of U.S. national security policy since 1945, from large-scale interventions such as Vietnam and Iraq to smaller-scale "covert" programs in places such as Nicaragua and Cuba. In an era of growing pressure on the gap between means and ends, it will become even more dangerous.

One broad implication of this reality will be a consistent and often uncomfortable requirement to shape our objectives so that they fit within the feasibly malleable preference range of other actors, rather than assuming that we can impose our preferences. A good example of this is the effort in Afghanistan: A sustainable outcome must be one that strikes a sweet spot in the narrow overlap of Afghan, Pakistani and U.S. interests and goals, rather than trying to persuade or coerce others to accept a U.S. definition of victory (which was our long-time approach).

A second implication is that if a goal is important only to us, it will probably demand a disproportionate degree of resources and means to accomplish, and may not be worth the effort. A key rule of thumb going forward will be that, almost no matter how important an objective appears, if others are not willing to ante up, the cases in which we should be willing to tackle threats/risks/challenges alone are exceedingly narrow.

4. America’s Standing Has Incalculable Benefit.

Despite the rise of resentment and suspicion in recent years, America remains a widely-admired nation and the most trusted single honest broker. In ideological terms this is a function of our values; in realpolitik terms it stems in part from the fact that we are distant from many regions and thus more trusted as a security partner than ambitious, looming neighbors.

The obvious implication is that we should husband this resource and be extremely wary of actions — even if they appear to promise urgent short-term benefits, as in enhanced interrogation procedures that generate usable intelligence — which do long­term damage to our global standing. We will be almost certain to regret the tradeoff.

5. Be Realistic About Perceived Threats.

While our interests and objectives in the global system remain fairly constant, we must ground our security requirements in a clear-eyed assessment of actual threats, rather than an inflated sense of potential ones.

One possible implication is that we are not today at daily risk of the defining, existential risks of earlier times: invasion, direct military attack, or (barring horrific accident) nuclear annihilation. We must continue vigilant counterterror efforts, but these are not resource intensive in historical terms. The challenge of domestic social vulnerability is essentially a problem of risk management.

A parallel implication on the global scene is that emerging regional powers, including Russia and China, while aggressive and ambitious, are not classical "revisionist" states determined to fundamentally overturn the existing order. Many are determined to "have their say" and to assert long­dormant perceived rights and claims — and, at times, to refuse to be bound by what some view as legacies of "imperial" or hegemonic rules or strictures. But they benefit too much from its trading system, and its leading norms of nonaggression keep them too secure, to expect widespread unprovoked aggression. The resulting requirement is not simply to "deter" or "contain" these powers, but a more nuanced task of guiding, shaping, and persuading. Moreover, these states lie in neighborhoods suspicious of their power; the more belligerent they become, the more they provoke reactions from neighbors. Emerging power misbehavior is to some extent self-correcting, a fact that means we need not plan to deal with the risk with U.S. power alone.

When we do perceive risks or threats in the international system, the interests of major powers will often overlap sufficiently to afford opportunities to address those risks with negotiations, arms control, and confidence building in place of unilateral arming.

6. Understand the Global and Domestic Constraints to a New Paradigm.

A reformed strategic posture will emerge in charged domestic and international contexts, whose demands will inevitably constrain the boundaries of what we can change, how quickly, and how clearly.

An acid test of any national policy is its domestic political sustainability. In this sense the architects of any new approach confront a dilemma: The U.S. political system appears to want a constrained posture, but anything that deviates sharply from perceived U.S. commitments and traditions will attract intense opposition from those who advocate U.S. hegemony as a rule and defenders of specific commitments.

Internationally, a parallel dilemma is that to simply abandon a number of possibly questionable commitments would be to risk a cascading loss of confidence in U.S. power — and a further acceleration in the disintegration of the current international system, precisely the outcome we must avoid. For example, a simple public statement that the United States no longer views the defense of Taiwan as a conflict planning scenario, given current geopolitical realities and Mainland China’s apparent commitment to peaceful unification, would be seen — whatever its objective foundations — as the desertion of an ally. As such it would cause others in the region to question the reliability of U.S. promises. The result would be to undermine U.S. capacity to build global institutions and norms.

One implication of these constraints is that even a substantially revised posture should not — and need not — embrace anything approaching a formal "retrenchment" from major U.S. commitments. A possible related implication is that, facing the need for significant change and profound political dilemmas, clarity in the articulation of every aspect of a new policy may not be an advantage.

7. To Be More Efficient, Think Asymmetrically.

Arguably the most promising course forward would be to discover new ways to do existing jobs — thinking creatively using innovative concepts, technologies, and techniques, throwing off 60-year-old habits for approaching requirements, and not assuming that we are constrained to approach problems certain ways because of our size or influence.

One implication of this principle has already been realized: We can take certain whole categories of contingency — such as long-term stability operations — and declare them off limits from large-scale commitment, forcing ourselves into the realm of more creative, small-scale, limited mechanisms (modest civilian aid, SOF and targeted strikes for CT) as the response packages.

More broadly, we must look for alternative strategies to large-scale military commitments for achieving national goals in major existing scenarios. The "default" national option for many contingencies is a military task force. In the 21st century we have a much wider array of highly effective coercive, punitive, and attractive tools at our disposal — not all, or even most, of them military or kinetic in nature. It is not necessarily an insult to our credibility to think asymmetrically about our responses to traditional contingencies. We should aim to achieve stated goals with the minimum of resources, force, and (in some cases) public notice, using such tools as negotiations, partner strategies, and, if necessary, covert action. When more elaborate action is called for we should be thinking in innovative terms: Could we, for example, develop a strategy to punish aggressive, unprovoked military action by a regional aggressor with a basket of economic, financial, social media/political, cyber, regional coercive, and global institutional responses — a response set that would, in fact, hit what the regime values more directly than carrier strikes?

A third implication, in support of such thinking, would be to develop new capabilities to threaten the power of adversaries in immediate, global terms. These could range from global prompt strike assets to rapidly-deployable SOF to drones to cyber to as-yet undeveloped systems.

A fourth and somewhat contrary implication of this line of thinking is never to underestimate the unpredictability of conflict. This will be equally true of asymmetric responses, which have the potential to escalate to large-scale war. The risk of these innovative approaches — a risk already in evidence — is that they will increasingly be seen as low-cost "alternatives" to war and be employed without sufficient thought to their risks and consequences.

In sum, we face two overriding requirements in the effort to develop a more sustainable security posture. We need new concepts, techniques, and technologies to perform existing missions in more efficient, innovative ways. And we require well-developed sets of criteria to help guide us through the multiple dilemmas of the emerging context: to determine when patient management of an issue must give way to decisive resolution, to determine when a security policy is useful enough to be worth contradicting global principles, or to think through the interest calculus of when we need to act alone.

Too often over the last decades we have acted impulsively, reacting urgently to crises and perceived imperatives, driven by a paradigm of unqualified global commitment. In the emerging context, we will need to measure our actions far more carefully. As vague an initial guideline as it may be, the key characteristic of the new era is that our security now depends far more on the rigor and creativity of our thinking than it does on the size of our defense budget or our deployed military forces.

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