Center for American Progress

National Security: A Strategy of Hope, Leadership, Engagement and Strength
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National Security: A Strategy of Hope, Leadership, Engagement and Strength

U.S. national security strategy today is rooted in fear: fear of terrorists, fear of weapons of mass destruction, fear of ricin in the mailbox. For reassurance and protection, as the new budget suggests, the nation is asked to turn to the Department of Defense, the armed services, and the Department of Homeland Security.

In the long run, however, a national security strategy rooted in fear only begets more fear, not real security. The result of a security policy based on fear, the use of military power abroad and the Patriot Act at home is a growing requirement for more military and more homeland defense.

The U.S. military is the best in the world and the only one with a global mission and global capabilities. It is an essential tool of security policy. However, a "one note" strategy, where the military is the first recourse, ensures that that our forces will be endlessly overstretched.

The contribution of the military – winning wars when needed and backing up strong diplomacy to achieve our security goals – is most effective when it is embedded in a strategy based on hope, leadership and global engagement with all the tools of American statecraft. Such a strategy calls on all the tools of American statecraft, merging our considerable military power with skilled diplomacy, accurate intelligence and sound economic strategy. It is this synergy that enables America to lead and to attract others to join us in addressing fundamental security problems.

When Americans feared a depression and fascism, Franklin Roosevelt told us we had nothing to fear but fear itself. In the last unipolar American moment (at the end of World War II), he used all these tools, creating institutions that provided the framework for American leadership and international cooperation for 50 years. In the shadow of the Cold War, Harry Truman took this agenda of hope and engagement forward, creating the Marshall Plan, NATO and promoting recover and greater unity among the Western European democracies. As the Cold War continued, John F. Kennedy gave the world hope and leadership through the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. Bill Clinton, the eternal optimist from Hope, promoted open markets and global economic growth.

The first step toward an effective international strategy is to get past the context of fear – terrorists, toxins and suitcase bombs – and recognize that these dangers, grow out of global conditions that need to be address in a collective way, with American leadership.

Fundamentally, terrorism is a political problem every bit as much as it is a security threat. It cannot be overcome by military means alone. The severe disparities of income, unemployment, fundamentalist religious beliefs, ethnic struggles, and weak or failed governance in the "Arc of Crisis" from Africa through the Middle East, Central and South Asia, Southeast Asia, and North Korea, are the breeding ground for terrorism, global crime, proliferation and ethnic strife.

Military force has its place as a tool to address this global challenge, as demonstrated in dislodging the Taliban from Afghanistan. Ultimately, success requires us to put something better in place. As we are already seeing in Iraq, this is a Herculean labor, requiring different set of skills and strong international support. Repeatedly reaching for the gun to solve these problems risks begetting the very thing it is designed to deter – more terrorists and more proliferation.

Draining the terrorist swamp, weakening international criminal and drug cartels and lowering the attractiveness of weapons of mass destruction requires a broad-based strategy including visionary economic policies; the promotion of strong and politically responsive states; and vibrant civil societies that are inclusive, not divisive. Meeting these goals is the only way to greater security at home.

It means focused, coordinated, well-funded economic development strategies should be at the center of U.S. policy, not privatized foreign aid focused on countries that are not the source of the problem, the agenda of the Millenium Challenge Corporation.

It means nation building should be a priority of American national security policy, not an afterthought we ask the military to do.

It means opening a global religious and ethnic dialogue, especially with Islam, to foster tolerance and understanding, instead of treating democracy as a Madison Avenue commodity to be sold through advertising.

It means a sustained, balanced U.S. investment in the Middle East peace process.

It means strengthening the international framework for problem solving – the United Nations – as an invaluable source of international legitimacy, rather than carping and threatening to leave.

It means leading allies from the start, instead of calling 911 only after we get into trouble.

It means uniting with the Europeans as we did in the 1990s in Bosnia and Kosovo, and supporting their efforts to create a viable military capability, instead of dividing them into "old" and "new."

It means addressing the plague of infectious disease that weaken economies, destroy government leadership and lead to civil strife, instead of making promises not backed by programs.

It means supporting a strong defense, but not asking the military to do the whole job or to do it by itself.

It means prying the politics out of the intelligence machinery and turning the job back to the professionals, letting the intelligence agencies shine at what they do best – telling it straight.

The American people will emerge from the dungeon of fear and the world will respond to American leadership when we provide this kind of vision. Until then, the spiral of fear will continue, the military will be overburdened and the dangers will only grow.

Gordon Adams is Director of Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University. He was senior White House budget official for national security from 1993-97.

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