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Not long ago I conducted an informal survey during a trip to East Africa, asking everyone I met how they view America. My interlocutors were from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. They were, in the main, educated and working in the private sector, the policy world, or government. Many of them hold dual passports.
Their answers were strikingly similar. Most of them said in one way or another that the “idea” of America has changed for the worse, and most asserted that they are less interested in traveling to, working in, or working with the United States now than in the past. But most disconcerting was the hope, expressed with striking consistency, that China would soon attain its full power so that American hegemony could be brought in check.
This was not for any love of China’s ideology or even the aggressive aid and investment strategies Beijing is deploying in the developing world. It was, as a young woman attorney explained, because “America used to be the champion for all of us, and now it is the champion only for itself.”
That much of the world has lost faith in America bodes ill for our national security because our role in the world is secured not simply by our military power or economic clout, but also by our ability to compel other nations to follow our lead. The next president will have the opportunity to craft a modern national security strategy that can equip the United States to lead a majority of capable, democratic states in pursuit of a global common good—a strategy that can guide a secure America that is the world’s “champion for all of us.”
But positioning America to lead in a 21st century world will take more than extending a hand to our allies, fixing a long list of misdirected policies, or crafting a new national security strategy that is tough but also smart. With globalization providing the immutable backdrop to our foreign policy, America is today competing on a global playing field that is more complex, dynamic, and interdependent and thus far less certain than in the past.
Leading in this new world will require a fundamental shift from our outdated notion of national security to a more modern concept of sustainable security—that is, our security as defined by the contours of a world gone global and shaped by our common humanity. Sustainable security combines three approaches:
- National security, or the safety of the United States
- Human security, or the well-being and safety of people
- Collective security, or the shared interests of the entire world
Sustainable security, in short, can shape our continued ability to simultaneously prevent or defend against real-time threats to America, reduce the sweeping human insecurity around the world, and manage long term threats to our collective, global security. This new approach takes into account the many (and ongoing) changes that have swept our planet since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. To understand the efficacy of this new doctrine, though, requires a quick look at this new global landscape.
The New Realities of the 21st Century
During his presidency, Bill Clinton spoke often and passionately about our global interdependence and of positioning America to cross a “bridge to the 21st century.” Once across, however, the Bush administration took a sharp right turn. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the administration narrowly defined the quest for America’s security, distinct from and uninformed by the interests of the larger world we inhabit.
The challenge before us, President Bush asserted, was the struggle between good and evil, our strategy was to wage his so called “war on terror,” and our goal was to shape a “world without tyranny.” Our primary tool was a strong military backed by the resolve to use force without seeking a “permission slip” from the international community. And our object was the “axis of evil,” and the rest of the world was either “with us or against us.” Anyone who suggested that it might not be quite that simple was quickly and effectively discounted as “soft on terrorism.”
Despite ambitious rhetoric about the promotion of our core values—of leading “the long march to freedom” and pursuing the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity”—the Bush administration has culled its allies not from among those countries most committed to democracy, but from among those who have oil. The Bush administration had to leverage all of its diplomatic and economic clout to persuade the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” to participate at all in the invasion of Iraq. Then, the administration offered up not the shining example of an America where human and civil rights prevail, but an America where Guantanamo, Abu Gharaib, and illegal wire-tapping are justified by an elusive, greater purpose.
The United States has for the last five years defined America’s role in the world with near exclusive reference to the invasion of Iraq. The deaths of 4,000 American soldiers, maiming of tens of thousands more, and the expenditure of well over $400 billion, has failed to lay the foundations for either stability or democracy. And as defined by the Bush administration, the “War on Terror” has fared no better: Al Qaeda has not been defeated, and Osama bin Laden, its leader and the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, has yet to be captured.
Our losses, however, extend far beyond the edges of a failed Iraq policy or the shortcomings of an ill-defined “war on terror.” We have also lost precious time, and are well behind the curve in our now tardy efforts to tackle the global challenges that are already shaping our future—climate change, energy insecurity, growing resource scarcity, the proliferation of illegal syndicates moving people, arms, and money— all of them global challenges that have been steadfastly ignored and in some cases denied by an ideologically-driven Bush administration lodged firmly in its own distinct version of the here and now.
Perhaps most damaging, however, is this: We have lost our moral standing in the eyes of many who now believe that the United States has only its own national interests at heart, and has little understanding of or regard for either global security or our common humanity. Just as potent as the unsustainable federal budget deficit George W. Bush will leave in his wake is the unsustainable national security deficit that he will pass on to his successor. Whoever prevails in November will face a daunting list of real-time national security imperatives, among them:
- A spiraling crisis in Iraq
- Afghanistan’s steady implosion
- A fragile Pakistan
- An emboldened Iran
- A raging genocide in Sudan
- The growing insecurity of our oil supplies
- A nuclear North Korea
- An increasingly dangerous Arab–Israeli conflict
Just to name a few. But the next president will also face looming and less tangible threats to our national security in a world where power has grown more diffuse and threats more potent—a world in which our security depends not only on the behavior of states, but also on a host of transnational threats that transcend national borders, such as terrorism, pandemics, money laundering, and the drug trade.
And finally, the next president will be confronted by the more subtle but potent threats and moral challenges arising from sweeping human insecurity in a world divided by sharp disparities between rich and poor, between those nations actively engaged in fast-paced globalization and those left behind, and between people who have tangible reasons to believe in a secure and prosperous world and those who daily confront the evidence that violence is a more potent tool for change than is hope.
Sustainable Security Is the Answer
The world has changed profoundly during the last 50 years, but our concept of national security has not. The concept of national security came into being after World War II, and has had as its primary focus a world dominated by the nation state. In this new era of globalization, we continue to rely upon the narrow definition offered by George Kennan, who in 1948 described our national security as “the continued ability of the country to pursue the development of its internal life without serious interference, or threat of interference, from foreign powers.” While Kennan’s definition might have been relevant to the era of containment, it is insufficient in today’s integrated and interdependent world.
A modern concept of national security demands more than an ability to protect and defend the United States. It requires that we expand our goal to include the attainment of sustainable security.
The pursuit of sustainable security requires more than a reliance on our conventional power to deflect threats to the United States, but also that we maintain the moral authority to lead a global effort to overcome threats to our common security. With its global scope, sustainable security demands that we focus not only on the security of nation states, but also of people, on human security. An emerging concept borne of multidisciplinary analyses of international affairs, economics, development, and conflict, human security targets the fundamental freedoms—from want and from fear—that define human dignity.
National security and human security are compatible but distinct. National security focuses on the security of the state, and governments are its primary clients, while human security is centered on the security of individuals and thus on a diverse array of stakeholders. National security aims to ensure the ability of states to protect their citizens from external aggression; human security focuses on the management of threats and challenges that affect people everywhere— inside, outside, and across state borders.
A national security strategy is commonly crafted in real time and focused on tangible, proximate threats, while a human security strategy aimed at improving the human condition assumes a longer-term horizon. Sustainable security combines the two, thus allowing for a focus on the twin challenges of protecting the United States while also championing our global humanity—not simply because it is the right thing to do, but also because our security demands it.
For a majority of the world’s people, security is defined in the very personal terms of survival. The primary threats to this human security have far less to do with terrorism than with poverty and conflict, with governments that cannot deliver or turn on their own citizens, and with a global economy that offers differentiated access and opportunities to the powerful and the powerless. For literally billions of the world’s people, weapons of mass destruction are not nuclear bombs in the hands of Iran, but the proliferation of small arms. For them, freedom is not defined simply by the demise of dictators, but also by the rise of economic opportunity. Ensuring our security in today’s world, however, also requires a focus on collective security. Among the major challenges that the United States will face over the coming decades are climate change, water scarcity, food insecurity, and environmental degradation. These are challenges that will threaten the economic well-being and security of all countries on earth, and by dint of their global nature, their effects cannot be overcome unless we adopt a global perspective and strategy.
Take the example of the world food crisis that emerged in the spring of 2008. No single cause triggered the near doubling of world food prices. Indeed, the causes included the skyrocketing price of oil, the growth of the middle class in the developing world (and thus rising demand in China and India), droughts in Australia and Ukraine, a weak dollar, and the expansion of biofuels production in the United States and Europe.
The consequent rise in food prices triggered riots or protests in Europe, Mexico, Egypt, Afghanistan, and several other countries, and plunged millions in the developing world into abject poverty. In the United States, the number of Americans seeking assistance from food banks rose 20 percent to 25 percent.
Or consider “transnational threats,” such as money laundering, terrorism, and international drug and crime syndicates, all of which transcend state borders. These are threats that pose risks to the United States, but also to the well-being of our allies, to global stability, and to the world economy.
A national security approach seeks to prevent or reduce the effects of these trends and threats to the United States; a collective security approach, in contrast, assumes that the United States must act globally—in partnership with allies and in coordination with international institutions—to prevent or manage them.
Sustainable Security in Practice
Crafting a sustainable security strategy requires three fundamental steps. The first is to prioritize, integrate, and coordinate the global development policies and programs pursued by the United States. While our military power provides a critical and effective tool for managing our security, our support for the well-being of the world’s people will not only provide us with a moral foundation from which to lead but will also enhance our ability to manage effectively the range of threats and trends that shape the modern world.
Second, we must modernize our foreign aid system in order to allow the United States to make strategic investments in global economic development that can help us to build capable states, open societies, and a global economy that benefits the world’s majority. Third, we must re-enter the international arena, stepping up to the plate to lead the reform of international institutions that have not kept pace, and to create new institutions that are needed to manage our collective security.
In the pages that follow, this paper will present the challenges that threaten our national, human, and collective security in order to show just how important it is for the next president to embrace these sustainable security policies. As this report will demonstrate, changing course will be difficult, but changing course is imperative to secure the future prosperity of humanity— an original and time-tested American value.
Read the full report (pdf)
The Full Series
- In Search of Sustainable Security: Linking National Security, Human Security, and Collective Security to Protect America and Our World, by Gayle Smith
- Humanity as a Weapon of War: The Role of the Military in Global Development, by Reuben E. Brigety II
- The Cost of Reaction: The Long-Term Costs of Short-Term Cures, by Andrew Sweet and Natalie Ondiak
- The Price of Prevention: Getting Ahead of Global Crises, by Gayle E. Smith and Andrew Sweet
- Swords and Ploughshares: Sustainable Security in Afghanistan Requires Sweeping U.S. Policy Overhaul, by Reuben E. Brigety II
- A National Strategy for Global Development: Protecting America and Our World Through Sustainable Security, by Reuben Brigety and Sabina Dewan