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Toward a Strategy of Positive Ends

Authored by Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II, Brigadier General (Ret.) Huba Wass de Czege. | September 2001

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While defense planners have recently proposed a variety of alternatives for America?s role in what many see as a New World Coming, few of those proposals go beyond the Cold War paradigm of threat-based strategic thinking. This paradigm focuses on deterring or defeating specific threats, rather than taking advantage of the intrinsic dynamism of the new security environment in order to create conditions that might promote long-term peace, stability, and prosperity.

America?s challenge today is to foster peace and stability in a dynamic world and to do so with strategic partners and allies willing and able to share the costs just as surely as they reap the benefits. Hence, instead of a strategy oriented on prevention?a negative aim?the United States would do better to lead a 21st-century concert of nations toward creating positive conditions, those that promote long-term peace, stability, and prosperity. Such a strategy would, as a matter of course, preclude a number of threats?perhaps even the majority of them?from emerging in the first place and would better position the United States to cope with unexpected emergencies.

New Global Challenges and Opportunities.

The forces of globalization are creating something of a Janus-faced future for the international community. At one extreme, the future takes on the countenance of a stable world in which national interests merge into the general aim of promoting peace, stability, and economic prosperity. At the other extreme, the future assumes the face of a more dangerous and unpredictable world characterized by shifting power relationships, ad hoc security arrangements, and an ever-widening gap between haves and have-nots.

The face of the future that comes into view will undoubtedly have features representing both extremes. The extent to which the United States and other powers work in concert will make a difference in determining which aspect of Janus will become more prevalent. The United States can address the challenges of the new security environment through any one of three broad strategic approaches: preventive defense, neo-isolationism, or a strategy aimed at positive ends.

Preventive Defense. Preventive Defense aims at forestalling potential problems by deterring, containing, isolating, and defeating specific threats. Its success depends on developing the correct list of threats; and it generally seeks to preserve or restore the status quo. It provides for deterring ?and defeating, if necessary?such potential aggressors as Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Kim Jong Il in North Korea. However, a strategy of preventive defense, even if successful in deterring or defeating designated threats, could fail if other threats emerge that military forces are neither equipped nor trained to confront. It also falls short of providing a rationale for taking control of events that might shape the future or of building a broad multinational basis for anticipating and addressing the type of problems commonly associated with today?s strategic environment.

Neo-isolationism. Neo-isolationism is sometimes called strategic independence or anti-interventionism. Under this option, the evolution of the international security environment is left largely to itself. Neo-isolationism pursues a neutral end, since security interests are strictly defined in terms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at home. Neo-isolationists tend to overvalue strategic defenses of the homeland that promise to neutralize threats from abroad. The principal weakness of a neo-isolationist strategy is its lack of practicality. Isolation of any sort is becoming difficult, if not impossible, to maintain in today?s global village. Ignoring the forces at work beyond U.S. borders is simply not an effective way of dealing with them.

A Strategy of Positive Ends. A strategy of Positive Ends aims at building an international environment that promotes global peace, prosperity, freedom, economic stability, and the rule of law, and provides a multilateral basis for crisis response. It differs from the other strategic approaches discussed above in that it is oriented toward achieving a condition, rather than preparing to respond to specific threats. In other words, its ends arepositive, rather than negative or neutral. The basic approach would be to build and enlarge a circle of stakeholders committed to reducing the potential for crises and to prepare response mechanisms for coping successfully when they do. The primary weakness of this strategy is that others can misconstrue its goals as a form of Pax Americana, particularly if American leadership appears aggressive and hegemonic. A second weakness is that positive aims generally require more energy and resources than do negative or neutral ones, which may mean that short-term costs of this policy may be greater than people would expect to pay, at least when compared to other strategies.

These weaknesses notwithstanding, a strategy built around positive ends permits the United States to define its vital interests in terms of conditions?such as peace, freedom, rule of law, and economic prosperity?rather than as the containment or defeat of inimical state or non-state actors.

On Ways and Means.

A coherent national strategy based on positive ends must, of course, involve all elements of national power. The political and socio-cultural elements would help create conditions for long-term peace and stability by strengthening democratic institutions worldwide, by advancing human rights, and by responding to humanitarian crises. The economic element of national power would contribute to global prosperity by enhancing and guiding international financial institutions, by promoting open trading systems and global business enterprises, and by providing for sustainable economic development worldwide. In broad terms, the military element of national power must have the capability to conduct sustai ned peacetime engagement activities as well as respond to two general types of crises (those with significant escalation potential and those without).

Peacetime engagement should lay the groundwork necessary to ensure such operations are not conducted off the cuff, but reflect adequate planning, preparation, and consensus building among allies and partners with regard to the desired strategic ends, ways, and means. Accordingly, the day-to-day work of military peacetime engagement should become a high-priority effort for the U.S. defense establishment. The need to respond to two types of crises makes the value of an established multilateral response mechanism clear, as well as the importance of a full-spectrum force, which can provide an array of response options. Indeed, the nature of tomorrow?s opponents, the destructive power of their weapons, and the environment in which they are likely to operate all underscore the need for a balanced force.

Despite the emergence of a new strategic environment, the legacies of the Cold War continue to influence U.S. strategic thinking. The problems associated with the Strategy Review are evidence of that. The defense community continues to justify its strategic preferences with threat?based assessments, some of which are loosely labeled asymmetric. However, as has been shown, a threat-based strategy has serious liabilities in an environment in which the next opponent or the next crisis is nearly impossible to predict. Instead, the United States would do well to pursue a strategy focused on positive ends, one that endeavors to maintain a dynamic and enduring peace.