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After Iraq: The Search for a Sustainable National Security Strategy

Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray. | January 2009

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What should be the U.S. national security strategy after Iraq? An answer cannot be given unless a logically and politically prior question is posed: "What should be the purpose and character of a sustainable U.S. national security policy after Iraq?" Thus to answer the first question, one has to identify both the policy that strategy must serve as well as the components of that strategy.

Unfortunately for the convenience and self-confidence of defense planners, although the 21st century presents no great difficulty to America over its choice of national security policy, the selection of a suitable strategy is a far more difficult task. The challenge is cultural and material. U.S. national culture favors both a somewhat disengaged stance towards the world beyond North America, as well as the active promotion of such leading American values as freedom, democracy, and open markets. On the material side, the country faces an exceptionally wide range of actual and potential threats to its vital interests by historical standards. On the one hand, there are nonstate terrorists and other insurgents of an Islamist Jihadist persuasion who could threaten the stability of the global economy by menacing commercial access to oil, and who may well acquire a few weapons of mass destruction (WMD). On the other hand, the new century appears certain to see the rise of some current regional powers to a yet greater category, China and India specifically. When we add in current uncertainty about the future course of Russian policy, the European Union as a possible super state, as well as the future roles of Japan and Iran, it becomes readily apparent that the years ahead offer few certainties regarding U.S. threat priorities.

U.S. national security policy can be sustainable only if it meets domestic cultural standards as well as the externally-based demands to which American leaders must respond out of a prudent concern for protection of national interests. Therefore, it is necessary to appreciate the domain of necessity or nearly such, both domestic and foreign. U.S. policy and strategy have to satisfy in two markets, at home and abroad.

Scholars debate whether American culture, or a supposedly "objective" foreign material reality, ultimately commands policy and strategy. The debate is foolish. In practice, Americans attempt what they are able, as they perceive and interpret international conditions, in a manner that cannot help reflecting American cultural influence.

In order to identify a sustainable national security strategy, it is essential to recognize, and take due account of, the whole hierarchy of relevant ideas and behavior. To specify, the strategy in question here is conditioned by the following factors:

·   Perceived state of the world

·   U.S. role in the world

·   Policy

·   National security strategy

·   Military strategy

·   Military forces.

With which major working assumptions are American policymakers and strategists forearmed? Individuals undoubtedly will dissent in some detail from any particular listing, but the following is a plausible summary of the principal assumptions that equip the senior ranks of America's national security policymaking community:

·   War is endemic in the human condition. Though it is culturally American to be generically hopeful, U.S. defense planners cannot, and do not, assume that the 21st century will witness the end of war.

·   Warfare will both evolve and appear in several forms. Future hostilities will be regular and irregular; among states as well as states and nonstate political entities. Radically new technologies will impact warfare of all kinds.

·   Global order is a meaningful concept; such order has to be policed by someone or something. Theories of order promotion abound; most are illusory. The alternative to order is disorder, and the spectrum from tolerable order to intolerable disorder is not usually smoothly linear; it is marked eccentrically by tipping points. Also, order-disorder is a condition that applies across several dimensions of global affairs, for example economic-financial as well as military-strategic. As a general rule, the path to ruin will be unmistakably apparent only in hindsight.

·   War entails warfare, and warfare always is about fighting. America's armed forces must excel in warfare of all kinds, regular and irregular. This is not to say, however, that the two are of equal importance; they are not. The country should continue to accord top priority to its military prowess in interstate warfare, even if that prospective combat is anticipated to be significantly asymmetrical.

·  New first-class competitors/enemies will emerge (indeed, are emerging already). The relatively few years since 1991 have been remarkable in world politics for the absence of a state or coalition able to balance the U.S. superpower. They have not been remarkable as heralding a revolution in the functioning of that politics. Of recent years, no one has been strong enough to constrain the United States. Such a power would, and predictably will, attract follower-states in due course. World order in the 21st century will not be overseen by an executive committee of the rather virtual world community, led by an ever comfortably dominant America. If that benign arrangement truly were in the offing, it would be manifest in the behavior and norms of the United Nations Security Council. It is not. Rising states such as China and India are on a collision course with each other and possibly with the United States. Emerging regional great powers, let alone new super states, will accept U.S. leadership in some security matters only if that leadership serves their national interest in helping to offset the strength of regional rivals. The structure of relative power and influence, by region and globally, is dynamic. If a state, even a superpower, is not rising it is very likely to be falling. History has not come to a happy conclusion with American dominance.

·   Surprise happens. There are unknowns, and even "unknown unknowns," in America's future, as a recent Secretary of Defense observed with eloquent opaqueness. A sustainable U.S. national security strategy needs to be surprise-proofed in the sense of being robust when confronted with the unexpected. Given the range of radical new technologies with potential military applications that should mature in the 21st century, and given a predictable context of international rivalry or worse, U.S. defense planners are obliged to favor flexibility and adaptability.

U.S. policy to provide purpose and political guidance to U.S. strategy in the future is usefully approachable by identifying four fairly distinctive alternative American roles in the world. These are readily characterized as follows:

1.    Hegemon-leader for global guardianship

2.    Anti-hegemonial offshore balancer and spoiler

3.    Disengaged lone wolf

4.    Moderate competitor and partner in a multipolar world.

Of the four nominal choices, only the first is truly practicable at present and in the near-term future. The partnership in multipolarity, an idea that appeals to many scholars, is flawed in that the non-American "poles" are not yet ready for prime time. Furthermore, even if this were not the case, a genuinely multipolar world would be prone to great power wars. The rich strategic history of multipolarity is far from encouraging. The role of "disengaged lone wolf" simply could not work. The United States is engaged in world affairs by economic, environmental, and hence political and potentially strategic, globalization. To be disengaged would be to decline to protect one's vital interests. Moreover, America's national culture, though marked by a longing for disengagement, also strongly favors political missionary behavior. This latter value rises and falls irregularly, but it always rises again.

The United States could try to effect a transition from its current on-shore Eurasian strategy of forward deployment, to an off-shore posture keyed to a policy role as "spoiler" of potential grand continental coalitions. As maritime-air-space balancer of large Eurasian menaces, the United States would both retain its political discretion over belligerency and favor its national strength in the higher technology features of its armed forces. The problem is that this off-shore role would not suffice to defend the national interest. The country would not be trusted, since it would eschew the firm commitments that require local presence. As much to the point, U.S. influence would be certain to diminish as a consequence of a process of withdrawal, no matter how impressive the reach of America's weapons through the several geographies of the great "commons."

Almost by default, the United States should choose, perhaps simply accept, the role of hegemon-leader for a world order that serves both its own most vital interests as well as those of a clear majority of members of the world community, such as it is. Contrary to the sense of much of the contemporary debate, Americans have no prudent alternative other than to play the hegemonic role. But for the role to be sustainable, it has to rest upon the formal or tacit consent of other societies. Only with such consent will America be able to exercise a national security strategy geared successfully to the ordering duty.

What are the components of a sustainable national security strategy, given the necessity for a guiding policy whose overarching purpose is to protect the national interest by defending world order globally? Such a strategy must be refined and adapted to specific cases, but these are its generic constituents:

1.   Control of the global commons (sea, air, space, cyberspace), when and where it is strategically essential.

2.   The ability to dissuade, deter, defeat, or at least largely neutralize any state, coalition of states, or nonstate political actor, that threatens regional or global order.

3.   Adaptable and flexible strategy, operations, tactics, logistics, and forces. Future wars and warfare will occur all along the spectrum of regularity-irregularity. Asymmetry will be the norm, not the exception, even in regular conventional hostilities.

4.   Continuing supremacy in regular conventional combat. Prediction of a strategic future that will be wholly irregular is almost certainly a considerable exaggeration.

5.   Competence in counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterror (CT). These activities should not dominate American defense preparation and action, but they comprise necessary military, inter alia, core competencies.

6.   Excellence in raiding, thus exploiting the leverage of America's global reach.

7.   First-rate strategic theory and strategic and military doctrine. Ideas are more important than machines, up to a point at least.

8.   A national security, or grand, strategy worthy of the name, in which military strategy can be suitably "nested."

9.   Policy choices and tactical military habits that do not offend American culture.

10.   A fully functioning "strategy bridge" that binds together, adaptably, the realms of policy and military behavior.

Our analysis concludes by identifying five far-reaching points of great concern. First, the preferred option, truly the necessary choice, for the United States in the world, here called "hegemony-primacylight," is a policy condition, not a strategy. Americans have proved vulnerable to the temptation to leap from policy selection to military operations, largely neglecting the essential levels of grand strategy and military strategy.

Second, a definite strategy needs a definite enemy. This reality all but encourages oversimplification. America can wage war against al-Qaeda, but not against "terror." Because the identity of most of the country's future enemies is uncertain, it must suffice to ensure that the "components" from which definite strategies would be constructed are always ready for play when the strategy coach calls on them to perform.

Third, the United States needs to beware of false alternatives for its policy and strategy. In defense of its national interests, the country has no prudent alternatives other than to play the hegemonic role for as long as it is able. Similarly, there is no sensible alternative to some on-shore entanglements in Eurasia, though assuredly Americans should strive to succeed more by raiding than by intervening in, and occupying, alien territory. There are and will be cases when American boots must grind local dust. However, the U.S. hegemon should seek to tread as lightly as the mission permits, lest its effort triggers a self-defeating "blowback" from an outraged and formerly neutral local population. Unfortunately, more often than not strategic and political effectiveness are much enhanced when the military has overwhelming force and applies it.

Fourth, belatedly Washington has learned what a handful of scholars, not to mention the World War II generation of policymakers, knew, i.e., that culture as a force must never be underestimated. Understanding of one's own culture as well as the culture of others can make the difference between success and failure in policy, strategy, operations, and tactics.

Fifth, America must understand that its dominant role in many dimensions of world affairs increasingly will be challenged by those whose interests, anxieties, and honor are challenged by the U.S. hegemony. No matter how gingerly this hegemony is manifested in U.S. behavior, it will be resented and opposed.