Rethinking National Security (or, What the People Want)

T. Greer has published an absolute corker of an essay on Scholar’s Stage. Intended as a call to action against the complacency and stagnation of the modern foreign policy and national security community, he points to the continued disinterest most people from across the American political spectrum hold for foreign affairs, and submits that we will never be able to meet the challenge posed by a rising China without obtaining the consent – and desire – of the public writ large.

The piece is commendable, not least for Greer’s clearheaded thinking on what it means to have a strategy in the first place:

Responding to the rise of the People’s Republic will be a challenge of a scale America has never faced before. We cannot do that, deter Pyongyang, Tehran, and Moscow, and wage war against a thousand little terrorists at the same time. We simply do not have the means. This is true in 2018. It will be really true in about fifteen years time. We must decide which contests demand our attention, forces, and funds, which can be handed off to allies, and which need to be conceded. Deciding between them all will be difficult. It will create storms of animosity among the commentariat. But it must be done. To do anything else is not serious.

Even if you don’t believe that it’s China, specifically, which poses a looming threat to the United States and the West writ large, the idea that tradeoffs are necessary is one sorely lacking from today’s modern defense discussions. So too is language that reflects what analysts truly believe. Those debates we do have are petty and trivial while ignoring core, fundamental questions: what is the national interest? What actually constitutes a threat? What can we safely table and deemphasize because we cannot emphasize everything? Phil Walter has talked about “majoring in the minors,” and that’s an apt phrase for what American foreign and security policy has been for the past 20 years: a focus on penny ante terrorism and third-rate regional countries (I hesitate to call them “powers”) at the expense of anything resembling big-picture thinking.

Dismantling the careerism and shibboleths of the defense establishment will be vital in charting a new course for the future. What we’re doing now, to the extent it can be characterized as a coherent strategy or even a singular set of goals, clearly isn’t working. We are long overdue for a major reassessment. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of my generation’s lifetime so far, and the people who advocated it should forever be unwelcome in The Discourse (and certainly never listened to if hawking an even more devastating overseas intervention). North Korea can be managed and contained without requiring military action or bellicose language.

Our endless obsession with the Middle East is equally ripe for rethinking. If we are to continue championing the appeal and righteousness of liberal democracy around the world, alliances with fundamentalist Wahhabi monarchies would seem anachronistic at best. Which vision of Islam best aligns with our own self-conceptions? And in terms of “fighting over there to avoid it here,” the threat posed by terrorism is vanishing at most. For the vast majority of the American people, requires but a reassessment of the slight personal risk before accepting it into their everyday lives, on par with the remote possibility of nuclear annihilation or a lightning strike from a vengeful god. The ISIS convert with a panel truck doesn’t worry me, but what does is the exhausted delivery driver from Queens who mistakes the gas pedal for the brakes; not the jihadi with a Kalashnikov but the disgruntled man with an Armalite.

Merely questioning the continued relevance of NATO is enough to send gasps through the national security community. And yet, it is worth considering at the very least what a European security architecture might look like if designed from scratch today. What threats might it counter? To what larger political project and integration might it contribute? What would be the geographical limits of its membership? Its operations? In short, we must evaluate what we need rather than what we have, and then try to make up the difference. This, too, is an area where the foreign policy establishment seems to be blind to alternatives and focused solely on preserving some version of the status quo. To question the existing way of things is not a radical act; it is in fact a best practice to periodically evaluate changes in the environment and adjust accordingly.

In the grand realm of national strategy, there frankly is not much from without that can pose a threat to the United States and the “American way of life,” whatever that might now consist of. Truly “existential” threats, to sidestep a semantic debate, exist solely in form of Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals, and in terms of broader geopolitical security, China looms as a true challenger in the medium term. Little else is important. And our other “adversaries” are security problems to be managed (and waited out), not solved.

Even with this handful of real challenges, what “the people” demand are peace abroad and reconstruction at home; in the NBC polling that Greer cites, far more millennials are concerned with health care and education in the United States than nebulous threats from abroad. To win them over for those issues we do deem worthy of concerted national effort, it will be necessary to prove that this country is something worth fighting for; that it is part of an international system worth preserving. That this hasn’t been self-evident in recent years is an indictment not of my generation but of the system that has failed us, a system that will have given us worse living standards than our parents. Nobody’s moving, physically or socially. Infastructure is crumbling. Even those few places worth moving to, with decent jobs and transit (though that, too, is crumbling) don’t have enough housing for those fortunate enough to be able to relocate. Segregation and institutionalized racism manifest themselves more prominently than any other point in our lifetimes. And yet we’re tasked with preserving this system?

The first priority of the national security community must be to acknowledge this. To continue blithely on as before, pretending we have still enjoy the highest living standards in the world for everyone and that this will and must be defended at all costs, is ignorant of reality and will achieve nothing.  Acknowledging that this political economy is unsustainable, and that it will require investment, sacrifice, and change of its own on the part of this entire national security community and other certain privileged sectors will be one of our greatest challenges in the years to come.

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