April 01, 2008

Sustainable Security: Developing a Security Strategy for the Long Haul

Reducing the Global Security Capacity Deficit

The inability of many states in the developing world to govern and police themselves effectively or to work collectively with their neigh­bors to secure their regions represents a global security capacity deficit that can threaten U.S. interests. Effectively addressing this security deficit will require a new approach, one that is more preventive and indirect in its nature, that seeks to husband American power, and that reconciles America’s values, interests, and commitments with its finite resources over the long haul.

America’s current strategic predicament lends urgency to the formulation of a new strategy that focuses on how best to reconcile ends and means. More than six years on from the 9/11 attacks, America’s position in the world and the course that lies ahead are uncertain. The high costs of current wars in terms of blood and treasure contribute to a growing sense of strategic exhaustion. Given its global goals, responsibilities, and values, America’s current course is unlikely to be one that can be sustained for the long term—politically (both domestically and internationally), economically, or militarily.

While the United States faces an array of security challenges, ranging from the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia, to the spread of nuclear and biological weapons, and the extension of conflict into the domains of space and cyberspace, chal­lenges to the nation-state system itself are the most complex and least understood. Many countries in the world expect the United States to lead efforts to counter proliferation or deter interstate conflict. However, the United States is less-suited to lead when it comes to confronting security challenges abroad that are more intrastate in character. It is in these cases that the United States should adopt a more behind-the-scenes, supporting role. This paper focuses on this strategic problem and proposes a conceptual approach for shoring up the nation-state system with the aim of setting condi­tions for an expansion of global civil society—and the commensurate gains in security and pros­perity that would come with it.

The Need for a New Strategy

For more than forty years during the Cold War, the United States embraced a strategy of contain­ment. Formulated over several years following World War II—from George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” in 1946 to the development of NSC-68 led by Paul Nitze in 1950—containment became the central organizing principle in U.S. national security policy for the second half of the 20th century. It would be revised and reinterpreted by nine successive presidents, as each administration adopted its own approach toward the implementa­tion of containment. All of them, however, from Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush, accepted the basic strategic premise: that by patiently containing the Soviet Empire’s external ambi­tions, the internal contradictions of its communist political-economic system would eventually lead to its introspection and mellowing, if not its outright demise.

Since the Cold War’s end, scholars and statesmen have struggled to define a successor to contain­ment to guide America through the early decades of the 21st century. During the early 1990s, the Clinton administration proposed a logical successor: a National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement of the zone of democratic states.1 Following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration put forward a “Freedom Agenda,”2 which called for promoting democ­racy as a bulwark against extremist ideologies and shared similar features to the earlier Clinton vision, particularly in its emphasis on expanding the community of democracies. Both of these strategic declarations, however, tended to focus more on the ends of strategy, without explaining sufficiently how those ends should be achieved.

Determining the best strategic course for the United States in the decades ahead is in some respects more difficult than it was at the start of the Cold War. Both the portfolio of American interests and the array of challenges to them are broader than those of the Cold War, and today are harder to define. Industrial Age articulations of national interests—largely in terms of indus­trial capacity and oil production—are not well suited to the Information Age, in which interests can transcend geography and threats can emanate from almost anywhere on the planet. In place of the Soviet Union and its satellites there is a wider range of actors who could threaten our interests, and they are less susceptible to a single, over­arching strategic approach.

While previous strategic formulations could take for granted the Westphalian nation-state system as the principal framework within which to consider national interests, today that system is itself under siege. There is a growing danger of the nation-state system gradually eroding as the weakest and most fragile nation-states lose their ability to govern and police themselves effec­tively. Non-state actors—be they radical Islamist transnational terrorist networks, narco-criminal cartels, or reincarnated Communist-era secret police apparatchiks usurping power with Mafia-like efficiency—all threaten the viability of the nation-state system.

It will not always be in the interest of the United States to defend the status quo international system, with its artificial borders and in the face of legitimate calls for self-determination. However, the United States does have an interest in main­taining an orderly system in which change ideally occurs without resort to bloodshed. It also has an interest in opposing illiberal forces that can metastasize beyond a single state and threaten U.S. security more directly over time.

Sustainable Security

Reducing the security capacity deficit begins with the premise that U.S. security is indivisible from security of the broader nation-state system. To meet intrastate challenges to the nation-state system the United States must fashion a new strategy, one that is more sustainable in every sense of the word. The United States must set conditions to strengthen the weakest and most fragile of nation-states. Most dramatically, the United States must reorient from its traditional role as the world’s “first responder” in the inter­national security sphere to become instead a more effective systemic enabler: the “Lloyd’s of London” underwriter and reinsurer of the international security system. In doing so, it can establish a new pattern of international security, one that is at once more preventive and resilient. This is neither a recipe for the United States to do less in the world, nor an attempt to maintain super­power status on the cheap. Rather, it is a design for the United States to more effectively apply its resources and be able to dispatch its military and non-military forces to more places in the world, but in smaller, distributed packages.

This reorientation would be made manifest prin­cipally by building up local, national, regional, and international layers of security capacity to meet the security challenges of the 21st century in a more anticipatory fashion with less dependence on the United States for direct military interven­tion. By increasing the capacity of like-minded states to withstand internal threats as well as external aggression, the United States can concen­trate on the provision of security capabilities it is uniquely able to bring to bear: projecting power at great distances, organizing and leading alli­ances and coalitions to counter hegemonic threats, confronting nuclear and proliferation challenges, and maintaining freedom of navigation and peaceful use of the global commons—the high seas, air, space, and cyberspace.

Such a strategy of sustainable security requires extending security beyond geographic areas normally associated with Industrial Age “vital interests” by supporting others to defeat those who would visit violence on us wherever they may operate. Extending security globally, however, cannot be accomplished through outdated Cold War-era deployments of American military personnel to distant garrisons, guarding borders and keeping the peace, with scarce contributions from the threatened states themselves. The vast areas of the world that need to be policed grossly outstrip the capacity of the United States to police them directly or unilaterally. Direct interven­tions, moreover, tend to tie down U.S. forces and decrease their ability to prevent or deter conflicts in other areas. Similarly, unilateral policing efforts tend to stir animosity and weaken U.S. legitimacy.

Departing from such approaches, it should be the policy of the United States to enable others—who have greater local knowledge and legitimacy than a foreign intervening power—to help shrink the ungoverned areas of the world and through them deny sanctuary to terrorists and other hostile parties, thereby collectively addressing broader threats to the nation-state system. This will require U.S. forces to operate in far more places than it does today, but with relatively smaller advisory and training units and, in some cases, even single individuals serving as advisors and mentors in the mode of Edward Lansdale, who quietly worked behind the scenes as an advisor to the Philippine government in the early 1950s to help defeat the Huk rebellion. Adopting a strategy to enable others to police themselves and their regions more effectively is the best way to reduce the security capacity deficit without bankrupting the United States or forcing it to defend the system by itself at every weak point on the globe.

Like containment, a new strategy will require the support of a concert of international allies and partners to be sustainable and effective. America’s friends look to the United States for constancy and reliability as a security partner. Adopting a strategy of sustainable security for the long haul would help the United States achieve those attri­butes, by embracing a strategy that can maintain domestic bipartisan support, not exhaust U.S. financial resources, and be supported by the rota­tional base of all-volunteer U.S. military forces. Such a strategy should bring greater alignment between the interests of the United States and those of its allies and partners by strengthening the natural forces of resistance to extremism and non-state threats within the international system, namely the nation-states themselves. Where inter­ests overlap, the United States should partner with like-minded states from the developed world to reduce the security deficit of the developing world...


  • Jim Thomas

    Member, CNAS Board of Advisors, Principal, Telemus Group

    Jim Thomas is a Principal in the Telemus Group. He previously served as Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). Mr...