Throughout most of the second half of the 20th century the U.S. national security strategy was “containment of communism”. In the first decade of the 21st century the national security strategy became “war on terrorism”. Neither is relevant now as a central organizing principle for dealing with this century’s new realities. Instead, our new strategy should be the reduction of threats.
Slowing the projected growth of military spending, at the very least, will be included in future deficit reductions. But applying arbitrary across-the-board cuts in defense, absent a clearer picture of the central purpose of our security strategy will be foolish at best and destructive at worst. Big budgets produce bad defense policies. Arbitrary budget cuts will produce even worse ones.
Principle among threat reduction measures is controlling weapons of mass destruction and the prevention of any such weapons from proliferating or falling into the hands of terrorist organizations. But there are other threats that require sustained attention as well. These include: failed and failing states; cyber-attacks; pandemics; climate destabilization; religious fundamentalism, tribalism, and ethnic nationalism; and a variety of realities characterizing this new century.
Throughout the second half of the 20th and early part of the 21st centuries, the U.S. relied on military superiority to respond to national and international threats. But the nature of warfare and character of conflict are changing and, as we are learning from our current long wars, military superiority as defined in the Westphalian era of the nation-state is proving less effective. Vastly shortened warning and response time, the emergence of non-state actors, and the spread of unconventional conflict now mean that traditional, large-scale military power is much less effective both as a deterrent and as a response. Much more effective will be the reduction of threats before they become immediate and difficult, if not impossible, to manage.
Rather than seeking to control international upheavals and chaos through traditional diplomatic and political means and, should those fail, resorting to overwhelming military power, we will now find it necessary to identify evil-doers before they act, break-up threatening networks, anticipate disruption, isolate violence, deny targets of opportunity, and be smarter than new agents of destruction.
In a word, our central strategy must be to drastically limit opportunities for violence before it occurs. This strategy requires undercutting the motivation of disruptive actors, restricting their opportunity to act, and shrinking the resources and capabilities of those inclined to disruption. It also means applying more sophisticated anticipatory response planning to non-military threats such as Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill.
Since the strategy of anticipation and reduction will never be absolutely perfect, military forces, especially Special Forces and targeted capabilities, must be shaped to deal with those threats that avoid or escape total confinement. But, by virtue of the reduction efforts, these will be smaller threats that can be dealt with by smaller combat units and more targeted firepower.
This new strategy turns traditional military thinking on its head. Rather than wait until threats become massive and are exercised, all resources should go into prevention of these threats from reaching large scale proportions and into keeping them within more manageable parameters, especially in a century already marked by fast-moving events.
Thus, a project begun toward the close of the Cold War, reducing nuclear and other arsenals as a means of reducing the threats they had previously represented, should now become the center-piece of a new national strategy. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency at the Department of Defense was created as a consolidation of Cold War arms control and disarmament monitoring agencies. It is increasingly tasked with coordinating control of weapons of mass destruction. But it also supports response efforts involving Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor and other non-military threats.
Much of the confusion over the nature of security in the 21st century emerges from the absence of a peer competitor, such as the former Soviet Union, which offered a focus for our security preparations. But the idea of threat reduction, provided by an era of arms control, can and should take on new meaning in an era of more dispersed and amorphous military and non-military threats.
Lacking a central organizing principle for our security, we should take the core idea from an agency created to wind down the Cold War and broaden the principle of threat reduction into the centerpiece of a new anticipatory, pro-active national security strategy.