The United States needs a new statutory basis for its national security strategy in this new century. The Cold War national security state was established by the National Security Act of 1947. It unified the Army and Navy, and the Marine Corps, under a new Department of Defense and added a new service, the Air Force. It established the Central Intelligence Agency and created the National Security Council. For 62 years, with some notable exceptions, that legislation has served us well.
But, as Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, to expect each generation to govern itself with the laws and policies of previous generations is to expect a man to wear the coat he wore as a lad. Times change and laws and policies, as well as institutions, must keep pace.
The Cold War ended 18 years ago. NATO has yet to define a 21st century mission. New allies and new rivals are emerging. There are new security threats that do not lend themselves to military response and that cannot be addressed either by old alliances or by the United States alone. The very nature of warfare and the character of conflict are changing.
A new national security statute must apply the 20th century security structures and the six decades of experience derived from them to the new realities of the 21st century. The very process of updating the legal infrastructure of our security will require us to reflect on what security means today and how our strategies should be adapted to achieve it.
No one argues that our military services are obsolete. We will continue to require land, sea, and air defensive capabilities as long as the Republic lives. Among the early lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, however, is that 21st century conflict demands Special Forces and small unit capabilities even more than traditional big divisions, large carrier task groups, and long range strategic bombers. Historic nation-state wars, though always plausible, are declining. Irregular, unconventional warfare involving dispersed terrorist cells, stateless nations, insurgencies, and tribes, clans, and gangs are increasing dramatically.
Pakistan, whose instability imperils regional and possibly global security, is threatened by religious fundamentalists. Mexico is endangered by indigenous drug cartels that are de facto private armies. Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s ancient tribal and sectarian conflicts will continue for decades. Our massive military superiority cannot resolve these, and a number of other conflicts, by its sheer size and power.
Extended discussion on future security within the broader security community and public at large should encompass at least these questions: what is the nature of the threats we face; which of these require military response and which do not; are our present and planned force structures configured for new military threats; are weapons procurement programs continuation of traditional acquisitions or focused on future requirements; is the intelligence community properly coordinated and focused on emerging realities; for non-military concerns–such as failed states, radical fundamentalism, pandemics, climate degradation, energy dependence, and resource competition–are new international coalitions needed; are existing alliances adequate to anticipate and respond to these crises or are new ones required; most of all, does our government require new legislative authority to achieve national security under dramatically changing conditions?
The precedents for this kind of thorough-going review are found in the several commissions and studies carried about between the end of World War II (and even before) and the passage of the National Security Act in 1947. These include the Eberstadt report, various strategic plans by George Marshall, hearings in the Senate Military Affairs committee, and a blizzard of behind the scenes maneuvering and power struggles. Traditional institutional interests, almost always more comfortable with established arrangements and known devils than new arrangements and unknown devils, will predictably resist any review of the 62 year old law that underpins the national security state. Machiavelli was not the first to observe that the status quo has many friends and the ranks of reformers are thin.
The creation of the national security state in 1947 was not smooth. Army and Navy traditionalists resisted unification. The structure of the new Defense Department and the powers of its Secretary were repeatedly contested. The makeup and authority of the National Security Council shifted and changed. Opponents of a Central Intelligence Agency foresaw a threat to Constitutional freedom. Today, even to suggest a modernization of our core national security framework is to invite bitter opposition from those who never saw a boat they wanted to rock.
The only issue that matters is whether Cold War strategies and structures adequately address present and future realities or whether the realities of a new century demand a fresh look at the institutions and policies, military and non-military, that will be needed to make the nation secure. Jefferson’s 21st century man cannot forever wear the clothes of his younger, 20th century self.