October 17, 2008
By Jim Talent
A clear global strategy will help define defense
If you ask a foreign policy question of a member of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, ultimately he would say that the question is above
his paygrade. Defense policy is subordinate to foreign policy, in
the sense that the military does the tasks it is directed to do to
advance the policies that civilians determine.
Defense policy and foreign policy are not the same thing. And
that's the problem. There is increasing frustration among the
leaders of the military because they have the job of preparing to
accomplish America's strategic mission in the post-Cold War world,
and they are not sure what that mission is. They have resorted to
deducing a national military strategy from the various operations
they have been ordered to perform over the past 20 years. That
means they have been slower than usual to adjust to new
requirements. For example, three times during the past 20 years,
the military has been involved in building democracies -- in
Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. But neither they nor their civilian
counterparts have developed comprehensive nation-building
capabilities, and it will be years before they do so in the absence
of strategic direction, because nation-building is controversial,
difficult and only tangentially related to the more traditional
foreign policy and defense functions.
Contrast the current situation with the Cold War years.
In those days, the Western democracies knew who they were and
what they wanted to accomplish. If you had asked any of our
presidents from Truman to Reagan to explain the strategic mission
of America, they could have told you in 30 seconds what it was: to
contain totalitarian communism until its eventual collapse. One
year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall fell.
The alliance that implemented containment succeeded in part
because its leaders understood the mission and made sure that their
governments and voters understood and agreed with it. There is no
question that the absence of such an agreed-upon mission today is a
growing problem. It is causing the free world to sacrifice much of
the moral and political capital with which it emerged from the Cold
War, to miss opportunities to strengthen the prospects of peace and
freedom, and to allow potentially fatal dangers to take root and
If there is one piece of advice I would give my former
senatorial colleagues who are running for president, it is this: No
matter how strong or brilliant you think you may be, no one will
follow you through the difficult terrain of foreign affairs if you
cannot tell them where you want to end up or why you are going
A FOREIGN POLICY STRATEGY
The U.S. must define a strategic mission statement for its
foreign policy, and it should be one in which a substantial part of
the free world can join. I am going to suggest what that mission
might be, but first I have four observations about how it should be
developed and what it should try to achieve.
First, the term "free world" is still a meaningful concept, in
the sense that it defines the universe of real allies for the U.S.
It may not be useful to think of the world as rigidly divided
between good and evil, but there are nations that have shown a
consistent commitment to human rights, and there are nations that
haven't. These latter states are not all totalitarian; some are
consistently aggressive, but many are not; some are moving toward
greater freedom while others -- one thinks of Russia in this regard
-- are moving away. Some may be allies for limited purposes, but
they should not be considered national partners in protection of
human rights. We should not count on countries to help carry out a
mission that we know they don't believe in. Otherwise, foreign
policy descends into a dangerous farce, like asking China to join a
movement to free Tibet.
Second, the international and regional institutions developed
for the Cold War will not work now. In particular, we should
recognize that the United Nations is organically incapable of
carrying out its original purposes: preventing aggression and
genocide. There is an inadequate community of interest and values
among the nations. This, coupled with the requirement of unity
among the permanent members of the Security Council, means that the
U.N. is and will remain paralyzed even in the face of dangers and
disasters that virtually the whole world recognizes as requiring
action. We need new regional and international coalitions.
Third, it is necessary to take a practical approach to the role
of the U.S. The U.S. has a global military organization, a strong
diplomatic and intelligence presence, the most powerful economy in
the world, and a tradition of leadership that other nations are
accustomed to, if not always enthusiastic about. America should be
recognized as the leader in developing the new policy and
assembling the new multinational coalitions that will implement it.
I say this reluctantly rather than as a matter of pride, for world
leadership is a burden.
Unfortunately, in the first half of the 20th century, when
Europeans were managing world affairs, there were two wars that
killed 30 million people and ended with a totalitarian power in
control of Eastern Europe and a world with weapons that could
destroy the human race. Survival impelled President Truman in the
late 1940s to decide that America had to play a more prominent
role. In its post-Cold War mission, some other nations or a
coalition of nations may eventually be able to assume the primary
role. But for now, America has to take the lead, for the same
reason we had to do it in 1947. As a practical matter, there is
At the same time, America should not be seen as the free world's
police officer, hired gun or supreme leader, and America is
especially not the father of the free-world family. America should
be like a prime minister in a cabinet: first among equals. America
should seek consensus before making a decision, while other nations
should recognize that they must bear their share of the burden if
they want their share of the authority.
Finally, the new strategy must be a response to the world as it
is, and not as we would like it to be.
In the post-Cold War world, we should see the world not in
geographic terms but as a matrix of systems -- financial,
communications, transportation and others. Americans depend on
links within and among those systems that can be attacked using
weapons that have a destructive effect that is far greater than the
raw power it takes to launch them. That is why al-Qaida and other
terrorist networks are such a threat. They understand fully what
Americans have only begun to accept: that you can shut down a
nation's economy by blowing up the right building in the right city
at the right time.
In short, the logic of history pushed America to the forefront
of world affairs after World War II, and events since then, along
with the unavoidable effect of information age technology, have
conspired to involve our national interests inextricably in the
fate of the international order. America is not an imperial power,
but it has become, in the absence of alternatives, a kind of
managerial power. It is no longer safe to ignore, in principle,
what necessity has required us to accept in practice. In my
judgment, our new American mission should be:
To act in established coalitions with other willing free
nations, to prevent or minimize serious, violent disruptions in
what would otherwise be the progress of the international order
toward freedom and democracy, with first emphasis on those
conflicts that most directly implicate American interests, but on
the strong presumption that any such disruption anywhere threatens
the security of the United States.
Note that this is an activist mission phrased in a negative way.
Stating the mission this way reconciles to the extent possible the
tension between the necessity and legitimacy of American
involvement around the world on the one hand, and the practical and
moral limits on American power on the other. The U.S. is not the
nanny of the world; we have no right to force others to believe as
we believe. But freedom and democracy are morally superior to
oppression and tyranny. That gives America the right, particularly
as part of a coalition of nations, to prevent or resist violent
aggression against what would otherwise be the choice of peoples or
nations to live in freedom.
How we exercise that right is an operational rather than a
strategic issue, requiring a balance of costs against benefits on a
case-by-case basis. But it is crucial to understand the connection
between strategy and operations. The war in Iraq is an example.
There is no question that the U.S. had the right and, in fact, the
obligation to deal in some manner with the threat posed by Saddam
Hussein. Everyone in Washington agreed on that. The question was
whether forcible regime change was the right means for doing it, or
whether we should have continued containing Iraq through the
presence of air and ground power in the region coupled with
economic sanctions -- or whether some alternative would have worked
Had America had in place a strategic conception of the kind I am
proposing, we could have understood better how the Iraqi threat fit
in the context not just of the war on terrorism but a broader and
more enduring global mission. We already would have established
formal, effective international coalitions to help us make and
execute a decision, rather than being forced to work through the
U.N. We would have long-before sized and shaped our military better
for tasks suitable to a post-Cold War mission, and we would have
developed within our civilian agencies the kind of nation-building
capabilities we have needed not just in Iraq but in Bosnia and
Afghanistan, as well. We would have had a more informed national
debate, and we could have explained whatever position we took with
less possibility of misunderstanding here and abroad. Those are the
advantages of strategic clarity. It maximizes the options in a
crisis, solidifies our nation's commitment when sacrifice is
necessary and reduces the possibility of operational mistakes.
A POLICY TOWARD CHINA
It must be clear to any impartial observer that China, under its
current government, is a serious threat to the strategic interests
of the U.S. as I have defined them. The Chinese leaders are
vigorously pursuing aggressive national ambitions in Asia,
intimidating the other powers in the region by their actions in
places such as Tibet and the South China Sea. They have obstructed
efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to North
Korea and Iran and have, at best, been unhelpful in preventing and
At the same time, there are hopeful signs of progress toward
enlightenment values in China: the rapid growth of peaceful
religions among the Chinese people, the open and constant agitation
across China for more freedom and greater opportunity, and the fact
that the collapse of communism has deprived the Chinese regime of
ideological justification for its continued dictatorship.
Strategic clarity tells us that America should keep a consistent
focus on China. A number of initiatives suggest themselves:
China is rapidly becoming a regional superpower while America --
occupied with fighting the war in Iraq -- is allowing its
traditional air and naval power to atrophy. That shift in the
balance of power should be stopped; it is increasing the risk that
the Chinese government will decide to resolve its differences with
Taiwan through aggressive means. A good step would be to stop the
decline in the number of American naval vessels by fully funding
the Navy's shipbuilding program, beginning with advancing the date
at which the U.S. begins acquiring two Virginia-class submarines
The war on terrorism has, understandably, caused America's
intelligence community to focus on developing assets in the Islamic
world. However, the director of national intelligence should be
tasked with implementing a long-term plan to increase the number of
expert Chinese analysts and multiply sources of human intelligence
President Bush has made progress in strengthening America's ties
with India and Japan and encouraging those countries to develop,
under the umbrella of cooperation with the U.S., greater defensive
capabilities in the region. The next president should sustain this
progress and pay close attention to America's relationship with all
the democracies in the Western Pacific. In addition, the U.S.
should resist the temptation to further reduce America's presence
in South Korea, tempting as it is to do so in the face of other
obligations -- that would create a destabilizing vacuum and
undermine confidence in America's continued presence in the
The next administration should move to strengthen the
international regime against the proliferation of nuclear weapons
and raise the visibility of Chinese obstructionism in that area. In
addition, America should engage in a vigorous campaign of public
diplomacy to encourage the hopeful trends in China. The Olympics in
Beijing created an opportunity to call for reform, at least, of
China's policy toward Tibet -- an opportunity that could have been
anticipated with strategic clarity. The next president should
encourage the world to join America in a campaign for religious
freedom and should enhance the ability of our civilian agencies to
export the ideas of entrepreneurship, opportunity and respect for
In short, America should adopt a policy toward China of walking
softly, speaking honestly and carrying a big stick. There is every
reason to believe that democracies around the world will join us --
if we prosecute the policy as part of a transparent strategic
There are other advantages to the new American mission. It tends
to unify, at least at a level of principle, the "human rights,"
"realist" and "neo-conservative" camps within the foreign policy
community here at home. It is not unilateral, but it preserves
American prerogatives and sovereignty. It creates an explicit moral
component to American foreign policy, but without being
The key is to plan rather than react. That will reduce the
number of American military interventions over time. It cannot be
emphasized enough that failing to recognize our challenges in the
world will not make those challenges go away.
The hardest thing about this new American mission is that it
requires us to say goodbye to an ideal of America that many of us
cherish -- an America set apart by inclination and interest, as
well as geography, a country whose foreign policy consists of
wishing good to the world and waving as it goes by. But that ideal
of America, if it ever existed at all, died Dec. 7, 1941, and was
buried in the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The leaders who accepted that truth after World War II faced the
same challenges that we face today. There were partisan divisions,
petty egos and creeping cynicism. Some people thought America was
perfect, and others blamed it for everything that went wrong. But
leaders kept pushing forward until the Berlin Wall fell and the
mission was a success.
The stakes are just as big today as they were after World War
Yet there is reason to be confident, notwithstanding the
dangers. It is not jingoism, but realism, to acknowledge the
enormous latent reservoir of American strength, the stability of
democratic institutions around the world and the appeal of freedom.
What is needed now are leaders like those of the post-World War II
era, who have the clarity to develop a new strategic mission and
the heart and courage to make it work.
Jim Talent is a
Distinguished Fellow in Government Relations at The Heritage
First appeared in the Armed Forces Journal
If you ask a foreign policy question of a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ultimately he would say that the question is above his paygrade. Defense policy is subordinate to foreign policy, in the sense that the military does the tasks it is directed to do to advance the policies that civilians determine.
American Leadership Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
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