October 10, 2014 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Alliances

The United States Needs A New Foreign Policy Agenda for 2016 (Part Three of Four)

In our first two installments in this series on a foreign policy agenda for the 2016 presidential election, we described how threats to American security have grown over the past few years, and how American strategic deficiencies and policy missteps have in some cases exacerbated these threats. Global disorder is on the rise, and the United States' strategic posture has shifted dramatically in ways counter to its interests, security, and values.

In this installment we will take an inventory of America's capabilities to discern what resources our nation can marshal to reverse these trends. Deciding what we ought to do will depend on what we can do. We will assess what capabilities are lacking and why, and we will also highlight some underused and underappreciated assets in our national arsenal. This inventory should help identify what policies can and should be changed, either now or at the very least by the new president elected in 2016. 

Here is our conclusion up front: in recent years the United States has experienced a troubling erosion of national resources, but overall our nation is in better shape than many people think.  With the right leadership and strategy, America is poised for a return to international strength and influence.

Let's start with the economy. Without sustained economic growth, America would be out of the leadership business. It's not only the capital to fund the armed forces but the economic and political clout provided by a robust economy that undergirds all elements of national power. In this respect we are severely underperforming: The recovery from the recession is the slowest in 70 years. Nearly 7 million fewer Americans are working or searching for work since the recession technically ended in 2009 - it may have ended on economist's charts 5 years ago, but it continues to be a reality in the lives of too many Americans.

The unemployment rate still remains too high primarily because businesses are not creating new jobs fast enough. That rate also masks the gravity of the jobs crisis, as untold numbers of despondent Americans have exited the workforce entirely. Businesses are slow to take risk and expand because of the unstable economic environment and growing regulatory burden. 

The problem is not only slow economic growth but fiscal imbalances. The deficit may have improved recently, but the Congressional Budget Office's recent update to its Budget and Economic Outlook report projects that, unless current laws are changed, budget deficits will increase and public debt will exceed 77 percent of GDP in just ten years. Spending on all entitlements will grow by at least 80 percent. And according to White House budget office estimates, spending on defense will shrink to under 3 percent of GDP by 2018, its lowest level since 1940.

Unless something is done, mandatory spending on burgeoning entitlement programs and interest on the debt will grow to such an extent that by 2030, no tax revenues will be left over to fund national defense -- or diplomacy, or intelligence, or other vital national security functions. Without getting our fiscal house in order and returning to long sustained economic growth, America's ability to return to its historical position of global leadership is in jeopardy.

The good news is that we still have significant economic potential, and this potential can be realized with the right economic policies. Pursuing ambitious reforms in the areas of taxes, regulations, and entitlements will tame this unholy trinity of American economic malaise and unleash the dynamism of our free enterprise system.    

The economic story is not all bad news, however. Some of the traditional pillars of American economic strength such as manufacturing, innovation, entrepreneurship, technology, and natural resources have in recent years combined to produce an energy boom in oil and gas. The shale revolution is positioning the United States to be a net energy exporter and the leading energy producer in the world - a position inconceivable just ten years ago. The implications of this will be felt across many sectors, from increased job creation and growth at home to more freedom of action and leverage in our foreign policy abroad.

The negative impact of fiscal problems is most felt on our declining defense capabilities. In 2012, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno had warned that sequestration would force the Army to reevaluate its defense strategy and cause a reduction in both active and reserve troops levels. "I think," he said, "it would put us beyond the fringes of what I consider to be acceptable risk, for us to be able to respond to this broad variety of threats. So, to me, I think it's dangerous."

Because of deep budget cuts, some now estimate that the Army will be reduced from an Iraq-Afghanistan peak of 566,000 troops to 450,000; under sequestration caps it could shrink further to 420,000. The Navy Times reported Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel saying that "under a worst-case-scenario, the Navy would reduce its fleet of aircraft carrier strike groups to eight or nine if the cuts lasted for the next decade. That would be the fewest number of carrier strike groups for the nation since World War II." A congressionally mandated National Defense Panel report on the Pentagon's 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review said the Air Force already has "the smallest and oldest force of combat aircraft in history." 

Just as today's defense capabilities suffer dramatic cuts, tomorrow's force structure is already being eroded by underinvestment in modernization, development, and acquisition of new weapons platforms. The Navy is patrolling less and will increasingly find itself in a position of not being able to meet combatant commander requests. Combat readiness is suffering to the point where only "a handful of Army brigades" are ready for crisis response. 

At the same time that capabilities are declining, new missions are being added, like the new war in Iraq and the Ebola virus deployment, that will worsen the strain on the force. This mismatch between capabilities and the demands placed on our forces greatly increases risk. The result could be either a failure to perform the tasks assigned to them, an unnecessary loss of life, or both.

The United States Institute for Peace summed up the problem this way: "The consensus conclusion of the [National Defense Panel] report is that there is a growing gap between the strategic objectives the U.S. military is expected to achieve and the resources required to do so." The consequences of these cuts shackle American strength across the board. Not only does a diminished military undermine our deterrent capability, it also diminishes our diplomatic strength and intelligence effectiveness. American diplomats sit with their foreign counterparts at the negotiating table representing a weakened nation. Our intelligence community identifies threats and opportunities, yet serves a customer less able or willing to do anything about them.

The intelligence community has perpetually been bedeviled by the occupational hazard that its successes can rarely be shared publicly, while its failures receive high visibility and wide attention. More recently, the intelligence community has not only been buffeted by a series of high profile lapses - think Edward Snowden's treachery, the un-forecast Arab Spring, or underestimation of the Islamic State's (IS) will to fight - but it is also weighed down by an administration that does very little to provide it political support. 

Yet scratch the surface and one finds an intelligence community brimming with advanced capabilities and dedicated professionals. Though originally beset by flawed legislation and a turbulent start, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is now much better at overseeing resources and integrating intelligence collection and analysis.

At the tactical level, the hard years of front-line combat in Iraq and Afghanistan also spurred remarkable innovations in the field, including various forms of fusion cells comprised of intelligence collectors and special operations forces. These fusion cells collect, analyze, and disseminate intelligence in real time and make it immediately available to the warfighters, whose aggressive operational tempo in turn generates more raw intelligence.

At the strategic level, America's technological prowess has made our signals intelligence capabilities second to none, and our human intelligence collectors have rebounded from the budget and bureaucratic strictures of the 1990s and are now among the world's leaders. For all of the internal and external challenges facing the intelligence community, it is still on balance an underappreciated national resource.

In the realm of diplomacy, the problem is partly one of diminished capacity, but the more fundamental deficiency has been the misdirection of U.S. policy. Yes, we do ask the State Department to do too much with too little. Yet our bigger failure has been inadequately integrating our diplomacy with hard power. Diplomacy is far more effective when it is backed up by and in harmony with U.S. military policy; indeed it often fails when it is divorced from the realities of military power-as it was, for example, amid the hasty retreat from Iraq, the inconstant threats of force against Syria, our conciliatory policy towards Iran, or our ineffective protests against Russian and Chinese territorial aggression.

Another trait of a sound diplomatic strategy is that it works best when it conforms to strategic realities, rather than being based on wishful thinking. For example, much of the world does not buy into President Obama's progressive view of the global order as inevitably marching toward liberal international norms. This is why the administration's preferred talking points about being on the "right side of history," or its dismissals of "19th century" policies appear so feckless. History does not progress inexorably. If "history" shows anything, it is that positive international change comes from strong U.S. leadership, not from America pulling back and letting others take the lead. In this respect, our enemies and rivals are more impressed by clarity and consistent firmness than by ambiguities or declarations of sympathy and understanding.

Just as America's adversaries have taken our measure and found us wanting, we have also neglected another source of diplomatic strength: our allies and partners. The United States sits at the fulcrum of an alliance system that should be the envy of the world, one that vastly multiplies our global strength. Yet from Asia to Europe to the Middle East, the strength of our alliances is being diminished by a combination of American neglect and allied passivity.

The European alliance has largely underperformed over the past few years, hobbled by declining defense budgets and differences of opinion over the nature of threats. That weakness continues as Europe has proven to be a constant drag on imposing tough sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. And West European nations inside NATO are also reluctant to beef up defenses in the East against Russia, let alone project power further abroad.

But there are positive developments as well. The Europeans did impose sanctions on Russia despite the undertow of economic and energy interests against doing so. Even more important has been the positive response to the growing threat of IS in Iraq and Syria, which shows how resilient the NATO alliance can be. France, the UK, Belgium, and Denmark will send fighter jets to the fight against IS, and countries like Germany will provide arms and training. The split with Turkey remains a serious problem (it refuses to allow us to use our U.S. air base at Incirlik for striking IS in Iraq), and most NATO allies are operating under restraints (the U.K. for example will not launch strikes inside Syria). But the Europeans' rallying to the fight IS shows that NATO is far from dead.

Our alliances in Asia are strong. The rise of China and some doubts about the staying power of the United States in that region has generated anxiety among some allies -- principally Japan --but overall we are in good shape in Asia. It could be argued that Japan's incremental relaxation of constitutional restraints on its self-defense forces can be traced in part to hedging its long-term bets against a potential American decline, but these moves have been long debated in Japan, and in fact, they make Japan a better ally.

Our alliances with South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia are quite strong. After 60 years, the United States and Korea remain tightly aligned against potential North Korean aggression. The Philippines and Australia increasingly share American strategic interest in the management of China's rise, and are facilitating a greater U.S. presence. Rising middle powers in Asia such as Indonesia and Vietnam have proven to be willing partners with the United States. Perhaps most significant, despite some setbacks and continued challenges, our burgeoning strategic partnership with India has the potential to fundamentally transform the international order of the Indo-Pacific region.

As for the United Nations and other international organizations, the problems include disappointed expectations borne of a misalignment between intentions and capabilities. The Obama administration came into office promising more cooperation with a reinvigorated U.N., but international organizations remain ineffective and highly politicized against U.S. interests and values.

By rejoining the Human Rights Council in Geneva, for example, the administration was forced to go along with the charade that the U.N. really cares about human rights and effectively advances them. Yet the council itself, which includes such known abusers as China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, has with a few notable exceptions been largely ineffective at best and mischievous at worst, the latter illustrated by its wildly disproportionate fulminations against Israel. 

Nor is the United Nations Security Council necessarily any more effective. During the intervention against Libya, it looked as if the United States had embraced the "responsibility to protect" doctrine. But it became very clear that this doctrine would not be applied in Syria and Ukraine. Moreover, while President Obama did get UNSC approval to restrict the travel of terrorists, he was unable to enlist its support for the broader combat campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria. The result is that the Security Council remains what it has always been: a political body controlled by the interests and whims of its permanent members, of whom China and Russia are frequently the most obstreperous. 

In conclusion, our inventory of capabilities shows much potential. But it also shows that we are dreadfully underperforming. The economy is weaker than it should be. Our armed forces are in a state of decline. Our diplomacy is often misdirected to achieve ideological goals rather than to advance American interests. Our alliances show much potential, but are also only as strong as U.S. leadership allows them to be. And international organizations work more against U.S. interests and values than for them.

In our final installment, we will discuss how to turn this situation around. We will provide principles for action to restore American strength and leadership, and to better advance American interests and values around the world.

 - Dr. Kim R. Holmes is a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

 - Dr. William Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin.

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in Foreign Policy's "Shadow Government"