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US Defense Strategy in a Post 9-11, Post-War Era of Austerity

March 5, 2014  • Michèle Flournoy, Guest Blogger

Excerpted from The Future of American Defense, a publication of The Aspen Strategy Group at the Aspen Institute, edited by Nicholas Burns and Jonathon Price:

Any defense strategy must be nested in a broader grand strategy that articulates a set of assumptions about the US role in the world and how best to safeguard the security, prosperity, and well-being of the United States and the American people. At this time of challenge and change, the United States is in dire need of a new strategic narrative that clarifies how we should use our power and influence internationally to protect and advance American interests and values.

Looking to the next decade, American strategy should be based on a handful of fundamental premises:

First, the United States remains a global power with global interests. Our national security and economic prosperity require a strategy of international engagement. A strategy based on isolationism or retrenchment is not a viable option given the reality that what happens abroad deeply affects our safety and quality of life here at home.

Second, the United States still has a unique and indispensable leadership role to play in the world. No other country has the standing, power, and influence to shape the international environment and catalyze collective action in response to shared challenges. That said, given the rise of a more multipolar international order and the diffusion of power to other rising powers as well as a panoply of nonstate actors (from multinational corporations to international organizations to transnational terrorists), the United States has far less influence and leverage than it has become accustomed to wielding in the post-World War II era. This fact should not be used as an excuse to withdraw from the world; rather, it should drive the United States to be even more strategic and skilled in wielding what leverage it still has.

Third, strengthening and adapting our traditional alliances and deepening our partnerships with key countries around the world should become an even more central focus of US strategy going forward. This network of relationships is one of the United States’ most unique and powerful assets. It is difficult to think of a pressing international problem that does not require a collective response from a coalition of like-minded nations to be effective. Actively investing in relationships with regional allies and partners, and working with them to build their capacity to protect their own interests and contribute to regional and global security, should be a central pillar of American strategy in the 21st century.

Fourth, US policy is most effective when the tools of our national power are used in a fully integrated way—for example, when diplomacy and development reinforce one another or when the US military posture in a region makes our diplomacy more effective. In an era of constrained resources, achieving such synergy and integration is more important but also more difficult. While progress has been made in recent years in better integrating interagency policy development and planning, US investment in defense, diplomacy, and development is woefully imbalanced. The Pentagon was put on steroids over the past decade while the State Department and USAID remained on life support. In addition, the experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade suggests that the ways in which the United States undertakes economic development and capacity building in conflict and post-conflict environments needs fundamental rethinking (but this is beyond the scope of this paper). 

Finally, any new strategy must be sustainable in terms of both the resources and public support required. In the wake of two long wars and in a period of budgetary austerity, the American people are unlikely to be willing to write a blank check for large-scale military interventions (particularly those involving significant boots on the ground) absent a clear threat to US vital interests. This is not to say that the United States can or should rule out any large-scale use of force in the next 10 years. But it means that the American people will be wary of supporting any strategy that does not appear to be firmly rooted in US interests, cost-effective, and ultimately sustainable.

Michèle Flournoy served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2009 to 2012. She is currently a senior advisor at the Boston Consulting Group.