A National Strategic Narrative: Is Y really the new X?

Foreign Policy's John Norris has picked up on an article written by two U.S. military officers that seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the press. The article, titled “A National Strategic Narrative,” is being compared to George F. Kennan's famous article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” for laying out a new direction in U.S. foreign policy (Kennan used the pseudonym “X” for the article which was published in Foreign Affairs in July 1947). The authors, U.S. Navy Captain Wayne Porter and U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Mark Mykleby, invite this comparison by signing it “Mr. Y” and making several references to Kennan's important note. Whereas Kennan laid the intellectual foundation for a strategy of containtment vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, Porter and Mykleby are calling for a strategy of sustainment:

“It is time for America to re-focus our national interests and principles through a long lens on the global environment of tomorrow. It is time to move beyond a strategy of containment to a strategy of sustainment (sustainability); from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion, to a proactive posture of engagement. We must recognize that security means more than defense, and sustaining security requires adaptation and evolution, the leverage of converging interests and interdependencies.”

The authors lay out three priorities as part of this new national strategy: investing in education to build the economy; relying less on military force and utilizing other parts of the foreign policy tool box, such as development and aid, to ensure long-term security; and developing sustainable access to, cultivation and use of natural resources.

These are not ideas one would normally associate with the military, but something seems to be changing at the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has warned that the civilian side of U.S. foreign policy (e.g. the State Department and USAID) is underfunded. In a 2007 speech, he called cuts to ‘soft power’ tools during the 1990s “short-sighted,” saying it was a “gutting of America’s ability to engage, assist, and communicate with other parts of the world.” The message has not changed since then. In fact, both Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have vigorously opposed cuts to the State Department budget on repeated occasions. The Y article seems to be a continuation of this emphasis of ‘soft power’, and John Norris rightfully concludes that though the article was written in a personal capacity, “it would not have seen the light of day without a measure of official approval.”

It is a fundamentally optimistic proposition, confident in the capability of the United States to achieve positive influence in the world and the willingness of others to cooperate, rather than compete. Both these assertions are debatable. Should the United States move away from interventionism, it could find it has more influence through soft power than blunt coercion, yet there is no guarantee for that. As others countries rise, like the United States once did, they too will seek their place in the world, testing the boundaries of cooperation and accommodation. In the next couple of decades, Asia will be ripe for conflicts as China and India assert themselves, with Japan, South Korea and a host of other countries seeking physical and economic security.

That is not to say that Asia is doomed to repeat the mistakes of Europe. One could make the case that economic and cultural developments, with their accompanying interdependencies, lessen the incentives for war. While China is asserting itself through territorial claims in the South China Sea and elaborate navy exercises, Beijing is primarily concerned with keeping the economy running at a brisk pace. War is bad for business, and China’s military remains inferior to that of the United States – let alone a coalition of U.S. and other regional forces. In addition, nuclear proliferation serves as a deterrent of total war that was woefully lacking in Europe during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

Yet despite these disincentives, all the major players in Asia are building up their military capabilities, and some are even making significant changes to their national security strategies in anticipation of a more threatening China. This development is taking place largely independently of U.S. actions in the region and despite security guarantees given to South Korea and Japan. The United States is even encouraging Japan to take a larger share of its own security burden, which basically means more defense spending and a more offensive posture. Perhaps this is due to fiscal concerns, as the United States can ill afford to subsidize its allies’ security forever, but it might also come from a realization that there are limits to U.S. influence in the region. The Asian powers have their own national interests irrespective of U.S. concerns. This means that even if the United States adopts a more cooperative approach to foreign policy, others might not follow.

Direct confrontation is not the only challenge facing the United States. One could even make the case that war is not even at the top of the list. Competition for natural resources and access to markets is likelier to result in lawfare, economic sanctions and other soft power confrontations than kinetic actions. To solve these issues, the United States needs a large toolbox, so Porter and Mykleby are right in this respect to focus on ‘smart power’. The danger is that a normative approach to foreign policy might crash into a real world of realpolitik and hard power. Speaking softly will only get you so far, unless you carry a big stick.

Looking beyond the emphasis on ‘soft power’, there is a more fundamental message coming out of the Y article. Though a cliché it may be, one is reminded of John Winthrop and his famous sermon “City Upon A Hill” from 1630 when reading the article. The authors urge policymakers, and Americans in general, to examine the role of the United States in an increasingly interdependent world:

“This Narrative advocates for America to pursue her enduring interests of prosperity and security through a strategy of sustainability that is built upon the solid foundation of our national values. As Americans we needn’t seek the world’s friendship or to proselytize the virtues of our society. Neither do we seek to bully, intimidate, cajole, or persuade others to accept our unique values or to share our national objectives. Rather, we will let others draw their own conclusions based upon our actions.”

As Jonathan Monten describes it in his excellent article “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine,” American exceptionalism in foreign policy has historically taken on two distinct characters: exemplarism and vindicationism. We last saw the former during the presidency of George W. Bush, when foreign policy thinking was dominated by the belief that the United States had to take active measure to promote American values of liberty abroad. Merely being an example was not enough to cause change. The latter, which is on display in the Y article, is the idea that the United States should sort out its own house first and act as a beacon of light to the world, instead of forcing its ideals on others.

The practical implication of this would likely be a policy of offshore balancing, and here is the real potential of Porter and Mykleby’s proposition. This would not be isolationism – as noninterventionism is often, and mistakenly, called. It would be a policy based on the genuine belief that the United States cannot, and should not, run the world. There are limits to U.S. power, and nationbuilding schemes like the ones Iraq and Afghanistan come with huge opportunity costs both abroad and at home.

Is Y really the new X? Of course, only time will tell if the new narrative will catch on. The authors make an interesting case for reconfiguring U.S. foreign policy and the role of the military. While the authors’ talk of a new cooperative tone might be a tad optimistic, and exaggerate other countries’ willingness to be accommodating, a strategy of restraint minimizes the risk of getting entangled in conflicts perpetuated by others.

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