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January 14, 2012

Strategy at Home, Strategy Abroad

by Mike M

In his new Foreign Affairs piece on grand strategy, Zbigniew Brzezinski begins, tantalizingly—but not unexpectedly, because we’ve heard the message before—that in order to undertake a new grand strategy the “United States’ central challenge over the next several decades is to revitalize itself” at the same time that it reinvigorates a broader “West” and stabilizes Asia.

This is a bit like a PhD English student getting a three-page memo from his advisor saying, “What you really need to do is, One, Be a better writer; and Two, perform the following errands for me …”  The reader wants to scream:  What was that, about the writing?

Brzezinski never follows up meaningfully about the house in order business in this piece,  probably because he knows that he needn’t belabor the issue:  Everyone knows we need to get our house in order, right?  Yet we can’t seem to do anything about it—all of these interlocking domestic calamities that keep us from reaching our potential.

Two questions suggest themselves.  Do we agree with Brzezinski?  Do we really, truly believe that getting our domestic house in order is the essential foundation for global grand strategy?  That our cleverest chessboarding vis-à-vis Russia in Eastern Europe or China on the South China Sea will ultimately go for naught if we lose focus on the educational, technological, resource, financial, social and cultural wellsprings of our power, influence and credibility?

We might agree with this proposition, first, because we have screwed things up so badly—on debt, health care, inequality, entitlement burdens, financial market instability and so forth—that unless corrected, these domestic issues (with strong global linkages) threaten to eat away at our national strength.

But we might also agree because of the changing character of geopolitics, because the sinews of national power commonly employed today are often social/economic/cultural rather than political-military.  Yes, “soft power,” to a degree, but also non-military in character, non-kinetic, categories that cannot be force-fed with short-term budget deficits and large armies to create a false impression of strength.

And because of the general global recognition of this second point, as Brzezinski goes on to suggest briefly, might it now be true that when our political system runs aground on entitlement reform or financial system reform or renewable energy policy, it strikes a larger long-term blow to our credibility as an effective global actor than, say, a failure to respond energetically to something like the Arab Spring, or North Korean artillery provocations.

(Which may, if true, set up an interesting series of strategic choices.  If China invades Japan—silly, I know, but go with me—and we yawn; OK, that’s a problem.  So failure to answer massive, forehead-striking blows to global security fragments global order and destroys U.S. credibility.  However, the true foundation for that credibility demands most attention to domestic revitalization; which suggests an occasional shrug and “sorry, you’ve been sent down to the minors” reaction to what might (vaguely) be referred to as “intermediate-level” global incidents.  The question, of course, is where to peg a given crisis, a choice that will be as political as it is strategic—e.g., “We’re all Georgians now!”

So when the staff of the Weekly Standard comes rushing from their tea-stained offices with Churchillian stogies jammed into grimacing mouths, sticking American/Estonian friendship lapel pins onto passerby and demanding that we respond to the latest Russian hacker attacks into the Baltics with B-1 sorties against St. Petersburg, we need to think twice about what makes for long-term credibility in this new era, and what does not.)

Suppose, then, that we answer, Yes, of course, we believe that putting our own house in order is the key foundation stone for global strategy today.  The logical follow-up then becomes, What would an American grand strategy look like if it were built on a foundation of domestic renewal?

And the other side of that coin becomes the destination point of this whole rant:  What might a strategy for domestic renewal look like if it were built as a grand strategy for American global credibility and greatness, and not a jobs program?

There is of course nothing essentially new about this.  We’ve been talking about energy as a national security issue for decades; former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Michael Mullen famously said his number one security concern was the debt.  But I mean something more fundamental and comprehensive as regular national practice, strategy, and political tactics:  Justifying a whole process of national reform on self-consciously competitive, nationalistic, geopolitical grounds, as part of a grand strategy to make America great for the coming century.  Generating a persistent mindset of domestic-is-now-global.  Changing how the country conceives of the relationship between certain domestic issues and geopolitics.

What would such an agenda look like?

In many ways, of course, we know very well, because the basic reform proposals have been endlessly debated.  A program of domestic revitalization for the purpose of national strength and credibility could be built around a few essential components:

  • Fiscal and budgetary steps designed to put prevent short- and long-term insolvency, keep the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and keep the American economy stable; so, a serious plan to work toward balanced budgets and lock them in place, entitlement reform, possibly associated reform of the tax code.
  • A strategic energy policy to reduce vulnerability, increase resilience, reduce reliance on foreign sources, and generate innovation and industrial power for exports; a logical emphasis on renewables, but not just current ones, investments in over-the-horizon renewable technologies.
  • A strategy for the information realm that comprehends national vulnerabilities and the realities of an information-based age.
  • A global financial strategy that carefully assesses the acceptable risks of financial flows, examines potential steps to mitigate risks, puts hedging strategies and regulations in place.
  • A strategic approach to national education and innovation that respects the local and state character of education but for all the assessments that the education system is not delivering on its potential, the number of truly innovative experiments to move education models into the new era (not with online courses that lead to the commodification of students, but with new pedagogical models) is pathetically small.

Now:  Is this “left wing” or “right wing”?  Neither.  It views business, innovation, technology and creativity as essential to revitalization; and it understands controls, regulation, and carefully-selected government investment as necessary hedging strategies to protect the safety and well-being of Americans in a rapidly-changing era of fluid threats and challenges.  The debate about “markets” and “regulation” in our politics is twenty years behind the reality of society and economy as it has evolved, and a new grand strategy for revitalization needs to leapfrog tired ideology.

The nature of conflict is changing, but our concept of government’s role has not caught up.  So our concept of government’s role in renewal and reform as necessary components of well-being and safety in an era of reframed “security” must change.

The trouble, of course, is that when the character of issues change, the barriers to reform shift as well, and not always in an easier direction.  Classic security issues are foreign, external, largely the purview of a handful of people who concern themselves with grand strategy.  Importing national security as a discipline into finance, social security reform, and fuel standards plunges it into the quicksand of the Postmodern Ungovernable State:  ideologically deadlocked and riven with bitterly-contested, well-funded wars between self-concerned interest groups—a dismal story overlaid with the apathy of the consumerist, well-entertained masses.

The chances of a truly dramatic package of reforms that would, as Brzezinski is requesting, “revitalize” America seem not great.  But that does not change the need, or the essential argument:  The first principle of strategy is now, Revitalize oneself.

Read more from Foreign Policy

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