U.S. foreign and national security policy is the shield of the American Republic. It first and foremost defends the American people at home and abroad, and extends into the world to ward off threats that could compromise our Constitutional obligations to limited government and civilian control of the armed forces.
America’s vocation as a “city on the hill,” devoted to the preservation and extension of liberty, remains an indelible part of the national ethos, as it must. Securing our principles while helping others to secure theirs is not a contradiction. Only dark, primitive minds see the lives of people and nations as exclusively zero-sum competitions.
But the United States must never, as John Quincy Adams—a founder of the Whig Party—wrote, “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Foreign and national security policy is not missionary or social work; a thin line divides an America providing help for those nations that seek it from a well-meaning yet imperial crusader state loosed from the moorings of humble good sense.
The temptation to allow our power to size our ambitions is ever present, for the United States is no ordinary nation. It remains, as it has always been, the experimental incubus of a universal republic, a beacon of hope to all those who dream their freedom. Many dreamers have come to our shores, and we have been open to pioneers of all kinds, growing strong with and through them, thus vindicating our nation’s motto: E pluribus unum. We must have military and intelligence capabilities second to none, but true security lies in the devotion and unity of the American people in service to one another. No martial power can save a nation that has lost its purpose, and its bonds of mutual obligation.
National unity and steady purpose, and a judicious balancing of commitments and resources, must be our bywords in foreign and national security policy. Today we face a daunting test of those principles.
For the past 75 years the United States has successfully balanced interests and ideals, prudence and vision, to meet a challenge of global leadership it never sought. Americans have joined together with others to protect the world from powerful forces of repression and tyranny; we have sought, with mixed results, to turn former adversaries into partners; we have assailed poverty and oppression within limits of the possible and prudent; and we have sought no special material privileges for ourselves in the labor.
In the process, we have built partnerships throughout the world to serve as sinews for the American provision of common security goods to those nations who wish voluntarily to partake of them. U.S. policy has thus deterred aggression and prevented hegemonic warfare, suppressed regional security competitions, limited the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and nurtured the balm of global commerce. The resources we have devoted to these ends have been significant, but had we not thus invested we would today need to spend vastly more on national security to survive in a far more dangerous world.
That strategy of positive global engagement is now assailed from within our own nation, from the highest office of the land, as well as from the rise of illiberal forces from without. We thus stand today at the crossroads of destiny.
We must adjust the means to implement U.S. strategy, not least because the challenges we now face include those beyond the capacity of any one nation to master alone. But if we instead throw down our burden, we risk surrender to a future in which a nasty and brutish world will crush hope for a cooperative and peaceful one. That is a path America must not take.
In pursuit of a wise adjustment to U.S. strategy and policy, we have much work to do. Looking to America’s military, we must urgently but also wisely recapitalize our Air Force and Navy, the two main instruments of U.S. forward-deployed grand strategy, even as we keep the Army, Marines, and Coast Guard up to their standards of excellence. Just throwing money at the problem is not good enough; we need to think more avidly than we spend.
We must modernize personal policy as coequal in importance with weapons acquisition, even as we continue to further refine and make more efficient and effective that critical function.
We must create a new public-private paradigm for investment in research and development, for America’s technological edge is now at risk from developments that allow “fast followers” of our innovation to lap ponderous U.S. deployment lag times. Gone are the days when an adequate military and intelligence R&D function can be managed within the folds of government alone. To that end, the roles of both the National Laboratory system and the White House Science Advisor (with its associated panels) need to be reformulated and supported anew.
And we must repair the hurtful embarrassment that the Veterans Administration has become. If we intend to continue with the all-volunteer force concept for manning the military, we must treat our people with respect and competence after their service as well as during it.
Looking to America’s foreign policy assets, we must reform as we strengthen the Department of State and the Foreign Service. The State Department’s sense of purpose and morale has wandered in recent years away from its traditional purpose and verve. It needs to be set back on track with strong departmental leadership and equally strong support from the Executive Branch. Unfortunately, both are sorely lacking today.
In addition, more work needs to be done to create Interagency integration in foreign and national security policy. The National Security Council’s coordination function must be reaffirmed even as it refrains from usurping authorities it was never meant to carry. It is simply not possible to effectively run the foreign policy of the United States from the White House alone.
A more complicated and fast-paced world also demands flexible “as needed” levels of coordination between the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, and Commerce—as well as the Office of the Trade Representative, the Centers for Disease Control, and of course the intelligence community. We talk incessantly about creating whole-of-government approaches to complex challenges, but we have so far failed to do so except very occasionally.
Creating a small rotating senior executive service corps within the Executive Branch, with dedicated Interagency training and perspective, would help get the job done. But most critical is national leadership, with firm support in the Congress, that grasps the true relationship between government structure and function, and can drive reform relentlessly from above. We are very far from having such leadership today.
As we Americans ponder our future in the wider world, we can do no better at this new parlous moment in our history than to recall the words of another great Whig Party member, Abraham Lincoln: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.” And I believe Lincoln would add, were he still with us, to walk humbly, with others, to heal the wounds of a needy world.
Adam Garfinkle is Editor of The American Interest magazine.