Urgent: Replacing the Inherited US National Defence ‘Strategy’

Main Image Credit Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin briefs the press from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Washington, DC, 19 February 2021. Courtesy of US Department of Defence/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

A new US National Defence Strategy will need not only to question but to summarily reject many of the fundamental premises of the previous administration.

Assuming the presidential administration of Joseph Biden holds true to form, it will issue its first National Security Strategy (NSS) document by mid-June, as required by US law.

What isn’t clear is when the administration will issue a new National Defence Strategy (NDS). In the final analysis, that is by far the more urgent task, considering the highly flawed nature of the 2018 James Mattis-directed NDS, which essentially supplanted the largely stillborn 2017 Donald Trump NSS and remains on the books as the presumptive equivalent of the US national strategic posture.

The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance issued by the Biden national security team in early March thankfully foreshadows – among other things – a much more robust conception of security (including environmental and health security) than narrowly conceived defence, as well as an associated intent to subordinate the military to other instruments of national power. This alone accentuates the immediacy of determining what the US military’s role and intentions will be going forward.

By law, the US secretary of defence is required to submit a new NDS every four years, although the law specifies that, following the election of a new president, a newly appointed secretary of defence must present a new NDS ‘as soon as possible after appointment’. The time to do that is in conjunction with the new NSS, not later, in order to counteract as soon as possible the numerous strategically counterproductive false narratives contained in the Mattis NDS.

The 2018 NDS isn’t a strategy (a coherent architecture for navigating and shaping the future). It certainly isn’t strategy (systematic, visionary, big-picture thinking). It’s a tactically oriented ideological tract, replete with unsubstantiated assumptions and assertions, that seeks to resurrect the ‘good old days’ of Cold War simplicity and excess. Among the falsest of the NDS narratives are:

  • That the central challenge facing the US today is Great Power Competition (GPC) with revisionist powers – China and Russia – not terrorism.
  • That we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy (the Bush-Obama War on Terror) that has eroded US competitive military advantage. Every domain of warfare – air, land, sea, space and cyberspace – is contested by revisionist powers and rogue regimes that seek to counter deserved US superiority.
  • That the foregoing actors and others have weakened the post-World War II liberal international order and undermined our established ‘rules of the road’.
  • That the ‘character of war’ (its forms and methods) is changing, but the essential ‘nature of war’ (organised violence for political purposes) remains immutable.
  • That the mission of the Department of Defence is to provide combat-credible military forces to deter war and win if deterrence fails. Since ‘the surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win’, the way to do so is to ‘restore warfighting readiness’ by fielding a ‘more lethal’ force. 

The most egregious false narrative – yet the one that has taken deepest root to date, even among key Biden officials – is the GPC claim. The very label GPC is hyperbolic, pretentious and inflammatory. It provokes rather than reassures and invites escalation rather than moderation – think Cold War arms race reborn. Consider just one small passage from the 2019 Chinese defence white paper:

International strategic competition is on the rise. The US has adjusted its national security and defence strategies and adopted unilateral policies. It has provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defence expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defence, and undermined global strategic stability.

Perpetual Competition?

The GPC claim is a zero-sum, win-lose call to permanent adversarialism in which any advance by one side is a loss for the other, and vice versa. The subtext of this worldview is that the US rightfully seeks supremacy rather than a global order of responsible, accountable, self-respecting equals. It ignores major parts of the world and transnational challenges, framing everything in self-deludingly simplistic terms as subordinate to a bipolar or tripolar global superstructure. It perpetuates the most parochial thinking about the proper purpose and role of the military, and it provides an enduring incentive for continued excessive defence spending. It precipitates mirror-imaging by others disaffected by or jealous of America’s overweening arrogance and self-anointed superiority.

To call for a permanent state of ‘competition’ – where, by idealised definition, agreed-upon rules and limits govern behaviour, where there is some neutral authority to referee disputes, and where there are winners and losers – is to glorify and legitimise permanent adversarialism. Furthermore, there is the pretentious arrogance of claiming ‘great-power’ status for the US and its so-called ‘near-peers’. The US, China and Russia are great powers only in the sense that they are very large countries geographically and population-wise; possess notable wealth; are permanent UN Security Council members; have sizable nuclear arsenals and mammoth military establishments with the most advanced weaponry; are capable of projecting power and force abroad; and have varying degrees of enduring influence beyond their borders. None, however – the US included – is great in the sense of consistently exhibiting greatness – normative behaviour worthy of respect, emulation and deference from others.

If one turns to the home front of each country, the deceit of greatness is exposed: human rights abuses and deprivations; political and economic inequality and disenfranchisement; corruption and hypocrisy; and internal cultural and ideological divisiveness and polarisation abound. Is the US great if it spends vastly more on defence than the rest of the world, at the expense of other important strategic priorities; if it is far and away the world’s leading international arms merchant, at the expense of stability and peace abroad; and if its spending on war since 2001 ($5.4 trillion) could have paid for, say, hundreds of millions of Head Start slots, billions of children receiving low-income healthcare, or billions of COVID-19 vaccines? Is the US great if, unlike many other countries, it has no universal healthcare; if 33 million citizens aged 65 and under have no health insurance; if over half a million citizens are homeless, 50 million live in poverty, and one in six are food insecure; if it ranks 15th in the world in per capita GDP, 15th in income distribution, and 58th in political rights and civil liberties; if only 20% of US citizens trust the government to do what is right; and if America’s chosen form of government, supposedly the ‘world’s greatest democracy’, is totally dysfunctional?

From this GPC mega-narrative, all the other false narratives follow. Arguing that the US has atrophied strategically is to deny that its repeated failures in ‘forever wars’ are due to its preferred capabilities being ill-suited to the situations it faces; to accept, conversely, the proposition that the situations themselves, rather than the preferred capabilities, are at fault; and to further deny that US military force structure and weaponry – divisions, wings, carrier task forces, capital ships, fighter and bomber aircraft, armoured formations, and nukes – have changed over time, regardless of circumstance. Moreover, only rarely and selectively has the US been outpaced in any weapons category by either China or Russia.

Contending that the established liberal international order has been weakened by revisionist powers and rogue actors is to ignore that the US, more than any other party, has been the culprit for such weakening. Why else does the US label wars ‘police actions’ and justify aggression as humanitarian intervention; or decline to seek congressional war powers approval for stand-off bombing involving no boots on the ground; or deny ‘unlawful enemy combatants’ prisoner-of-war status; or avoid treaties requiring congressional consent in favour of executive and international ‘agreements’?

Claiming that only the character of war – and not its fundamental nature – changes is to be blinded to the fact that not only organised violence in pursuit of political aims, but also rational human direction, combined with casualties, destruction and resource consumption, are the defining characteristics of war’s nature; and that, accordingly, considering the ‘natural’, non-human, random character of pandemics and natural disasters, for instance, along with their massive casualties and costs, a new conception of war’s nature and the military’s proper role in such ‘war’ is fully warranted.

Finally, asserting that the military’s primary function is preparing for and waging war, that lethality is thus the overriding measure of military effectiveness, and that being prepared for war is the best – if not the only – path to peace, is to reject the notion that the military’s ultimate raison d’être is securing and preserving peace; that a warfighting military and a peace-making military are completely different enterprises; that preparing for war is destined to produce only more war; and that military effectiveness and strategic effectiveness are not synonymous or co-determinative.

Strengthening Alliances

If there is a positive note from the Mattis NDS that is worth embracing, retaining and extending, it is the call for strengthening alliances and attracting new partners for the purpose of ‘deterring or decisively acting to meet the shared challenges of our time’. This must remain an absolute strategic imperative for the US going forward. There should be no quibble with the stated intent to ‘uphold a foundation of mutual respect, responsibility, priorities, and accountability’ and ‘expand regional consultative mechanisms and collaborative planning’. But when the NDS calls for ‘deepening interoperability’, the ulterior motive behind the mask of cooperation is betrayed. The deconstructed subtext of the message is essentially: ‘go along with us, see and do things our way, buy our equipment, and we’re good; go your own way, see things differently, expect us to defer to you, and we aren’t’. Perpetuating such selfish reasoning can only undermine US credibility and legitimacy.

All available evidence suggests that Mattis and his minions sought to embed his NDS so deeply in the bureaucracy that it couldn’t be reversed by successors – and to do so by enlisting unquestioning disciples who would internalise and propagate the faith as revealed truth. Thus far, the gambit has worked. It therefore remains for the Biden administration and the Lloyd Austin Pentagon to take assertive, immediate action to extricate the US from the grip of the doctrinal albatross they have inherited from their predecessors – at the public’s expense.

If the US is to find its way and reassure others of its competence and reliability in the ‘post-post-Cold War’ world we now inhabit, it must lead not by the musculature of its armaments, but by the strength of its example and the ‘force’ of its ideas. Strategically, this means rejecting calls for a new Cold War; recognising that seeking primacy will only prompt others to do the same; getting the US house in order at home; practicing what it preaches abroad; and fundamentally redefining what militaries properly do in the service of responsible postmodern statecraft.

Gregory D Foster is a professor at the National Defense University, a West Point graduate and a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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