Tue. Jan 31st, 2023
By Benjamin Jensen

The recent announcement of deeper ties between Russia and China aligned against the United States and a major gas deal settled in euros signal the depths of strategic failure in Washington. Every American political party is to blame. Successive administrations have not managed the changing balance of power portended by a revisionist Russia and rising China, leading to increased defense expenditures absent a strategic rationale. 

new cold war between authoritarian and democratic regimes is not inevitable, and calls to the contrary lack imagination while showing disregard for the inherent risks involved. Using the solarium model, Congress should form a bipartisan strategy commission and start a dialogue about American strategy for the 21st century. This commission could serve as a forum that helps the nation answer key questions before stumbling into hasty policy decisions and congressional votes that increase the probability of an epoch defining global war.

First, what is the international system and what role should the United States play, or any country for that matter, in shaping its future trajectory? Is maintaining an international system largely designed in the wake of World War II worth the cost, and what are viable alternatives? The United States is still the hub of a global network of regional security alliances that produce commitments in Europe and Asia. Our monetary policy and debt are critical for global finance. Our innovative capacity and free market are engines of growth and renewal. 

Too often, these strengths are conflated with ideas such as “liberal hegemony” and “unipolarity” that tend to miss the fact that a rising tide lifts all boats. Worst still, there is a tendency to assume that all power flows from military might. This assumption results in turning every problem and possible solution into a military matter and limits opportunities for finding compromise with competitors on key issues. The net result is a security architecture that sees American military forces globally engaged but subject to diminishing marginal returns, and little space for strategic dialogue with states such as Russia, China, Iran or key partners and allies. 

The United States is at risk of defending an outdated international system because we haven’t taken the time to imagine a viable alternative. A strategy commission could engage in a dialogue not just with the D.C. think tank crowd but multi-track diplomatic exchanges with citizens and experts alike in Russia, China, Iran, and with strategic partners in Asia and Europe. The commission could use survey experiments to analyze how different countries and communities think about the international system and where they see opportunities for cooperation, as well as low-cost/high-payoff competitions. 

The United States cannot assume the international system we inherited, and deploy military forces globally to protect, is necessarily the optimal solution for peace and prosperity in the 21st century. No idea should be so sacred that it should resist hypothesis testing and alternative analysis.

Second, what threat is the priority? Is it adversary driven (i.e., China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, extremists), ideological (i.e., authoritarianism vs. democracy), or human-centric and linked to climate change, migration, economic inequality and/or public health? Strategy requires prioritization and assessing the inherent tradeoffs involved with pursuing competing interests. To use an old adage, “If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Along the same lines, issue salience and geography still matter. Russia cannot be more of a priority for the U.S. than it is Europe. China — to include issues such as Taiwan’s independence — cannot be more of an issue for the U.S. than it is for our partners in Asia. 

Arguably, there hasn’t been a sufficient national dialogue about strategic prioritization. To be fair, policymakers face an almost Sisyphean task of creating and communicating strategic clarity. Contemporary security debates tend to function more like diatribes with a flood of hot takes and angry reactions. Social media and the democratization of expertise create a chaotic marketplace of ideas that makes it difficult to prioritize strategic interests. Worst still, polarization limits genuine bipartisan discussion. The net result is a lack of priorities and tendency toward never-ending crisis management in lieu of competitive strategy. A truly diverse commission based on rigorous research and engagement could help the country escape this trap.

Third, given a set of assumptions about the international system and a clear-eyed ranking of national security priorities, what is the optimal domain for competition? Even if one takes a human-centric approach and prioritizes climate change, migration (whether from a political right or left perspective) and inequality as the focal points for strategy, there still will be competition between nation-states. The art of statecraft is to find points of cooperation and coercion that shape the long-term competition in a manner that avoids inadvertent escalation, major war and self-defeating policies that drain national resources and sharpen domestic political divides.   

With respect to Russia, would expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal or increasing U.S. natural gas exports produce a more stable competition and long-term position of advantage? Even in military matters, why deploy U.S. troops to Europe when we can use creative combinations of security force assistance, foreign military sales, and expanded basing infrastructure to strengthen our partners? In other words, the United States can afford to acknowledge some of Russia’s concerns while strengthening European partners.

The same logic holds for China. Despite its repression of basic liberties and human rights, China shares an interest in combating climate change with the United States and, despite calls for decoupling, the countries are economically interdependent. Instead of shaming China about these issues, which only deepens the divide and does little to help activists, the United States should focus on environmental and economic cooperation with Beijing. Long-term competition requires balancing cooperation and coercion. 

National security and strategy commissions have a long track-record in Congress. They are a mechanism to overcome narrow, short-term debates and foster deeper political dialogue about solving complex problems. That approach worked for the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission, and it can work again for a broad-based strategy commission. 

Unlike previous strategy commissions, the mandate should be to ask fundamental questions about priorities and the future of the international system and ensure a broad-based dialogue that goes beyond focusing just on military competition. To quote Albert Einstein, a new strategy commission should embrace divergent thinking because the United States cannot “solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” 

Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D., is a professor of strategic studies at the School of Advanced Warfighting, Marine Corps University, and senior fellow for future war, gaming and strategy in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He previously served as the senior research director and lead author for the U.S. 

Credit | The Hill

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