New ‘National Defense Strategy’ Not All That New
My latest for The National Interest, written on January 23, finally cleared the backlog and hit the streets overnight.
Lost to all but the most committed security wonks in the midst of the government shutdown debacle was the unveiling by Secretary Jim Mattis of a new National Defense Strategy. At first blush, it’s a bold declaration of the Trump administration’s priorities. In reality, there’s little new here—least of all a real strategy.
The most remarked-upon aspect of the new NDS is its declaration that “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers.” But this isn’t really that remarkable. While it’s true that the 2008 NDS declares, “For the foreseeable future, this environment will be defined by a global struggle against a violent extremist ideology that seeks to overturn the international state system,” that’s hardly shocking given that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in full swing. But even that document conceded, in the very next sentence, “Beyond this transnational struggle, we face other threats, including a variety of irregular challenges, the quest by rogue states for nuclear weapons, and the rising military power of other states.” Literally all of those remain, if in different sequence, in the 2018 version.
Regardless, while the Defense Department has devoted enormous resources to fighting violent extremism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, planning for war with near-peer adversaries has always been front and center—especially at the level of the service departments (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines), which are responsible for organizing, training, and equipping our armed forces. F-35 fighters and Ford-class carriers weren’t bought with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State in mind.
Earlier this week, Tom Spoehr rightly observes, “To have real-world value, a defense strategy must establish priorities. That requires making tough choices.” But I couldn’t disagree more with his assessment that “in this document those choices are made.” Yes, as Spoehr notes, there’s the aforementioned declaration that China and Russia pose the “central challenge.” But there’s nothing in either the document or the actions in the first year of the Trump administration to indicate that lesser challenges will receive any less attention than they have in the recent past.
While China—and especially Russia—are called out much more vociferously than in the previous two defense strategies and termed “principal priorities for the Department,” they’re also termed “long-term strategic competitions,” language very similar to those of the 2008 and 2012 documents. As to the lesser threats, “Concurrently, the Department will sustain its efforts to deter and counter rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, defeat terrorist threats to the United States, and consolidate our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan while moving to a more resource-sustainable approach.” Granting that one wouldn’t expect an unclassified, public-facing document to tell adversaries that they’re not a priority, it’s hard to read “sustain,” “defeat,” and “consolidate” as some sort of cutback.
If the United States wishes to have global hegemony, then it needs to do precisely what Mattis is asking for. Being able to deter and, if it comes to it, defeat major powers like China and Russia while at the same time constraining rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea, as well as non-state actors like the Islamic State and Boko Haram, and while maintaining access to the global commons of sea, space and cyberspace, is going to require that the United States spend a whole lot more money than it’s already spending. There is little evidence, however, that there is the political will to implement massive tax hikes or cut funding elsewhere in the budget in order to achieve that goal.
It’s more fleshed out at the link but that the crux of the argument.