Our next president, like Barack Obama, will face a multitude of national security challenges, ranging from violent extremists, ambitious China, belligerent Russia, impetuous North Korea, treacherous Iran and heartbreaking human catastrophes.
While there have been times of greater danger in American history (the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War II, periods of the Cold War) there has never been a time when the threats facing our nation have been as numerous, diverse and interdependent as they are today. At the same time — for a variety of reasons having largely to do with past commitments of resources and current political gridlock—the means available to address these challenges are increasingly wanting.
In the midst of such complexity, it is easy to forget Henry Kissinger’s maxim that “No country can act wisely simultaneously in every part of the globe at every moment in time.” The responsibility inherent in the office of the president for making prudent decisions about our nation’s short- and long-term security demands the utmost in disciplined analysis detached from the whims of popular pressures.
So, what framework will our next president use for dispassionately aligning ends, ways and increasingly scarce means in support of both policy and investment decisions in the best interests of our nation?
Interests may well be the best answer.
We would recommend that the next president clearly articulate and consistently draw upon a set of prioritized national security interests—which must be protected or advanced in the service of our nation and that best meet the president’s beliefs about the role of the United States in the world.
This idea is not new, but it previously has been used more carelessly than effectively.
The new president’s list would need to serve the interwoven goals of security and prosperity and be wrapped in pragmatic fidelity to our nation’s values. It absolutely must be prioritized because some situations are worthy of greater risk, cost, and executive attention than others. It must be enduring and abstract in order to impose discipline on thought and to avoid the temptation of citing interests for expediency—we simply cannot make this up as we go along.
The content and priority of such a list of interests would be unique to each president. Any president’s first responsibility is the survival of the nation—both physically and as a free democracy. We expect every president would next turn to the prevention of catastrophic, Sept. 11, 2001-style attacks against the homeland. From there, personal ideology and priorities could orient different presidents in different directions.
As a draft of such a prioritized list, we would offer:
1. The survival of the nation as a free democracy.
2. Prevention of catastrophic attacks on the homeland.
3. The health and security of the global economic system.
4. Secure, reliable, and confident allies and partners.
5. Protection of U.S. citizens abroad.
6. Protection of universal values of freedom and respect for human rights.
But the point here is not the content of the list; rather, it is to have and use such a list.
However, interests do not live in a vacuum—there is a real world out there, and of course the interests are linked.
So how would a president use this method? He or she would cast issues and situations against the list of interests, looking for three types of intersections that would determine the degree of required application of the various levers of U.S. national power. First, a threat or event impacting a very highly ranked interest would tend to demand more action than one found further down the list. Second, action would be more likely required where many interests are affected rather than very few. Finally, where a particular interest is more deeply impacted—for example, a more likely or grave type of terrorist attack an extremist group is assessed as being able to conduct—stronger application of power would be in order.
Where the combination of priority, number, and depth of threat to interest is more severe, we would be more willing to use force, to do so unilaterally, to accept greater risk to our combat forces, to take more geopolitical risk (including outside the region in question), assume a greater financial burden (funded by either revenue or, more likely, debt), and push harder against the strictures of international law. And the reverse is true, despite strident calls for action from particularly interested parties.
For example, consider how a future president might design the U.S. response to a Chinese attack on a Philippine fishing vessel in the South China Sea.
First, the president would receive refreshed analysis on the ongoing dispute between China and the Philippines over sovereignty in the area. This would lead to recognition that at least three interests (the health and security of our global economic system; secure, reliable and confident allies and partners; and the protection of universal values) are at risk. If the situation escalates, it could spill over into other interests.
In this scenario, the combination of priority, number and impact is reasonably (though not extremely) high, indicating that a commensurate application of the various national instruments of power is warranted. The president would also balance a decision on resource allocation to respond to this incident against other ongoing situations and their respective priority within the model. This model can be used for any number of current issues including the Russian saber-rattling in Europe, climate change, or even the outbreak of a pandemic.
Where might such a framework have made a difference in the past? Given the level of resources required to achieve all the goals we set in Iraq in 2003 versus the true interests that were at stake (principally, allies and partners secure from an Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction), a different course of action may have better served the need to balance national ends, ways, and means. Perhaps using force to coerce Saddam into providing complete access to weapons inspectors, rather than the more drastic measure of overthrowing the regime, would have been more in keeping with a balance informed by our true security interests.
In contrast, the Syrian civil war and the rapid growth of ISIS in 2012 and 2013 touched numerous core interests (preventing attacks on the Homeland, the security of our regional allies, protecting American citizens abroad, and preserving universal values) fairly strongly. This combination suggests that a more fulsome initial response from the administration may have been in order, including pushing against international law to use limited force to force Bashir al Assad to the negotiating table and in striking ISIS harder and more quickly before it could develop an external attack capability.
To be most effective, the framework we are suggesting should be part of nearly every discussion in the White House Situation Room. A typical Situation Room meeting begins with an intelligence briefing to equip policymakers with the most up-to-date information and analysis on an issue and then proceeds directly into a policy discussion. Optimally, a formal discussion of the U.S. interests at stake, based on the framework, would precede the policy discussion to place the issue at hand into the broader context of U.S. strategic goals.
This framework would aid policy discussions by forcing policymakers to grapple with several questions. How much should we care about a particular issue? How much of our national resources should we expend on one issue as opposed to others across the globe with which we must contend? Which interests are the most important where multiple interests at stake seem to steer policy in radically different directions?
The framework would not only serve policy decisions. It also offers a very useful underpinning for some of the more difficult and costly investment decisions that will be faced by the next administration, such as the best way to recapitalize our nuclear deterrent, and the mix of capabilities, capacities, and readiness that are really required to face evolving threats.
Without such a framework, we risk policies that are inconsistent, or that are swayed by gusts of public opinion, partisan politics, or personal relationships among world leaders—and subsequent action that is misaligned with core U.S. interests. There is also a risk that policymakers from different halls of government would believe they think the same way about our core interests as their colleagues, when in reality they don’t. Perhaps worse, as Bernard Brodie suggested when he said “strategy comes with a price tag,” we could find ourselves in situations in which our ends reach well beyond our means.
Collectively, we spent over a decade in the Situation Room—in Deputies, Principals, and National Security Council meetings. We think this modest proposal—which is intended more as a guide for decision-makers than a formula—would pay dividends for the next president in crafting policy on looming national security issues that are among the toughest our nation has ever faced.