Wednesday, November 6, 2013

American Decline

DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo
I have mixed feelings about the speech given at CSIS by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, but in my view this was the core of the speech more so than the six priorities he lists at the end of the speech.
In the 21st century, the United States must continue to be a force for, and an important symbol of, humanity, freedom, and progress for all mankind.  We must also make a far better effort to understand how the world sees us, and why.  We must listen more.  We must listen more.

After more than a decade of costly, controversial, and at times open-ended war, America is redefining its role in the world.  At the same time, more Americans, including elected officials, are growing skeptical about our country’s foreign engagements and responsibilities.  But only looking inward is just as deadly a trap as hubris, and we must avoid both in pursuing a successful foreign policy in the 21st century.

America’s role in the world should reflect the hope and promise of our country, and possibilities for all mankind, tempered with a wisdom that has been the hallmark of our national character.  That means pursuing a principled and engaged realism that employs diplomatic, economic, and security tools – as well as our values – to advance our security and our prosperity.

As we look out across the strategic landscape, the United States military will remain an essential tool of American power and foreign policy, but one that must be used wisely, precisely, and judiciously.

Most of the pressing security challenges I’ve described today have important diplomatic, national and global, economic, and cultural components, and they cannot and will not be resolved by only military strength.

As we go forward into a historically unpredictable world, we will need to place more of an emphasis on our civilian instruments of power, while adapting our military so that it remains strong, capable, second-to-none, and relevant in the face of threats markedly different from what shaped it during the Cold War and over the past two decades.

America’s hard power will always be critical to fashioning enduring solutions to global problems.  But our success ultimately depends not on any one instrument of power.  It depends on all of our instruments of power working together.  And it depends not only on how well we maintain and fund all of our instruments of power – but how well they are balanced and integrated with each other.
It is easy to lament the costs of a decade of war, and even easier to succumb to the isolationist desire to withdraw from the complexity of the global environment when, without question in the 21st century, we have not proven ourselves as a nation to be perfect stewards or leaders. The privilege to be less ambitious in the world is reserved for those without a stake in the system, or those nations that lack ambition for a better world and find themselves ambivalent to a liberal value system founded on the principle of freedom. The comfort of isolationism can be afforded to nations which have issued no promises, but has no place for the United States which strives for social and economic prosperity in the present imperfect global system that is underwritten by defense guarantees with more than 50 countries around the world.

But as the nation reorients our position in the world and as Secretary Hagel notes, attempt to balance and integrate America's instruments of power, we must ask ourselves the hard questions and learn from our mistakes if we are to move ahead smarter, wiser. It would be easy to note the external and environmental challenges taking place as it relates to economic and technological changes abroad, but a sole focus on those issues is only half right. While I agree with Secretary Hagel we cannot be solely focused on ourselves, it is not hubris (as he implies) to focus on ourselves first. We cannot simply reorient our policies to reflect the rise of the BRIC nations, nor can our nation afford to simply adapt to the rise of regional bases of power that seemingly reflect a decline of global American power. The biggest challenges the US faces in foreign policy are not external, rather internal, and fixing our house is required if we wish to continue global leadership in other neighborhoods.

In his speech Secretary Hagel says "We must not fall prey to the false notion of American decline.  That is a false choice and far too simple an explanation.  We remain the world’s only global leader.  However, the insidious disease of hubris can undo America’s great strengths.  We also must not fall prey to hubris."

In my opinion it would be hubris if we as a nation can't admit that American decline exists. Indeed it requires hubris to ignore the reasons why.

The first reason America is in decline is because elected national leadership is dysfunctional by every single definition applicable. This is not a problem that can be directed to any single political party, this is a shared burden of failure across the board. On one hand we see figures like Senator John McCain lament endlessly how supposedly outraged he is the Department of Defense can't even audit itself, while on the other side Congress hasn't passed a single budget on time since 2005. Good governance begins with consistency and reducing as much as possible uncertainty, and yet national political leaders haven't been able to provide either consistency or certainty in government. Today, the DoD is once again operating under a continuing resolution, built on top of budget disruption from the previous two fiscal years (both of which also required long term continuing resolution), and lets not ignore that sequestration isn't simply a budget cut, but more intrusively it prevents the DoD from making important budget adjustments to adapt to funding cuts. The budgets of most agencies in the United States are based on funny numbers pulled out of thin air as a result of annual Congressional mismanagement of their responsibilities, and the expectation that any agency can audit itself today contradicts the very purpose of a budget in the first place.

The responsible party for this mess is primarily Congress, but two Presidents in a row have demonstrated a remarkably inept level of leadership in addressing the problem, even when they are in the majorities. Until national leadership is held accountable to a basic expectation of good governance, American decline will continue. Congress needs to pass budgets on time, insert consistency and stability into government, and govern responsibly. Partisans can still argue issues all day, but the promotion of stability for government should be a primary objective of elected leaders. As the executive, the President has the responsibility to lead in this regard, and absolutely should make it an election issue - because it is.

Historians will argue that good governance has never actually been a feature of US government, and they would not be inaccurate to make such observations. I would simply highlight that the role government has today as the driver for the liberal social and economic systems of the nation has increased considerably relative to previous times in our nations history when poor governance existed for long stretches. As the central role of government increases in both power and influence over those areas where American power is based so too must the quality of governance increase in order to insure stability and consistency for the foundations of American power.

The second reason America is in decline is because America suffers from poverty in military strategy. There is little question Goldwater-Nichols has brought institutional structure to the diverse military bureaucracies, and the result has been one of operational and tactical brilliance. However, Goldwater-Nichols has not addressed the poverty in military strategy America has suffered from in one form or another since at least Vietnam. Examples of sound military strategy, like the Navy's maritime strategy of 1984, represent the exceptions that prove the rule - as they are strategies developed by civilian outliers empowered politically over a sufficient length of time to achieve results. The results were produced almost by accident because the enabling factor was primarily a strong foundation of strategy both within the civilians of the Department of Defense, but also and more crucially, civilian leaders with strong strategic backgrounds among the most vocal and influential inside the national command authority.

In hindsight there can be no question the single most visible failing of Goldwater-Nichols is the absence of a qualified, educated, and superior strategic intellect assigned to the National Security Council to insure that critical component of the national command authority has access, education, and the potential for understanding how decisions will influence the long game. Where are the strategic enablers for the Joint Chiefs of Staff today ready to perform that crucial, missing role of making a choice absent consensus?

Today the services attempt to convert money into military power through the medium of vast service bureaucracies, each dedicated to the perpetuation of its own preferred forms of military power. Despite the best efforts of Goldwater-Nichols the DoD still lacks a mechanism to reduce less useful forces to make way for those more greatly needed. The priorities of the past are often simply perpetuated with no process for creative destruction available to make way for the new. When war breaks out or a new obligation is found that demands military power, the same institutions can do no better than to share out the responsibility of fighting so that everyone shares the burden, or budget stake, in the fighting.

It is the characterizing feature of military strategy at all levels that it rejects compromise and imposes sharp choices, but the DoD today is capable only of feeble compromises. Evidence that Secretary Hagel has either the political skill or political support to break through the institutionalized demand for compromise remain absent in public evidence today. American decline isn't measured by the reducing size of the Army or dwindling size of the Navy fleet, either of which can be the result of making strategic choices, rather strategic poverty in our military manifests in instances like the humiliation that was paraded globally following the brilliant operational and tactical success that culminated in the fall of Baghdad, but entrapped our nation in Iraq fighting an insurgency for nearly a decade. While it is legitimate to question civilian leaders with limited backgrounds in military strategy like President Bush, how do we easily dismiss how General Tommy Franks, a four star General of the US Army, lacked the strategic foresight necessary to understand or even imagine potential consequences of our nations military actions?

But even as the nation is publicly humiliated by the absence of institutionalized strategic thinking in the Army, the strategic thinking in the US Navy today is featured prominently by it's absence, and what passes as strategic in the Navy challenges the very core of whether the US Navy even values maritime strategy. Nevermind how ineffective the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower is in actually informing a strategic choice - the very purpose of a strategy; observe with honesty how the leaders of the US Navy have limited the services value in the 21st century by being incapable of exercising basic advantages inherent in seapower.

The US Navy today is capable of only a single strategic function because the US Navy is organized for only a single military function; specifically to defeat, deter, or cooperate with the military forces of another state. If any strategic problem cannot be solved by defeating, deterring, or cooperating with the military forces of another state, the US Navy is incapable of providing the nation with a service. The US Navy has a rich history of both naval diplomacy and naval suasion in addressing complex challenges the nation must manage overseas, and yet one cannot find a single example in the 21st century where the US Navy has provided a strategic service to the state that wasn't specific to defeating, deterring, or cooperating with the military forces of another state.

Until strategy exists both in the Department of Defense and in the military services, the value of American military power will be in decline. For any other nation, decline of military power would not inherently represent decline of national power, but much of the global system America prospers from today is founded upon the security guarantees provided by the US military, so military decline for America, when actual and not simply relative, represents decline for the nation.

Finally, the US must address the poverty that exists in American diplomacy. I noted earlier the DoD has become operationally and tactically brilliant. Here I will note that things are equally unequal in the State Department. The State Department has excelled in promoting US business interests globally and carrying forward the banner of US soft power globally in the promotion of American economic power. A visible manifestation of this excellence is visible in Embassy's world wide today in the form of the line found at the desk for green card applications.

While the State Department has been very effective promoting American economic interests, the decline of American diplomatic capacity to influence the global security environment is also a feature of the State Department in the 21st century. In the same speech to CSIS quoted above, Secretary Hagel doesn't even acknowledge the complete and total diplomatic humiliation Secretary of State John Kerry - and by extension the United States - was delivered by Russia in the context of Syria earlier this year. The latent naval suasion used in a deterrent function exercised by the Russian Navy off Syria achieved the necessary perception to completely deter President Obama from attacking Syria, and gave Russian diplomats every advantage over the US in the diplomatic outcome. Whether one believes the US should have attacked Syria or not isn't relevant to the outcome, because the outcome is a nonbinding resolution that ultimately conceded to every diplomatic requirement made by Russia and that outcome was purely a result of our own self-inflicted incompetence. Some choose to fool only ourselves for domestic political reasons that all is fine that ends fine, but the outcome of that diplomacy is far from over, and let us not ignore that the international community perceives the outcome as a massive US diplomatic defeat.

American diplomacy has become mostly stick with small or invisible carrots. The primary advocate for war against Syria was none other than the Secretary of State - our nations top diplomat. Three consecutive Secretary's of Defense - Gates, Panetta, and Hagel - have advocated additional funding for the Department of State. It has become vogue for pundits to praise such calls, but absent in the discussion of those calls are the basic questions regarding what the additional finances bring of value to the nation. More money doesn't fix the culture problem that was evident in the State Department employee resistance to surging to Iraq. If State Department employees reject culturally the functions of state to the places the State Department is required, what exactly does more money do except allow politicians to throw money at a problem without actually addressing the problem?

Why is it COCOMs praise the State Department in speeches, but one never hears any such praise from the operators who lack Flag/General rank but are part of the engagement between the DoD and State on the ground? The unsuccessful relationship between the US Army and the State Department in Afghanistan is well documented. The stories about the relationship between the State Department and SOCOM aren't quite as public, but all indications are both sides could do a lot better to support the other.

It is impossible for the US Navy to perform a strategic engagement or even begin to attempt strategic influence around the world without a strong partner in State, and on the flip side it makes no sense to me why the US Navy wouldn't represent a natural partner for State in attempting to build networks of influence across domains in foreign nations where American influence today is limited but America has interests offshore. Is it a feature or bug that naval diplomacy and the diplomatic capacity of the State Department have been aligned in trajectory - downward - since the cold war? It seems to me that if Chuck Hagel is truly interested in improving the power of American diplomacy, he could in his capacity as Secretary of Defense start by addressing the poverty of naval diplomacy today and build that capacity in a way that assists the State Department.

Is American decline perpetual? No. Is there evidence of American decline? Absolutely. The government has become a driver of the liberal social and economic power for America, and if that is to be the case, good governance is a prerequisite for the growth of American power. As long as American military power is the foundation of security promises that underwrite the global economic system, the wise exercise of military strategy - not grand strategy - will remain a critical precondition of American power to insure judicious use of American military power. Finally, American decline is assured if the US cannot reinvigorate our nations diplomatic capacity as it relates to the global security environment, because without effective diplomacy the nation can only solve problems with military power - an activity that history tells us will surely bankrupt the state.

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