September 1, 2008  

A new American mission

A clear global strategy will help define defense policy

If you ask a foreign policy question of a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ultimately he would say that the question is above his paygrade. Defense policy is subordinate to foreign policy, in the sense that the military does the tasks it is directed to do to advance the policies that civilians determine.

Defense policy and foreign policy are not the same thing. And that’s the problem. There is increasing frustration among the leaders of the military because they have the job of preparing to accomplish America’s strategic mission in the post-Cold War world, and they are not sure what that mission is. They have resorted to deducing a national military strategy from the various operations they have been ordered to perform over the past 20 years. That means they have been slower than usual to adjust to new requirements. For example, three times during the past 20 years, the military has been involved in building democracies — in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. But neither they nor their civilian counterparts have developed comprehensive nation-building capabilities, and it will be years before they do so in the absence of strategic direction, because nation-building is controversial, difficult and only tangentially related to the more traditional foreign policy and defense functions.

Contrast the current situation with the Cold War years.

In those days, the Western democracies knew who they were and what they wanted to accomplish. If you had asked any of our presidents from Truman to Reagan to explain the strategic mission of America, they could have told you in 30 seconds what it was: to contain totalitarian communism until its eventual collapse. One year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall fell.

The alliance that implemented containment succeeded in part because its leaders understood the mission and made sure that their governments and voters understood and agreed with it. There is no question that the absence of such an agreed-upon mission today is a growing problem. It is causing the free world to sacrifice much of the moral and political capital with which it emerged from the Cold War, to miss opportunities to strengthen the prospects of peace and freedom, and to allow potentially fatal dangers to take root and grow.

If there is one piece of advice I would give my former senatorial colleagues who are running for president, it is this: No matter how strong or brilliant you think you may be, no one will follow you through the difficult terrain of foreign affairs if you cannot tell them where you want to end up or why you are going there.


The U.S. must define a strategic mission statement for its foreign policy, and it should be one in which a substantial part of the free world can join. I am going to suggest what that mission might be, but first I have four observations about how it should be developed and what it should try to achieve.

First, the term “free world” is still a meaningful concept, in the sense that it defines the universe of real allies for the U.S. It may not be useful to think of the world as rigidly divided between good and evil, but there are nations that have shown a consistent commitment to human rights, and there are nations that haven’t. These latter states are not all totalitarian; some are consistently aggressive, but many are not; some are moving toward greater freedom while others — one thinks of Russia in this regard — are moving away. Some may be allies for limited purposes, but they should not be considered national partners in protection of human rights. We should not count on countries to help carry out a mission that we know they don’t believe in. Otherwise, foreign policy descends into a dangerous farce, like asking China to join a movement to free Tibet.

Second, the international and regional institutions developed for the Cold War will not work now. In particular, we should recognize that the United Nations is organically incapable of carrying out its original purposes: preventing aggression and genocide. There is an inadequate community of interest and values among the nations. This, coupled with the requirement of unity among the permanent members of the Security Council, means that the U.N. is and will remain paralyzed even in the face of dangers and disasters that virtually the whole world recognizes as requiring action. We need new regional and international coalitions.

Third, it is necessary to take a practical approach to the role of the U.S. The U.S. has a global military organization, a strong diplomatic and intelligence presence, the most powerful economy in the world, and a tradition of leadership that other nations are accustomed to, if not always enthusiastic about. America should be recognized as the leader in developing the new policy and assembling the new multinational coalitions that will implement it. I say this reluctantly rather than as a matter of pride, for world leadership is a burden.

Unfortunately, in the first half of the 20th century, when Europeans were managing world affairs, there were two wars that killed 30 million people and ended with a totalitarian power in control of Eastern Europe and a world with weapons that could destroy the human race. Survival impelled President Truman in the late 1940s to decide that America had to play a more prominent role. In its post-Cold War mission, some other nations or a coalition of nations may eventually be able to assume the primary role. But for now, America has to take the lead, for the same reason we had to do it in 1947. As a practical matter, there is nobody else.

At the same time, America should not be seen as the free world’s police officer, hired gun or supreme leader, and America is especially not the father of the free-world family. America should be like a prime minister in a cabinet: first among equals. America should seek consensus before making a decision, while other nations should recognize that they must bear their share of the burden if they want their share of the authority.

Finally, the new strategy must be a response to the world as it is, and not as we would like it to be.

In the post-Cold War world, we should see the world not in geographic terms but as a matrix of systems — financial, communications, transportation and others. Americans depend on links within and among those systems that can be attacked using weapons that have a destructive effect that is far greater than the raw power it takes to launch them. That is why al-Qaida and other terrorist networks are such a threat. They understand fully what Americans have only begun to accept: that you can shut down a nation’s economy by blowing up the right building in the right city at the right time.

In short, the logic of history pushed America to the forefront of world affairs after World War II, and events since then, along with the unavoidable effect of information age technology, have conspired to involve our national interests inextricably in the fate of the international order. America is not an imperial power, but it has become, in the absence of alternatives, a kind of managerial power. It is no longer safe to ignore, in principle, what necessity has required us to accept in practice. In my judgment, our new American mission should be:

To act in established coalitions with other willing free nations, to prevent or minimize serious, violent disruptions in what would otherwise be the progress of the international order toward freedom and democracy, with first emphasis on those conflicts that most directly implicate American interests, but on the strong presumption that any such disruption anywhere threatens the security of the United States.

Note that this is an activist mission phrased in a negative way. Stating the mission this way reconciles to the extent possible the tension between the necessity and legitimacy of American involvement around the world on the one hand, and the practical and moral limits on American power on the other. The U.S. is not the nanny of the world; we have no right to force others to believe as we believe. But freedom and democracy are morally superior to oppression and tyranny. That gives America the right, particularly as part of a coalition of nations, to prevent or resist violent aggression against what would otherwise be the choice of peoples or nations to live in freedom.

How we exercise that right is an operational rather than a strategic issue, requiring a balance of costs against benefits on a case-by-case basis. But it is crucial to understand the connection between strategy and operations. The war in Iraq is an example. There is no question that the U.S. had the right and, in fact, the obligation to deal in some manner with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Everyone in Washington agreed on that. The question was whether forcible regime change was the right means for doing it, or whether we should have continued containing Iraq through the presence of air and ground power in the region coupled with economic sanctions — or whether some alternative would have worked better.

Had America had in place a strategic conception of the kind I am proposing, we could have understood better how the Iraqi threat fit in the context not just of the war on terrorism but a broader and more enduring global mission. We already would have established formal, effective international coalitions to help us make and execute a decision, rather than being forced to work through the U.N. We would have long-before sized and shaped our military better for tasks suitable to a post-Cold War mission, and we would have developed within our civilian agencies the kind of nation-building capabilities we have needed not just in Iraq but in Bosnia and Afghanistan, as well. We would have had a more informed national debate, and we could have explained whatever position we took with less possibility of misunderstanding here and abroad. Those are the advantages of strategic clarity. It maximizes the options in a crisis, solidifies our nation’s commitment when sacrifice is necessary and reduces the possibility of operational mistakes.


It must be clear to any impartial observer that China, under its current government, is a serious threat to the strategic interests of the U.S. as I have defined them. The Chinese leaders are vigorously pursuing aggressive national ambitions in Asia, intimidating the other powers in the region by their actions in places such as Tibet and the South China Sea. They have obstructed efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to North Korea and Iran and have, at best, been unhelpful in preventing and stopping terrorism.

At the same time, there are hopeful signs of progress toward enlightenment values in China: the rapid growth of peaceful religions among the Chinese people, the open and constant agitation across China for more freedom and greater opportunity, and the fact that the collapse of communism has deprived the Chinese regime of ideological justification for its continued dictatorship.

Strategic clarity tells us that America should keep a consistent focus on China. A number of initiatives suggest themselves:

China is rapidly becoming a regional superpower while America — occupied with fighting the war in Iraq — is allowing its traditional air and naval power to atrophy. That shift in the balance of power should be stopped; it is increasing the risk that the Chinese government will decide to resolve its differences with Taiwan through aggressive means. A good step would be to stop the decline in the number of American naval vessels by fully funding the Navy’s shipbuilding program, beginning with advancing the date at which the U.S. begins acquiring two Virginia-class submarines per year.

The war on terrorism has, understandably, caused America’s intelligence community to focus on developing assets in the Islamic world. However, the director of national intelligence should be tasked with implementing a long-term plan to increase the number of expert Chinese analysts and multiply sources of human intelligence about China.


President Bush has made progress in strengthening America’s ties with India and Japan and encouraging those countries to develop, under the umbrella of cooperation with the U.S., greater defensive capabilities in the region. The next president should sustain this progress and pay close attention to America’s relationship with all the democracies in the Western Pacific. In addition, the U.S. should resist the temptation to further reduce America’s presence in South Korea, tempting as it is to do so in the face of other obligations — that would create a destabilizing vacuum and undermine confidence in America’s continued presence in the region.

The next administration should move to strengthen the international regime against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and raise the visibility of Chinese obstructionism in that area. In addition, America should engage in a vigorous campaign of public diplomacy to encourage the hopeful trends in China. The Olympics in Beijing created an opportunity to call for reform, at least, of China’s policy toward Tibet — an opportunity that could have been anticipated with strategic clarity. The next president should encourage the world to join America in a campaign for religious freedom and should enhance the ability of our civilian agencies to export the ideas of entrepreneurship, opportunity and respect for property rights.

In short, America should adopt a policy toward China of walking softly, speaking honestly and carrying a big stick. There is every reason to believe that democracies around the world will join us — if we prosecute the policy as part of a transparent strategic mission.

There are other advantages to the new American mission. It tends to unify, at least at a level of principle, the “human rights,” “realist” and “neo-conservative” camps within the foreign policy community here at home. It is not unilateral, but it preserves American prerogatives and sovereignty. It creates an explicit moral component to American foreign policy, but without being utopian.

The key is to plan rather than react. That will reduce the number of American military interventions over time. It cannot be emphasized enough that failing to recognize our challenges in the world will not make those challenges go away.

The hardest thing about this new American mission is that it requires us to say goodbye to an ideal of America that many of us cherish — an America set apart by inclination and interest, as well as geography, a country whose foreign policy consists of wishing good to the world and waving as it goes by. But that ideal of America, if it ever existed at all, died Dec. 7, 1941, and was buried in the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The leaders who accepted that truth after World War II faced the same challenges that we face today.There were partisan divisions, petty egos and creeping cynicism. Some people thought America was perfect, and others blamed it for everything that went wrong. But leaders kept pushing forward untilthe Berlin Wall fell and the mission was a success.

The stakes are just as big today as they were after World War II.

Yet there is reason to be confident, notwithstanding the dangers. It is not jingoism, but realism, to acknowledge the enormous latent reservoir of American strength, the stability of democratic institutions around the world and the appeal of freedom. What is needed now are leaders like those of the post-World War II era, who have the clarity to develop a new strategic mission and the heart and courage to make it work.

JIM TALENT is a distinguished fellow in military affairs at the Heritage Foundation. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1993-2001) and the U.S. Senate (2002-2007). He was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, for four years, chairman of the committee’s seapower subcommittee.