If the United States is to defeat the kind of agile threats that have arisen in the first two decades of this century, we must use every resource at our disposal. That includes creating and expanding various ways that American society at large can contribute to U.S. military operations abroad.
Our organization, Spirit of America, is a citizen-funded nonprofit organization that provides private assistance in response to critical local needs identified by U.S. troops deployed to conflict areas around the world. Generally speaking, we use donations from our 16,000-plus donors to fill gaps that cannot be resourced through government channels. For example, we have sent metal detectors to help local partners in Iraq and Syria find roadside bombs planted by the Islamic State, radio-station equipment to help Ukrainians counter Russian propaganda, and veterinary scholarships to keep West African youth away from al Qaeda influence and recruiters. Since Spirit of America opened in 2003, our organization has put the goodwill, generosity, and innovativeness of the American people to work in support of the national interest in more than 50 countries. This support has saved lives, eased suffering, and helped our men and women in uniform execute their challenging missions.
However, persistent confusion and uncertainty about how the military can collaborate with private entities has chilled public-private partnerships in the national security space. Cold War-era processes have not kept pace with 21st-century threats. To fully unlock the potential of our citizens and private sector, America’s leaders must issue guidance to enable and encourage this new form of patriotic activity, removing perceived legal roadblocks and making clear that such an approach is both permissible and desirable.
Such guidance is proposed in a bipartisan amendment to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act being submitted by Sens. Ernst and Tom Cotton in the Senate and Reps. Wenstrup, Gallagher, Moulton, Walz, and Shea-Porter in the House. This amendment would create a Title 36 congressional charter for Spirit of America. Such charters, of which ours would be the 97th, are used to enable new forms of patriotic activity to support the national interest. Already, 16 national-security leaders have urged Congress to support this amendment.
The charter will not impose any obligations or responsibilities upon the Department of Defense, nor confer any rights or privileges upon Spirit of America. It will simply and permanently resolve uncertainty about permissible interactions between the Department and Spirit of America, at no cost to the government. In doing so, it will save lives, ease suffering, and give military commanders an additional tool in their toolkit, if and when the mission requires it.
Nor should we stop there. A charter is the best way to take this idea to scale and pave the way for other similarly minded organizations and citizens groups to support our national objectives.
Around the world, agile, dynamic threats to U.S. national interests and global stability proliferate in the uncertain security environment of the 21st century. Unconstrained by the norms, systems, and authorities of an open democracy under which our own military operates, adversaries can force our national-security institutions into a reactive posture. To compete effectively with these threats, the United States must leverage all aspects of national power – both public and private. A whole-of-society approach is required.
But current guidance regarding these interactions was written well before our nation found itself confronting the diverse array of actors threatening our security and stability. Conceived when peer-to-peer and near-peer conflict posed the greatest threat, it did not even consider how private citizens could be true partners in national security. Thus, it did not provide sufficient instruction for how to incorporate citizens’ contributions. That guidance must be updated to reflect the current threat environment and leverage the incredible assets our citizenry has to offer.
The qualities that define the American character make our citizens natural partners in national security. Creativity, entrepreneurialism, innovativeness, and generosity are essential components of our national identity, and ones that can have an off-scale impact when coupled with the reach and resources of the government and military. Unlocking the largely untapped potential of our citizenry and private sector can provide a vast array of additional tools for our men and women serving in harm’s way, giving them the same flexibility and agility as their adversaries.
And, beyond simply providing access to an additional resource, employing a whole of society approach to America’s security develops a far more informed and engaged population. Giving a way to substantively contribute to our country’s interests abroad helps our citizens, and the policymakers whom they elect, make more informed decisions about the United States’ global engagements. In turn, these decisions more accurately reflect the ideas, ideals, and leadership for which our country stands.
Never has a whole-of-society approach to our national security been more important. Granting a congressional charter to Spirit of America is the right next step in unlocking the full power of the American people. We owe it to our troops, we owe it to our diplomats, and we owe it to the future of the American experiment.