The National Defense Strategy Is No Strategy

Defense Secretary James Mattis listens to his introduction before speaking about the National Defense Review, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

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Defense Secretary James Mattis listens to his introduction before speaking about the National Defense Review, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018.

It’s closer to a call for a new Cold War.

What are we to do when an ideological tract masquerading as a strategic roadmap — I refer to the 2018 National Defense Strategy document — becomes the de facto template for defining America’s strategic posture? What are we further to do when it becomes clear that we’re destined to live with this state of affairs until at least 2022, when by law the next NDS comes due? By then, the worldview embodied in the current document could well be so deeply embedded in national security discourse and bureaucratic practice as to be virtually irreversible. That’s what its progenitors want; it’s what the rest of us – anyone concerned with the state of U.S. national security – should fight to resist.

Let us first dispense with the notion that there exists a White House National Security Strategy that describes an overall national-security approach in which the NDS plays a part. The 2017 NSS document, a modest, carefully navigated bow to conventional thinking perpetrated by National Security Council staffers under then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, was largely irrelevant from the start. Now it’s all but moribund. Although, by law, an updated National Security Strategy is to be submitted to Congress annually, that never happens; Presidents Bush 43 and Obama, for example, each submitted just two apiece over their respective 8-year terms. National Security Adviser John Bolton recently indicated to The Atlantic that the McMaster security document was “written and filed away…and consulted by no one. ‘I don’t view writing strategy papers as big accomplishments,’” Bolton said. So we are stuck with the 2018 NDS, it appears, at least for the duration of the Trump administration.

What we know of this National Defense Strategy comes from the 11-page, 4,900-word unclassified summary available to the public. By law, the NDS is issued in separate classified and unclassified versions, the facile implication being that the really meaty, revealing stuff is contained in the former, accessible only by those in power who need to know. Savvy observers of bureaucracy will be quick to surmise, however, that the classified version is unlikely to provide anything appreciably more telling than the unclassified version, given the intellectual bandwidth of its preparers. So, it’s reasonable to conclude that the latter tells us everything worth knowing.

For starters, it’s important to recognize that a strategy document – a quotidian, bureaucratic collection of words (and, putatively, of ideas) – isn’t a strategy; that is, a coherent conceptual architecture for dealing with and shaping the future. Similarly, “a strategy” isn’t “strategy”; that is, an elevated, big-picture way of thinking. The NDS document is a document, nothing more; its marketing as a bona fide strategy grounded in strategic thinking is where the danger lies.

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Listening to the NSC staffers who produced the NSS leaves one with an impression of freshly minted international relations graduates whose grasp of statecraft is limited to buzzwords like ends, ways, and means; DIME; soft power; and such. Similarly, reading the NDS leaves one with an impression of students in a military theory course who never got past the chapter on Clausewitz. It is an ideological tract masquerading as a strategic roadmap; military-centric to the point of militarism; operationally, even tactically oriented, neither grand nor elevated; Old War parochial and provincial posing as forward-looking, transformative New War. Most importantly, it is the enduring, intellectually stultifying legacy of James Mattis’s reign as defense secretary, perpetuated and institutionalized (to a degree perhaps not seen since NSC-68) by true-believing disciples and acolytes. 

The NDS is built on manifold assertions presented as received truths we are expected to accept strictly on the basis of authoritative declarations by those presumably possessed of privileged information. The most dogmatic, tautological, egregiously unsubstantiated assertion, and the one most likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, comes in four parts: 1) The United States is emerging from a period of strategic atrophy; 2) Our competitive military advantage has been eroding; 3) We face increased global disorder reflecting a decline in the long-standing rules-based international order; and 4) Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is the primary concern in U.S. national security. 

In other words, the argument goes, the post-Cold War threats and contingencies that have commanded our attention and consumed our resources have weakened and disadvantaged us. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to wake up and recognize the real threat before us: Great Power competition (defined in military terms and worthy of 23 repetitious mentions). China and Russia, we are told, are revisionist powers bent on shaping the world in their authoritarian terms and displacing the United States. They are the “2” in the 2 + 3 mnemonic associated with the NDS that prescribes the priority challenges worthy of U.S. attention (North Korea, Iran, and violent extremism being the other 3). Every domain of warfare – air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace – is now “contested” (thus, by implication, robbing us of our deserved predominance). All else – e.g., failing states, climate change and environmental degradation, arms proliferation, sundry forms of illicit trafficking, pandemic disease – is ancillary and peripheral, unworthy of more than passing attention because such things don’t warrant legitimate military response. 

A second bald assertion, no less important, is the claim that “a more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, will sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power.” Trumpeting lethality – deadliness, killing power; a term used some 13 times – is pure Mattis: tough-guy rhetoric one might expect from a Chesty Puller or a George Patton, good perhaps for motivating the troops and being “colorful,” but to others nothing short of arrogant, hyperbolic, inflammatory, and strategically counterproductive. 

To suggest that lethality will sustain influence is less persuasive than the argument that it could diminish influence through disaffection with our bellicosity and militarism. To suggest that it will ensure favorable balances of power is to ignore the likelihood of provocation, insecurity, and reciprocal escalation. So, another assertion comes into play here – the age-old shibboleth that “the surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one.” The logic of such illogic remains as indefensible as it has always been, though multitudes among us continue to embrace it on its face. 

Herein lies the blithely unimaginative Clausewitzian underpinnings of the document: the ten allusions to “warfighting” and “warfighters,” plus repeated assertions that the character of war (its forms and techniques) has changed, but the nature of war (its supernal essence) hasn’t: to wit, war as a singularly military enterprise involving force to secure victory over an adversary for political purposes. Clearly, such retrograde thinking leaves no room for any thought that (a) wars today are inherently unwinnable; (b) preparing for and waging war can only produce more war, not peace; (c) militaries might properly be used for primary purposes other than warfighting; (d) the new normal of asymmetrical, hybrid forms of warfare today actually represents fundamental change in the nature of war; or (e) America’s repeated failures in such wars reflect our penchant for imposing our preferred way of war – killing people and breaking things as lethally and destructively as possible – on situations, rather than letting situations dictate appropriate response. Would that more attention be paid to another canonical Clausewitzian tenet: “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking.”

The NDS’s emphasis on alliances and partnerships (some 31 mentions!) appears, on the surface, to be a healthy call for multilateralism as a necessary correlate for action. The subtext, though, is basically this: share our burdens, defer to us, support our needs and wishes, be more like us militarily, and carry your weight by spending appreciably more on defense. Multilateralism remains for us a strictly utilitarian means to national ends, not a worthy end in itself or an appropriate justification for relinquishing any of our unilateral capabilities or prerogatives for a larger good.

In the final analysis, the NDS is an unadulterated call for a new Cold War, with all its attendant appurtenances: more gluttonous defense spending to support escalatory arms races in all those “contested domains” of warfare; reliance on bean-counting input measures (weapons, forces, spending) for determining comparative “competitiveness”; reinforcement and reaffirmation of the sacrosanct American way of war; and the reassuring comfort of superimposing an artificially simplistic Manichean worldview on the world’s inherent complexity and thereby continuing to ignore and marginalize actors, places, and circumstances that don’t coincide with our established preconceptions.

Ordinarily, it would be enough to end on this note, but one more claim in the NDS warrants consideration here because of its intellectual import: Professional Military Education, or PME, “has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.” We have, ironically, let ourselves be backed into a situation where military ideas are dominating the strategic narrative in this country. If these ideas were elevated, broad-gauged, and forward-looking, the situation might be tolerable. But they aren’t, and it isn’t.

The oxymoronic linkage of lethality and ingenuity notwithstanding, the implication of the NDS statement is that America’s operational and strategic failures owe much to the military’s intellectual failings. Perhaps it isn’t far-fetched, after all, to accord some validity to stereotypical popular views about anti-intellectual military minds. The NDS would have us believe that the military’s own professional schooling system is at fault, denying the real culprit: a hierarchical, authoritarian, command-oriented, doctrinaire, rules-based military culture that rewards dutiful obedience, caution, and institutional protectiveness, while punishing open-mindedness, iconoclasm, and heterodox thinking.

There is an inherent tension that plagues the military’s PME system: whether its schools are military organizations that rightfully prize training and indoctrination or educational institutions, purposefully established as safe havens, whose job it is to produce heightened intellectual capacity among its graduates, along with an associated willingness to question authority and dogma in truly strategic fashion. The former nearly always wins. Thus, the NDS’s solution: to emphasize “the art and science of warfighting.” Could this be anything but a guarantee of paradigmatic paralysis in the extreme?

“Be careful what you wish for,” someone has said. “You may get it.” Virtually everyone associated with national security affairs claims to want peace as an overarching, normative, strategic aim. But the rhetoric emanating from officialdom today, posing as strategy, seems to say very clearly that we want war. Our fear should be that that may be what we get, absent an infusion of new thinking to restore our depleted intellectual arsenal. 

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