A homeless person lies down along the Hudson River Park walkway in New York City as people pass her by.

A homeless person lies down along the Hudson River Park walkway in New York City as people pass her by. John Nacion via AP

We Have Met the Enemy, and It Is Us: Restoring American Power

Getting the nation’s house in order — restoring our integrity and dignity — is a precondition for reestablishing our standing in the world.

That President-elect Biden, when he assumes office, must necessarily focus his attention and that of the American public on domestic affairs can only be to the country’s decided strategic benefit. As Jan. 20 approaches, the United States suffers from four years of self-imposed disarray and disrespect abroad and acute discord at home – a superpower emeritus in the making, if not already in being. The most serious threat confronting us today is not China or Russia or Iran or North Korea – or any of the self-deluding, self-serving party lines national security bureaucrats inside and outside the Trump administration have force-fed us since 2017. It is us, the American people, and those who profess to represent, guide, and act for us.

Recent Pew Research Center polls — not to mention the just-completed election — show how politically and ideologically polarized we are along almost all lines: gender, race and ethnicity, age, and education foremost among them. Republicans hate Democrats, liberals hate conservatives, and nobody likes anybody very much. Eighty-seven percent of us are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country. Seven out of ten Americans are angry and nearly seven of ten fearful, while only half are hopeful and 20 percent proud, with the state of the country. Public trust in federal government stands at a mere 20 percent, a low not seen for more than a decade. Adding blunt insult to self-inflicted injury, views of the United States abroad are at record lows in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, and Australia, with the median favorable view of us in 13 countries around the world being just 34 percent.

The best, if not the only, path to recovery from the strategic dysfunction of the past four years starts here at home. We must restore our dignity, reestablish a sense of oneness, remind ourselves that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, regenerate the elusive quest for equality of opportunity, and re-earn our claims to exceptionalism. To be sure, U.S. foreign policy activities will continue apace, as we appoint key cabinet and sub-cabinet officials at State, Defense, and the intelligence community; reaffirm our lapsed commitments to various multilateral institutions and international agreements; and reach out diplomatically to key allies and adversaries alike. But attending first and foremost to domestic affairs must be seen not as coming at the expense of our strategic posture, but as materially enhancing it. 

The place to start, in fact, in reinvigorating ourselves strategically is to recognize the Preamble to the Constitution for what it is: America’s security credo. It calls not simply for providing for the common defense, but for forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty (for ourselves and our posterity). The only one of these founding precepts that is demonstrably internationally oriented is providing for the common defense — meaning, presumably, protecting ourselves, our sovereignty, and our territorial integrity. All the rest focus on human well-being within the United States, the visionary link between individual security on the one hand and national security on the other, and recognition of the natural rights all human beings, citizens and non-citizens alike, deserve to enjoy strictly by virtue of being human: national unity; a commitment to fair and equitable treatment for all; enduring peace in the streets and in the corridors of power; inclusive well-being for haves and have-nots alike; freedom from fear and danger, need and want, and freedom to achieve self-fulfillment. These are the things, collectively, that constitute what we might call assured security; and it is providing for assured security that is – or ought to be – the overarching aim of U.S. strategy.

When the Biden administration enters office, it will find no national strategy worthy of the name. The most recent White House National Security Strategy, the Trump administration’s half-hearted bureaucratic effort to fulfill a legal requirement, has been moribund since John Bolton replaced H.R. McMaster as presidential national security adviser. As such, the only “blueprint” of sorts for America’s national security posture is the 2018 James Mattis-directed National Defense Strategy, which, by law, we are stuck with until 2022. The NDS is nothing but a crass polemic, an ideological tract that seeks to revive the Cold War as a pretext for eternally gluttonous defense spending and the perpetuation of the tired American way of war preferred by parochial generals who, history shows, invariably prepare only for the wars of the past.

Ironically, two features of the NDS offer intellectual hooks for rethinking and remedial action by the incoming administration. The first is the NDS assertion that the era now facing us is one of Great Power Competition from revisionist powers – China and Russia primarily – who seek to unseat us from our deserved position of global primacy. The embedded received truth is that, objectively speaking, the United States remains a great power (a superpower even, even if not the only one) characterized by our recognized standing (as a permanent member of the UN Security Council); our massive wherewithal, military and non-military; our global sustainable reach, military and non-military; and our widespread influence. The implicit question this raises is what makes a great power great. The answer, as some have suggested, and the challenge before us then, is normative behavior – practicing what we preach to others, leading by the inspirational power of our example.

The second ironically useful feature of the NDS is its call for lethality — presumably connoting killing power and destructive capacity — as the principal pillar of our strategic posture. This stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s final National Security Strategy document, issued in 2015, which identified values as a national interest and a major pillar of our strategic posture. “We will lead by example,” says the document’s introductory section. “The strength of our institutions and our respect for the rule of law sets an example for democratic governance. When we uphold our values at home, we are better able to promote them in the world. This means safeguarding the civil rights and liberties of our citizens while increasing transparency and accountability.” It continues: “We face continued challenges, including political dysfunction in Washington that undermines national unity, stifles bipartisan cooperation, and ultimately erodes the perception and strength of our leadership abroad. American leadership is always most powerful when we are able to forge common ground at home around key national priorities.”

Note the difference: values, not lethality, as a guiding strategic precept. This sets the stage for coming to grips with what strategy and the strategic enterprise is all about. For starters, strategy is, in important measure, about the effective management of perceptions – projecting imagery, manipulating symbols, shaping “reality.” We all – policymakers, politicians, institutions, citizen groups – do it all the time, though frequently not well nor with sophistication or subtlety. Strategically, we want to be able to orchestrate how audiences, domestic and international, see us: credibility, legitimacy, competence, reliability, selflessness, resolve good; arrogance, hypocrisy, ineptitude, unreliability, expediency, selfishness bad.

This leads us to acknowledge that, in even more important measure, strategy is about the effective exercise of power to get what we want, to get our way, to elicit deference from others. Practicing what we preach, leading by example, is the easiest, least expensive way to accumulate power, achieve lasting influence, and thereby solidify our position in the cosmic, hierarchical pecking order of states that remain the principal actors in the international system. There is more, in other words, than the sticks of coercive power and the carrots of persuasive power; there also is the inspirational power that comes from actually being who we think and say we are.

Power isn’t just about the wherewithal or capabilities at our disposal – wealth, population, territory, weaponry, resources, industry. No less is it about the will or resolve to employ such wherewithal. Strategy is the intellectual glue that turns the various sources of division and fragmentation in society – political preference, ideological orientation, race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class – into the social glue that produces national unity, national character, national morale, and thus, in turn, the national will necessary for the exercise of power. At root, we’re talking about what has come to be called soft power: the attractive lure to others of the institutions, culture, and values that are alleged to be the defining characteristics of America. Today, our soft power is sadly eroded. Our institutions, major (Congress, the judiciary, the media) and minor (our voting system of “free and fair” elections, our postal service, the census) have been undermined, if not crippled. The institutions expected to remain pristinely above politics – the military, the diplomatic corps, the intelligence community, federal law enforcement – have been shamelessly and shamefully politicized. The foundational precepts underlying our chosen form of governance – separation of powers, checks and balances, the rule of law, popular sovereignty, majority rule – have been suppressed and sabotaged. Our culture has been corrupted and our values compromised by arrogance, incompetence, ignorance, greed, intolerance, and the authoritarian temptation.

   Given all of this, we must ask: do we remain a truly Great Power? To be sure, beyond the fact that our defense expenditures exceed those of the next ten countries combined, we have more than 2 million personnel under arms, the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, more capital ships and aircraft than any other country, and some 800 military bases around the world. But consider:

  • We have the world’s largest economy, but it ranks only 19th in per capita GDP and something like 106th in equality of income distribution. Almost 18 percent of our population lives below the poverty line; several hundred thousand are homeless; and 50 million are food-insecure.
  • We lack a universal health system of the sort that supports the populations of more than 60 other countries. And with just 4 percent of the world’s population, we nonetheless have 20 percent of the world’s COVID-19 cases to date and 18 percent of the world’s COVID deaths, due in fundamental measure to mismanagement, indifference, and negligence by our elected officials.
  • Our democracy ranks just 25th in the latest Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index, thanks to polarization and partisanship. It ranks behind 51 of the 87 countries considered “free” in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World assessment; 23rd out of 100 countries in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index; and a mere 30th out of 178 countries in the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index, due largely to social and political fragmentation along ethnic, class, racial, and religious lines.

The answer to the question seems clearer than we are willing to admit. As such, it begs the serious attention of both the incoming Biden administration and the rest of us, who will judge the administration’s performance in charting America’s strategic path into the future. Getting the nation’s house in order at home and restoring our integrity and dignity is an absolute precondition for reestablishing – yes, reestablishing – our standing in the world. The nation’s soul is at risk, and We the People are the enemy. In the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University, a West Point graduate, and a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. The views expressed here are his own.