Persistent Engagement for 21st Century Challenges

March 12, 2014

In her public address rolling out the quadrennial Defense Review on March 4, Christine E. Wormuth, deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy, plans and force development, noted that under the fiscal realities reflected in the QDR, there will be “increased risk in some areas,” when it comes to execution of the Defense Strategic Guidance.  Wormuth also said that in the long term, there is “a lot of uncertainty in a security environment as dynamic as the one we face with a smaller force.”

How can the United States mitigate this risk and prepare for uncertainty when defense resources are tight?  I would offer that the U.S. defense strategy should adopt “persistent engagement” as one of its pillars.  Alongside maintaining combat-credible forces ready and able to conduct military operations to win at least one regional conflict decisively, the U.S. should be devoting a significant portion of its attention—and limited resources—in order to stay continually engaged with key partners around the globe.  In other words, “persistent engagement” should be a pillar of the U.S. defense strategy.

In a future that promises both uneven change and turbulent continuity, there is little doubt that United States will continue to have a global set of security interests.  However, given the reality of fiscal austerity, decreasing force structure, and a reluctance to deploy large numbers of combat forces on extended missions, the United States must rethink what its military toolkit can offer.  Despite shrinking force structure and concerns about the costs of maintaining forward-deployed military forces, America should not set itself on a course of abandoning its global security interests, under valuing critical partnerships, nor simply accepting a future of doing “less with less.” The United States must continue to assure its friends and allies, invest in promising partnerships, appeal to the nonaligned, and deter its adversaries—all the while, shaping a global strategic environment that reflects U.S. interests and facilitates U.S. access. To these ends,  the American strategic community will have to consider—as noted in the 2012 defense strategic guidance, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defensehow to lever all “elements  of U.S. national power”, within the reality of resource constraints, to achieve desired security outcomes. A strategy that includes “persistent engagement,” can leverage both U.S. and partner capacities and capabilities to achieve the country’s national security goals, and as a result provide the biggest bang for the taxpayer’s buck.

Persistent engagement provides a means for the United States to demonstrate a sustained commitment to critical regions and states. By being both multifaceted and tenacious, it can facilitate an enduring web of contacts and interactions that not only connect the United States to other countries within discrete functional areas (such as ballistic missile defense and counterterrorism), but can also help build and sustain situational awareness, allowing U.S. decision-makers to remain sensitive to local and regional realities and dynamics. Persistent engagement facilitates targeted outreach that addresses and sustains the United States’ diverse security relationships.  While it is global in its reach, persistent engagement is not a one-size fits all construct.  By focusing on sustainable projection of relevant capabilities to specific regions, persistent engagement can enable Washington to execute a spectrum of security cooperation, from institution-building at the low-end, to force integration and interoperability at the high end. It also allows the United States to embrace, and be a force multiplier for, those states that share American interests and strive to do “important things in important places.” Above all, it permits the United States to generate continuing presence in areas of strategic concern in ways that can be both efficacious and sustainable.

While persistent engagement is a global construct, it will not necessarily be globally uniform in its application. In regions with potentially capable state challengers and active defense treaty commitments, such as in Asia, persistent engagement will likely be defense and deterrence-centric, relying on a combination of forward basing of forces and rotational deployments of both low-end and high-end forces. Here, engagement will stress the twin needs of assurance and deterrence: aligning both discourse and action to convince both friends and foes of U.S. intent and commitment. Should these fail, persistent engagement will also ensure that sufficient capacity and capability is available between the United States and its partners to compel, defend, and if necessary, preempt aggression.

In areas without tangible state-actor threats or where the U.S. has less robust intergovernmental relationships, persistent engagement might assume a decidedly civilian hue. In Africa, it might mean emphasizing stability and development and the host of activities required to build capacity, strengthen institutions, via paths of engagement that are attractive and acceptable to partners and directly valuable to U.S. interests. In Latin America, it might mean maintaining the connective defense and political ties between the United States and its friends, embracing them through sporadic exercises and steady-state diplomacy. Thus, the United States might better enlist their aid in containing revisionist states on the continent, and perhaps exporting security to the global commons, Africa, and elsewhere.

In Europe, persistent engagement will need to reflect a continued commitment to military cooperation and integration between the United States and its Trans-Atlantic partners. This should help the United States offset fears of abandonment that periodically surfaced in European capitals since the end of the Cold War. American persistent engagement would preserve the tone and tenor of its relationships, safeguarding and enhancing the country’s political, economic, and military ties. It should ensure that America’s NATO allies remain its security partners of choice, where interoperability and pooled capabilities allow us to attain operational synergies unparalleled in the interstate system. In the east, persistent engagement can facilitate continued outreach to the states of the former Soviet Union in ways that are cheap and cheerful, i.e., affordable, small-footprint, and non-threatening to an increasingly revanchist Moscow.

Finally, in the Middle East and Central Asia, persistent engagement can provide a means for demonstrating America’s unswerving commitment to its friends in ways that affirm the enduring nature of U.S. regional interests, despite salient disagreements over human rights and other domestic perturbations.  It offers the means to consistently and visibly indicate U.S. interests and priorities in the region.  Here, persistent engagement will also mean maintaining sufficient rotational and forward-based military presence to address trans-national threats and deter those that would wish ill against America’s regional partners.

In the end, regardless of location, persistent engagement offers U.S. decision-makers a means to show both friends and potential adversaries alike that the United States is committed to protecting its interests, upholding its ideals, uplifting its partners, preventing conflict and promoting peace and stability. If competently executed and appropriately applied, it can bring to bear whole-of-government solutions to enduring national security challenges. It can allow the United States to remain steadfast where it might otherwise retreat; to remain engaged in a complex global environment at a time when American will and wherewithal are no longer simply assumed as given. More than this, persistent engagement can allow the United States to demonstrate through all available means that it persists as an actor of note on the international stage – one that is not only committed to shaping the interstate system, but is also equally committed to defending its interests either alone or in concert with its partners when and where it must.

Persistence is important because building interoperability for war fighting takes time, as does building trust and conveying a clear and consistent message that will serve as a credible deterrent to potential aggressors, as do the processes of security force assistance and partner capacity building.  It is only through a concerted and enduring partnership with friends and allies that the U.S. will be able to sustain its global influence, deter potential adversaries, maximize its operational effectiveness, and protect U.S. security interests in this time of contracting defense dollars and shrinking force structure.  Moreover, as it becomes increasingly clear that the U.S. military cannot afford to be “in all places at all times,” DoD will have to look to new tools, new interagency collaboration, and innovative approaches to engaging partners that enables the kind of persistence that will be needed to generate the global security effects the US desires.  In so doing, the Defense Department would be wise to rely on persistent engagement to undergird its resource-constrained strategy for the coming decade.


Dr. Eric V. Thompson is the Vice President and Director of Strategic Studies at the CNA Corporation.


Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff