As defense debates heat up this season, Washington will confront yet again the basic dilemma of U.S. national security strategy: the strategic insolvency of America’s position. Too few resources are chasing too many ongoing operations, forward presence commitments, and potential conflicts. U.S. military leaders have been unanimous in warning that they do not have enough troops, equipment, or funding to execute the national defense strategy. The dominant question remains: How can the United States close this meta-gap, from which all other defense policy gaps — such as the Army’s badly-needed capabilities for major war — then flow?
Most of the noise in this debate will be around how to use defense investments to close that gap — what weapons systems to buy, how many forces to add, and other questions of where to put U.S. defense dollars. But it’s time to consider the radical notion that the best answer to strategic insolvency isn’t budgetary. It’s not even military. It is geopolitical and diplomatic. The fundamental response to imbalances between ends and means should be to shape trends in world politics to U.S. advantage rather than to try to out-muscle every potential opponent. The United States could do this in a number of ways — including, but not limited to, a renewed effort to preserve and strengthen the post-war international order.
Doubling down on military investments simply isn’t a feasible approach to the growing insolvency of the U.S. strategic position. There aren’t enough available dollars to sustain the current U.S. military strategy, which aims to simultaneously keep American global posture intact, conduct an ongoing military campaign against ISIL, sustain a global counterterrorism effort in its 16th year, and be ready for multiple contingencies against highly capable regional challengers. The Trump administration has proposed a defense budget of $603 billion, which exceeds Budget Control Act caps by $54 billion, but even that would not be enough to meet the current strategy. As just one example, the administration has called for substantial increases in capacity — including a 350-ship Navy and an active-duty Army of 540,000 — but its proposed budget won’t pay for it any time soon, and might not be able to do so even over the long term.
Congressional committees have proposed adding almost $40 billion to the administration’s budget request, but such astronomical sums cannot be sustained without painful political concessions elsewhere. Paying for massive defense increases with deficit spending — another possible approach — would run afoul of Republican fiscal hawks. And some might argue it should, given the clear long-term risks to U.S. security of runaway debt.
Engaging in what would amount to a new arms race with two near-peer rivals (Russia and China) and multiple medium-sized threats would also place the United States on the wrong side of cost-imposition curves. Each of those potential adversaries have the luxury of planning for a single conflict in their own neighborhood, at a time and in a manner of their choosing. The United States has to project power at great distance into multiple theaters to fight many different types of wars while sustaining a relentless global presence. Absent a magic wand, Washington won’t be able to keep up with the resource implications of this dynamic.
Other ideas — “third offset”-style technological gambits, for example — can help mitigate strategic insolvency. But the real answer is to recognize that the United States is miscalculating the defense gap, focusing narrowly on military indicators and discounting less quantifiable (but ultimately more decisive) political, diplomatic, economic and informational factors shaping global patterns to U.S. advantage.
The United States can use several basic approaches to stack the geopolitical balance in its favor. None are entirely new, and U.S. administrations have been experimenting with each for some years, but a commitment to find non-military answers to strategic insolvency would turbocharge each of them.
The first broad category is supporting and strengthening allies and partners. This is well-developed in current U.S. defense strategy and includes everything from reaffirming support to alliances, to expanded aid and investment, to looser tech transfer regulations, to capacity building and advise-and-assist missions. But it also implies much more ambitious economic and political support to value-sharing democracies facing short-term crises (Brazil) or long-term development challenges (South Africa). The overall objective of such efforts would be to keep the balance of global power tilted toward the democratic camp.
A second category of system shaping would be to promote strategic partnerships with emerging regional powers. The United States should study projected maps of world economic power in 2030 or 2050 to identify states likely to have a growing say in world politics — India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey, Vietnam, and others — and work to enrich bilateral relationships, ultimately strengthening these countries as stabilizing poles in the international system. In some but not all cases, this priority could require compromises on short-term liberal value conditionality in order to deepen relationships with non-democracies.
Third, a geopolitical emphasis would build more institutionalized and stronger capabilities for informational and economic influence. The United States should have far more muscular tools for engaging in information competitions in key regions — such as intensified campaigns throughout Asia to boost awareness of and opposition to China’s more belligerent gray zone tactics. It should also conceive of international economic policies as a formalized tool for global shaping, and build institutional and strategic foundations for the more anticipatory and strategic employment of such policies.
Fourth and finally, the United States should take seriously the importance of the non-state sector in shaping geopolitical realities. Increasingly, the dense network of organizations, activists and networks that makes up the sub-state connective tissue of world politics has a significant voice in setting global agendas and promoting the enforcement of rules and norms. Washington should boost investments in nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations that broadly share America’s vision for international politics — especially those that build global networks of like-minded officials, experts, entrepreneurs, and cultural leaders.
Such a geopolitically oriented strategy would aim at several specific objectives. The overarching objective would be to sustain a critical mass of countries and global opinion in favor of stability and key norms, and in so doing to confront would-be aggressors with both local balances of power as well as broader global norms and realities that discourage belligerence. And beyond the four specific initiatives outlined above, the overarching foundation for such an approach should involve a renewed U.S. commitment to the post-war international order, which has since 1945 served as the institutional and normative framework for U.S. influence and leadership.
The post-war order has had at least two essential components: One is the network of institutions, rules, and norms. These include everything from the U.N. system, to the World Trade Organization, to the IMF and G-20 and regional political and economic forums. These elements knit together the international system and provide the basic guidelines for what the world community considers to be responsible behavior. The second component, and in many ways the gravitational core of the order, is the informal but strongly interwoven de facto coalition of states: the mostly value-sharing democracies that are its primary sponsors and defenders. This core group represents over 70 percent of world GDP and military expenditures and forms a predominant global balance of power in favor of peace and stability. Sustaining and deepening this implicit coalition in favor of peace, free trade, and the rule of law would be the dominant focus of a new geopolitical agenda.
The post-war order has had many purposes, but from a defense policy standpoint its essential role is to set a handful of unambiguous rules of the road, focusing and coordinating global responses to destabilizing acts of aggression that violate them. As Iraq found in 1990, Russia discovered in 2014, and North Korea is re-discovering today, aggressors and adventurers don’t merely court responses from U.S. military power — they confront the military, political, economic, and diplomatic weight of the whole international community. One answer to strategic insolvency is to sustain and enhance this effect by rejuvenating the post-war order — not as a substitute for U.S. military strength, but as a necessary complement.
Indeed, for the leading sponsor and primary military guardian of a peaceful and prosperous international system, a stable and effective multilateral order is absolutely indispensable. Absent such an order, U.S. power has to prop up global stability largely on its own and America’s global defense and foreign policy responsibilities become untenable.
A functioning multilateral order can help close the gap in U.S. defense strategy in several ways. It enfolds U.S. power and purpose in a legitimizing mantle: When U.S. foreign policy is viewed as the agent of shared rather than harshly unilateral interests, fewer states balance against American power, and Washington gains brawnier leverage when dealing with issues like Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
A strong international order also provides the essential precondition for enforcing rules of behavior. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has little direct relevance to Costa Rica, Japan, or Jordan — three of the 100 countries that endorsed the March 2014 U.N. General Assembly resolution supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity. They voted for the measure in part out of a desire to reinforce norms of non-aggression. History suggests that absent an order promulgating those rules, the reaction to such cases of aggression would be far less coherent. These rules, the basic operating principles of any international order, also become the basis for status and legitimacy, and help constrain state actions.
None of this is to suggest that an international order can produce stability on its own. Other factors, from effective diplomacy to credible U.S. military capabilities, are essential. But a clear lesson of history is that the strength or weakness of an international order — and associated geopolitical realities like the alignment of key states — can either narrow, or dramatically widen, the gap between the leading state’s ambitions and its capabilities. It is by addressing and shaping these wider geopolitical factors that the United States can promote stability even without massive increases in defense spending.
A dominantly geopolitical rather than military approach would also help moderate the over-militarization of U.S. foreign policy seen since 9/11. For 16 years, the United States has conceived itself as “a nation at war,” and — as many defense and military officials have repeatedly warned — tended to look to military capabilities as the hammer to address any nail. It is long past time to revert to a more traditional posture, in which geopolitics and diplomacy take the lead in U.S. national security strategy and military capabilities are placed into their proper context. Dealing with strategic insolvency with a unilateral expression of American military power is likely to exhaust the United States, impair the legitimacy of its actions, and ultimately make it less safe.
Michael J. Mazarr is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and director of the RAND Project on Building a Sustainable International Order.
Image: U.S. Army/Matthew Moeller