The United States, militarily, is the most powerful nation to ever exist and yet the single most potent resource in our arsenal, the one that carried us to preeminence, lies discarded, broken down and rusting into oblivion. The one thing we did better than anyone else for the past 100 years was to inspire and influence the world based on “who we were.” Democratic values vs. fascism was the inspiration for our combined allied victory over Nazi Germany and the Axis. Freedom-based capitalism was the driving factor that welcomed so many allies and partners against communism during the Cold War. Defense of and expansion of human rights has literally been our calling card for decades.
Our success has always been a potent combination of hard and soft power or, overall, simply influence. We built capable national security structures and apparatuses to wield influence effectively and ethically. Even as late as the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. in a leadership role was demonstrably effective at ethical influence. Less than a decade later, we had divested ourselves of the knowledge, tools and national security architecture that had paid such handsome rewards during the previous century. In today’s world, influence almost exclusively is the battlefield, not terrain – and we are unarmed.
Throughout the decades-long ideological struggle with the Soviet Union, we played a leadership role alongside allies and partners opposing communism. Our success was achieved through a combination of hard and soft power, with the emphasis on the soft. We not only established partnerships and alliances but did the hard work to improve, sustain and grow relationships in order to acquire more influence. With those same partners we robustly executed campaigns to influence at-risk nations toward democracy and away from communism. We built resilience at home to prevent the seeds of communism from growing while simultaneously degrading the communist ideology of our adversaries. All of these things and many more are regarded as influence. We not only knew what to do but we energetically campaigned to achieve our objectives. It seems that we’ve either just plain forgotten how, lack the will or, most likely, both.
Every single adversary or competitor from China, Iran and Russia to a variety of extremists are literally dominating the U.S. and our allies/partners at the moment in the realm of influence. If influence, not terrain, is now the primary battlefield, our inaction to compete on the battlefield of influence is literally translated into “executing a full retreat.” If we don’t compete, we cannot win. If we don’t win, we have failed at national security. The gap in our national security arsenal is wide open and ripe for the taking. The purchase of any amount of new ships, tanks and planes cannot fill this massive gap in our national security structure.
A quick scan of the objectives and intentions from the NSS (National Security Strategy), NIS (National Intelligence Strategy) and National Defense Strategy does not require a great deal of imagination to see that they are about influence in some form or another. Some of the points even say overtly “to influence” or “promote” while others hint at such or imply a task that supports influence. You will also note that there are no direct references to “going to war,” continuing war in a combat zone, etc. Though some points indicate “building or strengthening the force” or “bolstering innovation,” there is nothing to suggest that we will build and innovate for being successful at influence. In fact, the current and 2021 budget assessment is replete with misaligned priorities to our current threats.
“At a macro level, the FY 2020 FYDP appears to be inconsistent with the NDS in several respects. Despite the NDS calling for a rebalancing of capabilities to focus more on great power competition and the threats posed by Russia and China, the acquisition budget does not reflect such a shift.”
– Analysis of the FY 2020 Defense Budget and Its Implications for FY 2021 and Beyond, CSIS 2/20
A brief survey of our current, prioritized threats such as China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and extremism shows that we are not actually at war with any of them other than a CT effort against Islamist extremists in a variety of regions with the outlier being Afghanistan. As of this writing, Afghanistan, by every indication, is winding down in the next few months. Even Afghanistan is no longer a conventional war and as many would argue, myself included, it never has been nor should have been.
Influence is literally at the core of every major U.S. natsec threat. Competition with Russia and China, for example, is largely via what is termed GPC: great power competition. Simply put, they intend to erode our position of preeminent influence in many regions and nations. The reason that we are leveraging economic sanctions against Iran is influence and, also, the on-again/off-again issues with North Korea are a test of wills and leverage – again, influence. Of course, building more ships, planes and tanks is deterrence, which is its own form of influence, but that is not enough as evidenced by Russia’s continuing assault on the U.S. through malign influence that is most often associated with our elections. China leverages their economy and partnerships via their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) supported by an aggressive military buildup – yes, you guessed it, more influence.
It would seem that the U.S. natsec community, especially DoD, believes that simply being the most powerful military in the world is enough influence via deterrence. If this were true, we would not be impacted by Chinese ascendency, which targets regional domination by 2035 and global by 2049. If Russia were deterred, they would halt meddling in our domestic affairs and our elections. Iran would stop supplying Hezbollah and supporting Assad in Syria. Extremists would stop executing terrorist attacks and using propaganda to recruit. None of these things are occurring so by default; the gap between the natsec communities’ stated positions is demonstrably inconsistent with their actions. It also clearly demonstrates that using only one form of influence – deterrence – is inadequate.
So, when considering the above thoughts, why is there an apparent and dangerous disconnect between our intended NSS and the natsec community’s ability to effectively act? The answer is that we long ago lost our former prowess for being able to ethically influence in support of our objectives. We built and expensively sustain a defense architecture geared toward big-ticket items and do not invest in the tools, resources, knowledge and infrastructure to accomplish influence. The paradigm is all wrong and everyone with even a modicum of experience in natsec knows it. The problem is that it’s just too hard to change… or so our leadership believes.
As we go down the road of attempting to effectively pursue our national security strategy, we’re traveling with blinders on and married to risk-averse and antiquated thinking. I personally believe that this is because it’s just too hard to acknowledge the truth of the changes demanded by our threats. We can do as we did just prior to WWI or WWII and put our heads in the sand and wait to adapt after it’s too late, or we can use our knowledge and prepare and execute intelligently. Failing to prepare for the challenge at hand has historically cost us dearly. I personally am not a fan of that option, so at risk of angering many in my profession, this article was dedicated to “speaking truth to power.”
What you have just read, though meant to be a standalone article, is also the abstract to a 30-page white paper with four-plus pages of citations. If you would care to read more, please click here.
If you choose to not read further and only take away one point, please remember this one. We are in an era where influence is the battlefield not terrain and, more importantly, we are unarmed.
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