(Photo by Staff Sgt. Joseph Swafford/ISAF Joint Command)

PERSPECTIVE: How Our National Security Suffers When America Goes Alone

America is a global leader – but what and how we lead in an increasingly complex and threatening era where misinformation and budget constraints hamper an ideal strategy matters. The United States, like much of the globe, has seen a rise in populism and protectionism in response to the perception that the global economy and great power competition are harming our present and future. We have seen the repercussions of those perceptions in our foreign policy, which directly impacts our national security. Nearly all serious national security strategists would argue that how we lead is a matter of national security. How do we maintain our leadership role while also withdrawing from some of the global responsibilities we’ve carried in the past? As evidenced by some startling new research from the Pew Research Center, can we?

Having spent my career, military and civilian alike, in the national security community, now looking at national security from an influence perspective, the shocking research demonstrated to me just how vulnerable our national security is with such starkly poor approval ratings, including 53 percent of adults in two dozen surveyed countries having a favorable view of the U.S.

For many it is difficult to make the connection between “how the world sees us” and national security, but I can assure you it has an enormous role to play in our modern world. I thought that when I sat down to write about this research that I could explain this succinctly. As you’ll soon see in the following, it’s complex, layered and touches virtually every single aspect of American security. What started out to be a one-page article has become a white paper of sorts. Please bear with me as we peel back the layers of this critical issue.

Eighteen of the 21 named objectives in three of our most important national security documents, the NSS, NDS and NIS, depend on getting along with as much of the world as possible. At the moment, these 18 objectives will, at best, have limited success unless or until we figure this out. This means more risk, more vulnerability and unnecessary burdens on the national security communities.

As a global leader, this is not only a risk to us, but all of our allies and partners.

Introduction

A week or so ago, while doing some research, I had one of those moments that while initially puzzling provoked a thought that required development from a national security perspective. In a “great minds think alike” sort of way, a dear friend called and asked a very similar question, also from the perspective of homeland security. What follows here is the evolution of those thoughts and discussions. These thoughts and concerns have impacts on virtually every U.S. citizen and the agencies committed to their security.

The research I was doing at the time pertained to what the Pentagon and other national security community entities call “great power competition.” Part of the research had to do with building and sustaining partnerships and allies to collectively support our national security objectives. The report I was looking at when the proverbial “light bulb” came on was some very recent research by The Pew Research Center: “How people around the world see the U.S. and Donald Trump in 10 charts”.  With this said, I feel as if I need to make a disclaimer: this article is not political. This article is very simply about, “Is it easier or harder to successfully partner with allies in regard to our defense priorities based on favorability of the U.S. ‘brand’ and that of the president?”

The way that this article will proceed is to

The following bullets are the stated objectives of our three primary national security documents:

NSS objectives:

  1. First, our fundamental responsibility is to protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life. We will strengthen control of our borders and reform our immigration system. We will protect our critical infrastructure and go after malicious cyber actors.
  2. Second, we will promote American prosperity. We will rejuvenate the American economy for the benefit of American workers and companies. We will insist upon fair and reciprocal economic relationships to address trade imbalances.
  3. Third, we will preserve peace through strength by rebuilding our military so that it remains preeminent, deters our adversaries, and if necessary, is able to fight and win. We will compete with all tools of national power to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power.
  4. Fourth, we will advance American influence because a world that supports American interests and reflects our values makes America more secure and prosperous. We will compete and lead in multilateral organizations so that American interests and principles are protected.

NDS objectives:

  1. Defending the homeland from attack;
  2. Sustaining Joint Force military advantages, both globally and in key regions;
  3. Deterring adversaries from aggression against our vital interests;
  4. Enabling U.S. interagency counterparts to advance U.S. influence and interests;
  5. Maintaining favorable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere;
  6. Defending allies from military aggression and bolstering partners against coercion, and fairly sharing responsibilities for common defense;
  7. Dissuading, preventing, or deterring state adversaries and non-state actors from    acquiring, proliferating, or using weapons of mass destruction;
  8. Preventing terrorists from directing or supporting external operations against the United States homeland and our citizens, allies, and partners overseas;
  9. Ensuring common domains remain open and free;
  10. Continuously delivering performance with affordability and speed as we change;
  11. Departmental mindset, culture, and management systems; and
  12.  Establishing an unmatched twenty-first century National Security Innovation Base that effectively supports Department operations and sustains security and solvency.

NIS objectives or “must dos”:

  1. Increase integration and coordination of our intelligence activities to achieve best effect and value in executing our mission,
  2. Bolster innovation to constantly improve our work,
  3. Better leverage strong, unique, and valuable partnerships to support and enable national security outcomes, and
  4. Increase transparency while protecting national security information to enhance accountability and public trust.

For efficiency, throughout the article I will code the above by the acronym of the paper followed by the number of the threat concern. For example: NDS 9 would be, “Ensuring common domains remain open and free.”

 

Overview

Like it or not, we live in a globalized world. Manufacturing, R&D, think tanks, services, communications, etc. are all developed, employed and sold across multi-nation borders. Very few items or services are solely developed and employed wholly within national borders regardless of whether it is us, our allies and partners or our adversaries. Whatever impacts one nation has ripple effects across others as well. Collective interests, commercial or otherwise, tend to align nations with others that share those interests and operate on a similar set of values and rules. Current U.S. national security, oriented toward great power competition, is aptly focused on building and sustaining relationships with nations that share our interests and values as opposed to Chinese or Russian models. Should the Chinese version prevail, their version of values would certainly benefit China over ours and everyone else’s interests. Based on their recent history, this isn’t just a commercial threat but a national security threat.

A quick scan of the bullet points from the three referenced NS documents shows two basic groups of items: 1. Development of the capabilities and organizations that provide for our defense and 2. what that development is designed to focus on. Each and every item in both groups either directly states the requirement for success with allies and partners or it is an implied task with the exceptions being NDS 10 & 11 and NIS 4.

As these two groupings pertain to the question at hand – “How people around the world see the U.S. and Donald Trump in 10 charts” – we can see that 18 of the 21 named points either directly involve or tangentially involve our relationships with allies, partners and even adversaries. Depending on which individual nation, public opinion partially shapes government actions and to what extent. By default, this also means that those opinions have a varying degree of influence on our relationship with these governments. If we accept this, then public opinion in foreign countries is a factor in how much potential we have to succeed in pursuit of our national security. The purpose of the following analysis is not to debate the Pew Research but to make the case that without the best possible relationships with other nations, we will by default limit our potential for success in achieving the objectives of our NS documents, required for our safety.

 

First group: Development of the capabilities and organizations that provide for our defense

Success of any objective in the national security community depends a great deal on how we prepare, train and equip ourselves and our allies and partners. Though this is largely seen in new ships, planes, tanks, etc., modern conflict requires much more. Truth be told, soft power as a whole is the key to national security in great power competition. Ships, planes, tanks, etc., are merely a small piece of overall soft power. For example, every day there are new advances in technology in virtually every endeavor the military and other natsec professionals employ for our protection. Cooperation in this realm also applies to the private/commercial sector. Keeping pace technologically such as in the CYBER realm is every bit as important as the big-ticket hardware items. Every new item or concept also requires training on everything from maintenance to tactics. Technology is designed, developed, supplied and assembled around the globe by countries that are required partners. By default, relationships with these nations are essential or… we go without.

One of the most important aspects of our stated NSS objectives, sustaining relationships, is not only the training, equipping and preparation of ourselves but that of our allies and partners. Effectiveness of any interaction with these critical components of our NSS requires successful and trusted engagement. This presents a challenge in not only development but in intelligence collection, researching tactics, analyzing effects etc. With many of our allies and partners on the front line of aggression from adversaries like Russia, coordination across the spectrum of collection, equipment, training and R&D is essential since A and P (allies and partners) often have more real-time data and firsthand experience. In this same vein, operations with our allies and partners requires synchronized training and equipment in order to be operationally effective. We cannot train on new equipment or tactics unless we cooperate from the start and evolve together, not separately. It stands to reason that if trust is marginalized by a poor perception of leadership or U.S. commitment that cooperation suffers.

Development along military lines is only a small part of GPC: great power competition. Building and sustaining partnerships with allies and partners or prospective partners is even more complicated than building and sustaining personal relationships due to being far more complex depending on the interests of those prospective partners. This applies not only in defense issues but commercially as well. No one wants to do business with a party that they see as unreliable, insincere or combative. Business thrives on relationships.

By all measures, our relationships with partners and allies under the current administration have seen greatly increased tension. Again, in comparison to personal relationships, it is far more difficult to work toward a common goal when a relationship is strained. This does not mean that issues of differing interests should not be discussed in pursuit of solutions but how we go about those discussions matters if we are to find solutions. The president’s penchant for publicly berating allies, their leaders and nations as a whole has eroded his foreign approval ratings for years and, by default, eroded the will and trust required to cooperate.

Building, improving and sustaining relationships does not only apply to nations, it also applies to organizations such as NATO, ASEAN and so on. Every nation has an obligation to put the needs and interests of their citizens first but, again, it is how we go about it. Like in a family or on a team, no one individual’s needs take precedence over the overall needs of the whole. No matter how powerful, talented, wealthy or otherwise, the common agreed-upon values/pursuits of our alliances are the goal, not just individual interests. If we or any member of an organization substantively disagrees with the common goals and values, remaining within the group is no longer of value to either us or the organization.

Countries like people join organizations and sign agreements and treaties for security and commercial interests. As a primary power, U.S. membership has provided the leverage for the success of many such agreements. President Trump has either left or threatened to abandon several such relationships, which erodes further his and the U.S. brand of being a reliable and stable partner. More importantly, it also deprives us of the ability to influence within the group for our interests and deprives the group of the clout we bring via our leadership.

I will use NATO as an example. In the past 3-plus years, publicly and privately the administration has all too often berated many of the NATO nations and their leaders. Often, the issue of NATO GDP spending has been the issue, which most professionals regard as a poor benchmark for contribution. Still, many of NATO’s members have either increased defense spending or committed to do so and yet this has little improved the relationships with the U.S.  Our relationships have frayed politically and we have seen occasions where NATO members and/or other partners did not adhere to new requests from the U.S. to support policy. The issue of Iran in particular has been especially tense regarding whether or not NATO and others would support our intentions. This trend of cautious or no support is unprecedented.

One of the common concerns expressed by Asian nations whom we are courting in our effort to compete with China’s ascendency is “we want to know that the U.S. will remain a stable and reliable partner before we choose China or the U.S. as a prominent partner.” Often, most simply wish to retain an unaligned relationship with both. An unaligned nation is better than an adversely aligned nation but still far worse than one that supports U.S. values and interests.

As these concerns apply to the Pew research, we see a trend showing that outside the U.S., others view the nation far more favorably than the president, albeit tarnished when compared to past administrations. This helps to sustain trust to some degree but implies a reticence to commit time, money and resources to a joint strategy under the current administration. This is a good news/bad news story but many nations on whom we depend and vice versa are holding their breath and delaying commitments until after the 2020 elections. This makes it nearly impossible for the U.S. or allies and partners to do long-term, effective strategic planning. Planning, followed by well synchronized and careful actions, is the key to building and sustaining our foreign relationships in a manner that is both in our interests and those of our allies and partners.

As a note, it is also important that our adversaries and competitors see us succeeding with our allies and partners as a deterrent to their efforts to undermine our NSS. Finally, to this portion I would add that a well-considered and executed narrative strategy is essential to communicating the meaning of our actions to both allies and adversaries. Narrative is about meaning and our strategy should never be misunderstood by either.

Second group: What that development is designed to focus on

Those reading will most likely be relieved that this section is a bit shorter due to the fact that some of the commentary in the first part applies here as well and won’t be repeated.

The focus in this part is in many ways easier because we don’t have to extrapolate but merely follow the outlined objectives in the three National Security documents. These points very clearly state what our needs/intentions are regarding foreign engagement.

For example:

NSS 3 &4:

    1. Third, we will preserve peace through strength by rebuilding our military so that it remains preeminent, deters our adversaries, and if necessary, is able to fight and win. We will compete with all tools of national power to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power
    1. Fourth, we will advance American influence because a world that supports American interests and reflects our values makes America more secure and prosperous. We will compete and lead in multilateral organizations so that American interests and principles are protected.

NDS 3-8:

      1. Deterring adversaries from aggression against our vital interests;
      2. Enabling U.S. interagency counterparts to advance U.S. influence and interests;
      3. Maintaining favorable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere;
      4. Deterring adversaries from aggression against our vital interests;
      5. Enabling U.S. interagency counterparts to advance U.S. influence and interests;
      6. Maintaining favorable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere

NIS 1 & 3:

      1. Increase integration and coordination of our intelligence activities to achieve best effect and value in executing our mission;
      2. Better leverage strong, unique, and valuable partnerships to support and enable national security outcomes

Simply put, our national security documents state that in order for the U.S. to be preeminent on a global scale we must build, sustain and acquire new, reliable partners.

Using China as an example of an intense competitor, this is what we’re up against: China has the world’s largest or second-largest economy depending on what and how things are measured. They are a critical component of nearly every country on earth’s economy. Since 2013, China has embarked on Premier Xi’s personal project of the BRI, Belt and Road Initiative, which entails a literal network of infrastructure, business relationships and military expansion that encircles the globe. Until 2015 or so, the U.S. dominated all of these lanes but China has made extraordinary progress and now is in a position to dominate what the military calls LOCs, Line of Communication, which basically means all routes that are critical to logistics and military means.

No country on earth, not even the U.S., can resist the leverage that China is acquiring globally by themselves. In fact, Chinese strategic documents project region hegemony by 2035 and global by 2049. By default, relationships around the world must become stronger. Relationships between countries are no different than personal ones; they rely on trust and linkage of common interests. Most nations prefer a U.S. partner that offers a more stable and long-term relationship that has both nations’ concerns vested.

Due to China’s reputation for being an overbearing and selfish partner, the U.S. previously would have had no problem competing and winning in a battle for strong relationships. This is no longer the case and is an implied result demonstrated in the Pew research.

The perceived tarnished “brand” of the U.S. and our president is making long-term planning for partners and prospective partners far more challenging than in the past. Without these partners, the U.S. loses access, a senior voice in partner policy and diminished markets. All of these are vulnerabilities to our stated objectives in our strategy documents. Frankly, we are losing more relationships than we are gaining.

At the moment, Russia and China are the primary competitors in Africa. Both also have footholds in the Middle East that challenge our interests substantially. LATAM, Latin American and the Caribbean, the same. The Arctic, Europe and Central, SW, SE and Central Asia are the same.

The value of allies in the current era of GPC cannot be underestimated. There are volumes of excellent analysis done by the nation’s best experts that meticulously detail the sobering assessment of our adversaries’/competitors’ advances into areas of strategic importance to the U.S. Not one of them suggests that we can go it alone. By default, we need dependable friends and that also means they need to be able to trust us and believe in us as reliable partners. In fact, many nations say this publicly and privately to our diplomatic corps.

 

Conclusion

As we noted early in this already too long perspective, 18 of the 21 combined bullet points from the three guiding policy documents highlight cooperation, building and sustaining relationships and demonstrating our stated American values in the form of trusted relationships. The bottom line is that if we are who we say we are, we secure and sustain these critical relationships easily. If the perceptions indicated in the Pew Research continue without significant improvement, our nation cannot achieve what these documents say that we must in order to remain safe. A world dominated by current Chinese and Russian values leaves the U.S. vulnerable and lacking the leverage to sustain our precious values. The sad truth is that the American dream is still alive because of our stated values. Unless we live them, though, we can no longer sell ourselves as the partner everyone prefers. America alone is an America that is far more vulnerable.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Mr. Paul Cobaugh retired from the US Army as a Warrant Officer after a distinguished career in the US Special Operations CT community, primarily focused on mitigating adversarial influence and advancing US objectives by way of influence. Throughout his career he has focused on the centrality of influence in modern conflict whether it be from extremist organisations or state actors employing influence against the US and our Allies. Post military career he was offered and accepted the position of Vice President at Narrative Strategies, a US based Think-Do Tank which specializes in the non-kinetic aspects of conflict. He has also co-authored, Soft Power on Hard Problems, Hamilton Publishing, 2017 and Introduction to Narrative Warfare: A Primer and Study Guide, Amazon, 2018

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