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United States security for a new world: a reply to Charles Pena

Philip Bobbitt
28 May 2003

The National Security Strategy (NSS) articulated by President Bush in September 2002 mixes innovative and interesting responses to the changed strategic environment with a good deal of the unnecessary and in some cases contradictory residue of the pre-9/11 era. But it is a start.

By contrast, the attack on the strategy by Charles Peña in openDemocracy is an affirmative step backward: in Pena’s effort to address the new threats to the American homeland which he recognises, he advocates running away from the world where those threats must be confronted. Pena’s proposed response sacrifices the very assets we need to sustain – alliances, intelligence relationships, forward deployments, credible regional deterrence (including pre-emption) – in order to win the war against terrorists for “homeland” security cannot be won simply by surveilling and arming the homeland.

The reality of threat

The 2002 National Security Strategy recognises that we must, in its words, “strengthen alliances to defeat global terrorism” and also “prevent our enemies from threatening us, our allies and our friends with weapons of mass destruction.”

Peña’s analysis of these goals, which he appears to support, ignores the connection between the two. For it is the emergent combination of a global, terrorist network (a kind of virtual state) with the increasing availability (if left unaddressed) of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that makes the new strategic environment new. It is precisely because either of these developments changes the nature of the peril posed by the other that proposals like Peña’s for a retrenchment from active involvement in the world outside the United States is so unwise.

These developments are the reason why the NSS directs attention toward the need for pre-emption in some circumstances. Peña prefers to call this “preventative” war and he believes that the view that the US must sometimes “act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed” is a prescription for a state of perpetual war.

In this he may well be right. But let’s get our causality straight. Annual inoculations to protect against influenza may guarantee perpetual medical bills, but they are not a prescription for flu. The reason why the US must be steadily vigilant is because increasingly it will face threats that can mount very lethal actions with less conventional force (and therefore give less warning) from unknown (and thus less deterrable) sectors. Unless one sees a world without such threats on the horizon, perpetual vigilance and occasional action would seem to be on the cards.

While it is true that the US spends an enormous amount of money on its defense budget and does not, at present, face a serious challenge from any other state, it scarcely follows that we should liquidate the awesome force which that budget makes possible. For one thing, if we did, new conventional threats would arise in the wake of our retrenchment, because states might then enjoy a competitive position that is now beyond their reach; for another, our conventional arms are extremely helpful in countering terrorism – as our experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo demonstrates.

While it is true that the US spends an enormous amount of money on its defense budget and does not, at present, face a serious challenge from any other state, it scarcely follows that we should liquidate the awesome force which that budget makes possible.

Peña claims, as have many others, that the NSS is “a new strategy of empire”. As a law professor with pretensions to be an historian, I find this assertion puzzling, because the term “empire” has both a legal and an historical meaning. It does not mean simply having far-flung military bases or influence with other states. To be an empire is to control the civil life of nations whose geopolitical strategies are subordinated to the imperial centre.

If those relationships are how the Cato Institute sees US-Belgian, or US-Korean or US-Indian affairs (or US-Mexican or US-Canadian affairs for that matter) then we are reading things very differently. Yes, we are in Korea and Germany to protect our national interests as well as theirs; no, we will not remain there any longer than the government in Seoul or Berlin wishes us to. To imply that civil life in Korea or Germany is wholly or even largely governed by laws created in Washington is absurd.

The Korean faultline

Which brings me to the especially helpful example of Korea, provided by Peña’s paper. Pena suggests that nuclear proliferation to South Korea and Japan represents a more favourable situation for the US than the continuation of our present troop commitment on the Korean peninsula. In such a world, he believes “two nuclear-armed democratic nations – both with vibrant economies – [would] balance North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.”

But would they?

First, Peña tells us that the efforts from Woodrow Wilson to the present day to export democracy on the grounds that a world of democracies is safer for the United States than a world of dictatorships are misconceived; then he relies on this very assumption to conclude that arming two democratic nations will strengthen US security.

Second, he assumes that arming South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons, despite the fraught relations between the two states, would result in an alliance between the two, and not a pairing off with Russia, China or North Korea – all nuclear states themselves.

Third, he imagines that a regional “rational balance of power” from which American participation has been excluded will protect our substantial interests in the region or for that matter in the interdependent world generally of the 21st century.

Fourth, he neglects the possibility that a nuclear-armed Japan – which already has the third largest defense establishment in the world with less than 1.5% GDP – would be the basis for a new superpower’s arsenal, with all the consequences for multipolarity and the rise of a potential challenger to US nuclear hegemony.

Fifth, he assumes that the possibility of regime change hostile to the United States is so unlikely in these states that we should encourage, by our withdrawal of extended deterrence, their own nuclearisation.

Because any one of these objections would be fatal to his proposal, it is hard to believe that he has really thought this plan through.

The illusions of disengagement

Peña concludes his paper with the following observation: “The United States national security strategy must put defense against terrorism and homeland security at its core. In doing so, it must recognise the link between an interventionist American foreign policy (however noble or well-intended) and terrorism against the United States.” How true. But it is Peña not the Bush administration who misses the link.

He thinks that if the US stopped meddling in other people’s civil wars, as he puts it, the US would be less likely a target for terrorism. This is a profound misunderstanding. The importance of terrorism in the strategic environment of the 21st century is that it provides a new, and, lethal non-state technique for warfare. For five centuries it has taken the resources of a state to destroy another state; only states could muster the huge revenues, conscript the vast armies, and equip the divisions required to threaten the survival of other states.

Indeed, posing such threats, and meeting them, created the modern state. In such a world, every state knew that its enemy would be drawn from a small class of potential adversaries. This is no longer true, owing to advances in international telecommunications, rapid computation, and weapons of mass destruction.

Peña, and many others, believe that if we withdrew from any involvement in the Middle East, for example, terrorists there would leave us alone; they wouldn’t hate us anymore. In fact we will always be their target as long as we are rich, influential and powerful – because these qualities make the extortionee attractive to the extortioner, in the same way that they make a kidnap victim attractive to a kidnapper.

In fact we will always be (terrorists’) target as long as we are rich, influential and powerful – because these qualities make the extortionee attractive to the extortioner, in the same way that they make a kidnap victim attractive to a kidnapper.

We may be attacked by individuals because they “hate” us – although the most vituperative and irrational statement to that effect I have recently read came from Margaret Drabble, of all people, who, she writes in the Daily Telegraph, “loathes” America (and also, she says, hamburgers and cokes) yet who strikes me as an unlikely suicide bomber. States have a rather colder calculus. Japan did not attack the United States in 1941 because it “hated” the US. We were attacked because we stood in the way of Japan’s regional ambitions.

This is the same reason that we have been attacked by Osama bin Laden who wishes not so much to Talibanise the west anymore than Japan wanted to conquer California. He simply wants to overthrow regimes we support and probably rightly believes that this support thwarts his ambitions. This is why it is quite natural that Peña and others might conclude that if we would only withdraw from such regions, we might be spared bin Laden’s attacks. But consider the consequences.

When we withdraw from “somebody else’s civil war”, we abandon regional allies; we lose local intelligence assets; we forswear future influence; we forsake economic relationships and investments; we confirm the canard that the Americans are only overseas to feather their nest and that our profession of interest in the welfare of others is the rankest sham and we show ourselves to be too self-absorbed to make sacrifices even in our own interest. These things do not propitiate terrorists: they excite them. Bin Laden himself has said that it was the withdrawal of US forces from Lebanon after the Beirut bombing that persuaded him America would cut and run if confronted.

And once we have withdrawn and hostile regimes replace the ones we once favored, will we in fact be safer? And will we simply be left alone, once we are alone? Would any wise leader take that gamble on the perpetual disinterest of new aggressive states free now to arm themselves without limit?

When we withdraw from “somebody else’s civil war”, we abandon regional allies; we lose local intelligence assets; we forswear future influence; we forsake economic relationships and investments; we confirm the canard that the Americans are only overseas to feather their nest.

What would a convincing strategy look like?

Like Peña, I too was struck by how different the national security strategy is from the Bush campaign’s derogation of “nation-building” in the 2000 presidential election. And, like Peña, I conclude that this is a result of the events of 11 September 2001. Well, better late than never.

The NSS is far from perfect. Like many such documents, it suffers from the ill-effects of draftsmanship by committee. The Executive Summary, which is quite clear and coherent, does not in fact summarise the entire document which is more diffuse and easily bears the marks of special pleading for inclusion by all the departments who cleared it. Far more important than the expression of the notorious but quite unavoidable recognition of the new need for pre-emption is what is neglected to be said.

With this in mind, I would tentatively suggest these ten goals as conditions for a national security strategy:

  1. the maintenance of a force structure capable of defeating a challenge to peace

  2. the creation of security structures and alliances capable of dealing with the problems of poverty, health, and ecological stability

  3. a consensus among the great powers on the legitimacy of certain forms of the state based on government by consent, human rights, and the free exchange of goods, services and idea

  4. a few clear, structural rules for international behavior based on this consensus, and that are enforced by arms if necessary

  5. provisions for the financial assistance to those coalitions that undertake to enforce these rules on behalf of the peace and security of the society of states as a whole

  6. prohibitions against arms trading in nuclear materials, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and missile technology but that permit trade in some defensive, informational technologies

  7. the development of defensive weapons, intelligence and information sharing, alliances and inducements that discourage WMD multi-polarity

  8. prohibitions against wholesale attacks by a state on its own populations

  9. some general prohibition on anti-competitive trade and financial practices

  10. the development of a clear doctrine of intervention that assures any state that meets the standards of the Peace of Paris – free elections, market economy, human rights – will not be the subject of threats of force.

Making law and strategy rhyme

These conditions are not the same as those sought by the US policy of containment that successfully ended the cold war. They give greater priority to humanitarian crises and require greater global consensus. They may not cost any less, but they allocate expenditures differently. They address a new strategic environment. Finally, they presuppose a commitment to a pluralism that is inconsistent with either relativism or exceptionalism.

By pluralism, I mean the view that some values are to be preferred to others, and that these preferred values are those representative and law-governed institutions that permit individuated and diverse cultural development in the context of non-aggressive relations. The reason why the political system of the west is preferred is that it allows all states, western or not, to develop their own cultures by basing government on popular consent and human rights. In a society of states committed to pluralism there are preferred values (as opposed to relativism) but no preferred states (as opposed to exceptionalism).

I believe these goals can best be achieved by a strategy for the United States that studiedly avoids both the unilateralism advocated by Pena as well as the regionalism preferred by many Europeans, in favour of providing “collective goods” to the world.

Josef Joffe, the editor of Die Zeit, has described this course with great insight:

“The United States must produce three types of collective goods. First, act as regional protector by underwriting the security of those potential rivals – Japan, China, Western Europe – who would otherwise have to produce security on their own by converting their economic strength into military assets; [s]econd, act as a regional pacifier; [t]hird, universalize the [security] architecture [by which the United States acts with various regional players in concert against regional threats].

As long as the US provides precious collective goods the Europeans or Asians cannot or will not produce for themselves – building coalitions and acting universally through regional cooperation, implementing anti-missile, anti-proliferation, and pro-environmental regimes, organizing humanitarian intervention – there will remain an important demand for US leadership.”

We must recognise that pre-emption is only a technique, not a strategy. Its parameters must be explicitly spelled out, both to reassure other states and our allies and to serve as a guide to policy. This is a necessary first step to achieving a consensus within the G8 states as to when force can be legitimately used in operations that do not strictly fall within the traditional definitions of self-defense, or are not authorised by the UN Security Council, such as the interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Iraq.

We must recognise that pre-emption is only a technique, not a strategy. Its parameters must be explicitly spelled out, both to reassure other states and our allies and to serve as a guide to policy.

One implication of the need for such a consensus is the accompanying need to develop new doctrines of international law. Much of the European attack on the US/UK action in Iraq has come from those who believe that only the UN can provide legitimating authority for military action. This is partly the result of the failure of the US and others to develop ideas in international law that are responsive to the new strategic environment within which we find ourselves.

Pena is addressing a real problem: there is a clear perception outside the United States that the Bush administration, and not terrorism, is the principal threat to peace. Many even believe that terrorism provides a kind of excuse for the US to rampage around the world, removing regimes it does not like. The Bush administration must bear some responsibility – as do many European leaders, I should add – for not having made clear the new strategic reality we face.

By attempting to link Saddam Hussein directly to 9/11, by portraying the war in Iraq as a kind of punishment for the acquisition of WMD, instead of a successful attempt to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons, the US baffled and alienated publics everywhere. But that is not the fault of the NSS; on the contrary, the document clearly lays out the basis for such pre-emptive action and perhaps ought to have been relied upon more greatly in making the case for war in Iraq. This would have required the US to bring together the strategic and legal bases for intervention.

One of the necessary understandings of the age we are entering is that legal doctrine and strategic doctrine are not merely linked, but are intrinsically part of each other. A new National Security Strategy for the United States will one day find its counterpart in international law or it will fail. Withdrawal from this enterprise is really not an option.

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