Is U.S. relevance waning? Domestic political instability, coupled with destabilizing behavior on the international stage, negatively impacts U.S. policy and our relevance to allies and adversaries. Addressing these challenges requires experienced leadership; investment in human capital; organizational adaptability; and reconsideration of legacy civil/military relations legal frameworks.
Domestically, national security decisions require recommendations and decisions by informed, seasoned, and experienced elected officials, interagency executives, and military elites that are forward-thinking. They anticipate and consider ‘whole of government’ approaches to strategic issues. Anything less, risks unhealthy imbalance in the application of national power and civil-military balance-of-power.
International relevance requires trusted, stable, reliable investment, presence, and engagement with allies and partners. Coercion and transactional relationships between allies will deteriorate alliances over time. If the international environment is an arena of great power competition, allies should not question the stability of an alliance under stress, under threat, or in a market of competing strategic influences.
Adding to an already complex international environment, the world is witnessing a revolution in military affairs. Rapidly advancing development of robotics, augmented reality, unmanned weapon systems, hypersonic technologies, space- and cyber-based capabilities, artificial intelligence, and cloud-enabled informatics drive policy process, decision-making, and mission command at an ever-increasing pace. Great power competition in this environment requires innovative solutions, adaptive organizational structures, and flexible civil-military legal frameworks that ensure deliberate, reasoned, and timely response. Policy and performance at the ‘speed of relevance’ demand it.
Nationally and internationally, U.S. relevance faces several challenges. Domestic challenges include political polarization; weakened diplomatic influence; novice political actors; and a powerful military epistemic community. These challenges often thwart ‘whole of government’ solutions; cause rampant disarray; and lead to muddled policy.
Global challenges include destabilizing foreign policy; incoherent response to international issues; and perceptions of political instability. These challenges cripple communications with allies and partners and paralyze coordinated response to national security threats. The result is a perception of confused, inadequate leadership on the part of the U.S., challenged by powerful peer competitors unhindered in their ability to enfeeble U.S. power abroad.
Internally, the U.S. political environment features an orchestra of alternate realities; decay of truth; lost leadership credibility; and opportunistic mediums catering to competing views across the political spectrum. Partisanship and polarization trend upwards. In political environments characterized by partisanship and polarization, Presidents historically employ an ‘administrative governing strategy.’
This approach centralizes control in the White House as Presidents appoint loyal political operatives throughout the bureaucracy to ensure their political agenda is implemented. Administrative governing strategies for domestic policy domains span across U.S. presidential administrations. Administrative governing strategies in national security and foreign policy, however, are on the rise.
In the lead up to WWII, militarization of U.S. national security and foreign policy was fait accompli. The U.S. State Department’s decline over the past 75 years is well documented. Presidents are consistently dissatisfied with the State Department and compelled to assert more control over their foreign policy agenda. Today, the State Department struggles for relevance. Core leadership and senior positions remain vacant, morale suffers, and national security and foreign policy are “ceded to the Pentagon.”
With the decline of the State Department, there is corresponding rise in the election and appointment of novice political actors with no diplomatic, intelligence, national security, or military experience. As an example, military service among members of Congress has fallen precipitously since the 1970s. Political connection, fundraising, gerrymandering, and bald-base appeal to the most partisan elements of either political party, have, collectively, created successive cohorts of politically connected elected officials with little comprehension of the theories, history, realities, and nuances of national security, foreign policy, and strategic military affairs.
These novice political actors have little or no executive experience at the federal level. The experience they do possess has little value related to governing. They titularly fill positions of importance, ignorant of their responsibilities, and incapable of deciding wisely the important decisions that come before them. Strategic and operational environments do not afford critical decision space needed for novice political actors to adequately understand and make decisions in times of crisis. Clear, timely, flexible options, developed through responsive organization; comprehensively understood by civilian decision makers; and socialized in diplomatic and military consultation with allies, are rarely achievable.
These trends create a leadership-knowledge-power vacuum that lessens the relevance of civilians in the national security policy process. The consequence of State’s decline and successive cohorts of novice political actors is that military elites have become the principle executors of national security and foreign policy. Political power “has been thrust upon” military elites “by civilian default.”
Meanwhile, the professionalism of military elites has dramatically increased, leading to their constitution and behavior as a powerful epistemic community. Accordingly, military elites willingly accept a growing praetorian role in government. With increased professionalism, they have come to believe they are more experienced, seasoned, and mature than civilian counterparts. Novice politicians no longer have the right to be wrong about national security decisions that put the lives of military service members at risk.
Military elites believe they are more experienced and better trained leaders, managers, and planners in the context of national security and military crisis. They control vast resources to affect responsive change. They have global presence and powerful networks. Their unique military culture, ethos, and mindset are exceptionally focused on decision-making and producing immediate, visible effects towards policy objectives. Finally, military elites believe they are morally superior to civilian counterparts. They are unconcerned with changing political winds, electoral politics, and political legacy. This, of course, is not an accurate portrayal of reality.
Military elites are fundamentally political. They behave in accordance with their significant ambition and political beliefs. They increasingly identify with political parties, ideologies, and openly participate in political activities. However, military elites can be afflicted by policy tunnel vision; bias; group-think; miscalculation of the nuances of globalization; and misconstruction of elements of national power in the policy process. Military elites can be acutely challenged by strategic complexity, because of early promotions based on tactical acumen and merit. At the strategic level, however, politics and personal relationships play a much greater role.
The resulting state of affairs is a U.S. national security and foreign policy decision-making process challenged to formulate, coordinate, and integrate elements of national power in pursuit of national goals and objectives. Politicians and political appointees are overwhelmed. Unprecedented delegation of authority to military elites and an over-reliance on military power correspond with expanding administrative governing strategies, growing numbers of novice political actors, and rival institutions that are under-funded, under-resourced, under-manned, and, by some accounts, poorly led. A ‘whole of government’ approach to policy has become aspirational.
Understanding the requirements of aggressive ‘great power’ competition demands experienced leadership; investment in human capital; organizational adaptability; and civil-military frameworks that emphasize civilian control. Unfortunately, many politicians are perceived by the military as risk averse, irresponsible, incapable of rapid decision-making, and unresponsive to a revolution in military affairs and competition in grey zones of persistent, great power conflict that resides below the threshold of kinetic war.
Internationally, the strength of U.S. relevance is rooted in its strategic size, geography, and resources. Unrivalled economic and industrial power; stabilizing and reliable presence of forward deployed forces; strategic provision of foreign and military aid; and the ability project military power around the globe, provided the U.S. with undeniable influence as a global super-power post-WWII. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War, U.S. power and relevance was hegemonic and relatively unchallenged.
Nearly two decades since 9/11, U.S. power is at an inflection point. Miscalculation, perceived deceitfulness, economic recession, political polarization, squandered influence, military overstretch, recovery and rise of regional powers, and growing influence of non-state actors have created a multi-polar world with a myriad of challenges. Despite a strong economy and record defense spending, U.S. political and diplomatic missteps remain stumbling blocks that weaken our influence.
Government institutions responsible for national security and foreign policy, once a haven for bipartisan agreement, are now hyper-politicized. Successive administrative governing strategies have increased the number of political appointees in the national security and foreign policy process. Presidents believe this promotes their policy agenda in the short-term. In the long-term, it introduces novice political actors into a domain unfit for “on the job” training.
Allies are watching. U.S. economic, foreign, and national security policies are perceived as incoherent, destabilizing, and amoral, focused on transactional relationships and retribution for perceived past exploitation. U.S. commitment to alliance agreements is questioned. Worldwide perception of increasing U.S. political instability sows seeds of doubt in allies as it relates to U.S. global leadership.
Rhetoric claiming increasing defense investment by NATO allies is an indicator of success related to current U.S. policy rings hollow. Increased defense expenditures are, more likely, a hedge against weakening U.S. commitment. Allies may not be increasing defense investments to strengthen NATO. Could allies be increasing defense investment, because they no longer trust the U.S. to fulfill long-held promises? Could current policy be signaling failure?
Linked to perceptions that the U.S. is no longer willing or able to fulfill mutual defense agreements, NATO countries appear to be reevaluating their own commitments. The French President publicly castigates NATO and U.S. leadership. The German Chancellor consults with the Kremlin over perceptions of unhinged U.S. international behavior. With historic irony, a Russian President is viewed as a source of international stability, counter-balancing unpredictable U.S. behavior.
Finally, as NATO evaluates advanced threats to national security, it no longer orients east. Members focus on multi-domain, 360o threats. This paradigm shift requires NATO members to focus primarily on homeland defense at the expense of alliance commitments.
Adversaries are also watching. They listen when General James Mattis laments erosion of U.S. defenses across all domains of war. They see immense national security, economic, political, and societal vulnerabilities. Ineffectual cyber defenses enable misinformation campaigns and deconstruction of truth, sowing divide and decaying democracy. Systematically weakening and disabling U.S. defenses creates a cumulative, ‘butterfly’ effect that poses strategic risk. Because probes and attacks are non-kinetic and below the threshold of violence, they cripple and paralyze the ability to respond.
This is the nature of 21st Century great power competition. It is a never-ending and persistent grey zone contest residing between war and peace. It is a revolution in military affairs. It “outpaces the ability of politicians” and civilians to comprehend and respond. It begs comprehensive, ‘whole-of-government’ solutions. It threatens existential consequences. It weakens U.S. relevance, and it is a clear and present danger to U.S. national security.
Policy at the ‘speed of relevance,’ considered broadly in the context of domestic and international politics, provides a sketch of the vast challenges we face. Time is of the essence. In a future epoch, historians will consider this period a transitional era. Will it be an era in which informational and technological advancements outpace the intellectual capacity of politicians to understand and harness the revolution?
Administrative governing strategies that place novice political actors deep into government institutions to counter contrived “deep state” conspiracies are deleterious. Influenced by electoral politics and requiring “on the job” training, these appointees demonstrate they are unequal to the responsibilities of leading a global superpower in the international strategic environment. Blind to their inadequacies, novice political actors often lack the cognitive complexity, intellectual curiosity, and seasoned experience required to comprehend and understand the national security challenges the U.S. faces.
Concurrently, under-investment in institutions that govern elements of national power (other than the military) facilitates imbalanced, stove-piped, uncoordinated, and ad hoc policy process. Until the political will to address these problems emerges, governmental institutions (other than the Department of Defense) will continue to be under-funded, under-resourced, and under-manned. ‘Whole of government’ solutions will remain aspirational.
A political, praetorian, military epistemic community taking on greater governmental roles comes with consequences. When the pendulum of political power swings to an opposing end of the political spectrum, the independence of the military will be compromised and its prestige and societal trust squandered. Fickle winds of public opinion carry seeds of doubt, skepticism, suspicion in, and wariness of the military institution and the military elites that lead it.
How the government invests in human capital throughout the interagency must change. Inexperienced, unseasoned novice political actors do not possess the training, education, experience, and professional development to compete with military elites in the policy process. If military elites were apolitical or politically neutral, some may argue that these considerations related to investment in human capital are not a priority. A praetorian guard could be assumed to provide continuity in policy, stability in foreign relations, assurance to allies, and unambiguous leadership in the face of adversaries. However, to ensure a healthy civil-military balance of power and avoid praetorian trends, high quality recruitment and career-long professional development of civil servants must take a higher priority.
Internationally, U.S. foreign policy should not be perceived as purely transactional. It requires leadership that understands the interconnectedness of the global community and the inescapable global role of the U.S. It requires leadership that comprehends the nuances of political geography, history, and international political economy. It requires leadership committed to international stability. It requires trustworthy, reliable leadership committed to ensuring the collective security of allies and partners. It requires leadership willing to confront and challenge adversaries, not flatter, fawn over, or fear them.
Leadership, knowledge, and power abhor a vacuum. Aggressive, great power competition will not suffer it. The vacuum can and may be filled, by civilian default, with an increasingly powerful praetorian guard of military elites that are, by nature, political actors. Indeed, requisite changes in the roles, responsibilities and authorities of military elites must be considered. New legal frameworks of authority should be crafted to ensure unhindered ability to rapidly respond to threats in a reliable, governable manner that ensures accountability. However, these adaptations must maintain a healthy equilibrium in civil-military balance-of-power.
During the National Prayer Breakfast on February 6, 2020, Dr. Arthur Brooks argued that contempt for opposing political views is now the biggest crisis facing the U.S. Indeed, political division is devastating the U.S., domestically and internationally. The electorate is not blameless. Mired in partisanship, polarization, and a “win at all cost” political mentality, elected officials are no longer accountable for their actions. Accountability signals political weakness. Pervasive ignorance of the value of compromise, bipartisanship, diplomacy, and the work of governmental institutions prevails. Unhealthy (and partisan) praise for a praetorian militarization of policy degrades U.S. institutions. If these trends continue, domestic and international irrelevance will follow.
About the author
Colonel Todd A. Schmidt, Ph.D., is a U.S. Army Goodpaster Scholar and SAMS alumni. The editorial comments, opinions, and bias are his own, based on research and analysis related to doctoral studies on military elite influence on national security.
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