Although we are not by a long-shot out of the domestic economic malaise, President Obama’s administration is already being tested overseas. Whether nearby: the violence in Mexico, or further afield: the muscle flexing of North Korea, the president must quickly decide upon his vision of US national security.
Grand strategy may be simple, but that does not mean it is easy. At its highest level it consists of answering four simple-sounding questions:
- Who are we? What are the values and standards we represent as a nation.
- Who is the foe? We must identify who or what most threatens our values and our way of life.
- What is our plan? We must advance a comprehensive strategy to secure ourselves and our way of life from our enemies.
- What is the context? Context is a factor that often challenges the can-do attitude of the United States.
We need to be clear what kind of conflict we are engaged in, as knowing the nature of the fight must inform our choice of weapons.
Who are we? Quite simply, America represents the most successful and most powerful embodiment of the democratic experiment. The American ethos of inclusivity upon which this nation of immigrants was built is none other than a national secularism, a religion without a God if you will. For even if the majority of Americans have a denominational faith, that religious practice is not central to our way of life. It is the values of the Judeo-Christian ethos, what Roger Scruton describes as the “synthesis of Jewish metaphysics and Greek ideas of political freedom” that has found fullest expression in America. It has done so in such a way that these values could be disassociated from institutional faith and become part of the national identity so wonderfully captured many years ago by Alexis De Tocqueville.
What threatens our way of life, which today is described under the ugly moniker of “market democracy?” Answering this question is where complications begin, for the threat environment of 2009 is seemingly more complex than that of the Cold War or even earlier periods. For today it is not just states or ideologies - such as fascism or communism - that can pose a threat, but powerful non-state actors too, for example al Qaeda. As a result we should differentiate between these categories of threat.
Who or what can hurt America? Surprisingly few things. Communism is not dead but its proponents are isolated or weak. Just look at Belarussia or Cuba. Those that are stronger, such as China and Russia, are still undemocratic, but they are far from what Karl Marx would call classically socialist. If there is an ideology that does threaten our freedoms, it is Salafi Jihad, a global creed that by definition sees the non-Muslim as someone to be subjugated or crushed. Any organization or nation that subscribes to this religious ideology and which chooses action and not just words, must feature high in the ranking of threats to the United States. And please note, such organizations exist within our own borders,not just in some far away cave in Central Asia. Lastly there are those nations that do not necessarily adhere to the Salafi ideology but who facilitate its existence elsewhere, who fund its international entities and those who simply have an inimical relationship to the US and actively target our people and our interests.
Even the America’s resources are limited. Just as any other nations, it must therefore prioritize the threats to its existence based upon intent and capability. When it comes to the latter, our equation is distorted significantly by the genie of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). WMD cannot be put back in the bottle, therefore those nations and non-state actors who are against us and have or desire such capabilities must figure at the top of our threat assessment.
If we use the above framework, it is all too apparent that America’s enemies are: an ideology of Salafi Jihadism; the nations of: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan; and all non-state terrorist actors of global reach, such as al Qaeda. (President Bush would have been much better served if the Global War on Terror had instead been named the War on Global Terror). Lesser spoilers and quasi-ideological foes are represented by the likes of Russia and China.
What then is the strategy?
First we must effectively delegitimize the enemy ideology just as we did with Communism. This will not be easy. Unfortunately we have done almost nothing to this end since the Salafi Jihadism was born in the 1950s in Egypt. Despite 9/11. In the past we could cope with an enemy that had a global mission to kill or enslave us, as long as it followed a secular ideology, as did fascism or communism. Salafi Jihadism - which is really nothing more than religious totalitarianism - poses a special challenge to a post-modern West and to a US that assiduously separates faith and state.
Secondly we must neutralize those states that actively use such ideologies, for example Pakistan and Iran, and modify the behavior of those nations that do not do enough to limit its spread, such as Saudi Arabia. At the same time we must guarantee that those nations with WMD capability which are inimical to us, understand that we will use WMD on them if their weapons reach the hands on terrorists. Next we must protect the constitutional order of the United States from internal subversion by organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood which use far subtler means than car bombs or guns to threaten our way of life. For many Western nations, it may be too late. For America it is not. Lastly we must do all that is reasonable to assist those in other nations who share our values and love of liberty to effect change in their homelands. This is not to say that we should pursue a policy of forcible exporting our model of politics to others, for without the requisite political culture this would be pointless. But wherever there are sizeable and mature oppositions - such as in Iran - we should do exactly what we did with the captive nations during the Cold War: help those who love liberty to affect their own Velvet Revolutions.
The warning “Keep It Simple” applies very much to Grand Strategy. The current administration seems unaware of this truth. America must pick it battles and apply its capabilities based upon reality and certain non-negotiable and eternal truths, not on wish lists.
Sebastian L. v. Gorka Ph.D. is founding director of the Institute for Democracy and International Security and associate fellow of the Joint Special Operations University. An internationally recognized expert on matters of national security and democratic transition, he advises and briefs at the highest levels to NATO, SOUTHCOM and USSOCOM. His new weekly column: On Defending Democracy, with the Hudson Institute New York, will focus on stories and issues that the mainstream media do not cover. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .