European Affairs

The Conflicting Goals of America's New Security Strategy     Print Email
Ivo H. Daalder, James M. Lindsay, and James B. Steinberg

The Bush administration's National Security Strategy sets forth ambitious, and laudable, objectives for the United States: America should promote freedom and liberty; the threat of terrorism and rogue states must be eliminated; America should work with other great powers to pursue common interests; poverty does present a moral and strategic challenge.

What the Strategy fails to deliver, however, is a coherent and concrete guide on how to achieve these objectives. The Strategy forthrightly commits to "fighting terrorists and tyrants" and "encouraging free and open societies on every continent." What it ignores is that these two goals often conflict.

In the wake of September 11, the administration successfully built a multinational coalition to wage the war on terrorism. But many of the countries in this coalition - China, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan, to name just a few - do not share America's commitment to "seeking the rewards of liberty." Which should take priority: Our commitment to our ideals? Or concern for our safety?

The Strategy offers no advice on how to answer these questions, and it does not seem to recognize the possible contradiction. Indeed, its implicit message is that counter-terrorism trumps freedom as a priority. While it speaks of creating a balance of power to further freedom, it in fact advocates a balance of power to counter terrorism.

Thus, the Strategy displays none of the promised candor to "speak out honestly about violations of the non-negotiable demands of human dignity." It criticizes no country of consequence to the United States in the war on terrorism for specific human rights abuses - not Russia for its war on Chechnya; not China for its suppression of Tibet, democracy activists, and religious minorities; not Pakistan for its support of Kashmiri separatists or its suspension of democratic institutions.

Quite the opposite - Pakistan is applauded for its "move toward building a more tolerant and open society." The Strategy calls on Palestinians to embrace democracy, but makes no similar demand on Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

A national strategy that trumpets freedom in the abstract but subordinates it to counter-terrorism in practice opens U.S. foreign policy to charges of hypocrisy. A gap between words and deeds is inevitable in any policy. But failing to have a clear plan for preventing authoritarian governments from using the war on terrorism to perpetuate their rule maximizes political costs.

Many of America's allies in the war on terrorism are democracies that must respond to their own publics. A policy that seems to say Americans will trade the freedom of others to secure their own safety hardly provides a stirring call to arms.

Even more troubling, the denial of human freedom feeds the problems of terrorism and failing states. In much of the Islamic world today, both the rulers and the ruled see the United States as buttressing authoritarianism rather than opposing it.

That enables governments to avoid what the Strategy calls the "single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise," and breeds anti-American (and anti-Western) sentiment among their citizens.

This perpetuates the nexus of poverty, failed institutions, and resentment that terrorists can manipulate to their own ends. Unless the United States closes the gap between its words and its deeds, it risks fueling the very threats that imperil its security.

Contrary to most media reports and the comments of some administration officials, the Strategy does not declare deterrence to be dead. In asserting that the United States "must build and maintain our defenses beyond challenge," it flatly states the U.S. military must be able to "deter threats against U.S. interests, allies, and friends."

If anything, the Strategy actually broadens the role of deterrence in U.S. national security policy. The purpose of a strong military is not just to deter the adversary on the battlefield but also "to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."

Although it may be impolitic to discuss American primacy so bluntly, it is neither an unachievable nor an unreasonable goal for at least the next decade. Its practical impact may be modest, however, since most countries build up their defenses to meet immediate threats to their security, not to compete with the United States.

In contrast, the Strategy envisions a much narrower role for preemption. It discusses preemption in the specific context of defeating terrorists and rogue states. It never suggests preemption has a role to play with respect to a rising China or any residual threat posed by Russia.

Nor is the argument for preempting terrorists controversial. Law enforcement, covert operations, and intelligence gathering have always sought to preempt terrorist attacks, and such preemptive activities are well established in international law.

Clinton administration officials partially justified the 1998 cruise missile attacks on targets in Afghanistan and Sudan on preventative grounds. Instead, the debate in the United States has always been about whether the U.S. government is doing enough to stop terrorists preemptively, not whether it has to wait for them to attack before acting.

The Strategy's argument for preempting rogue states is more debatable. It rests on the disputed claim that "deterrence based upon the threat of retaliation is less likely to work against leaders of rogue states more willing to take risks." This conclusion is based more on conjecture than hard evidence.

Iraq and North Korea, the only two rogue states that the Strategy mentions by name, have both shown they understand deterrence. (Oddly, Iran, the third member of the "axis of evil," merits no mention as a rogue state, though it fits the criteria.) Baghdad heeded warnings during the 1991 Gulf War that it faced catastrophic retaliation if it used weapons of mass destruction, and Pyongyang has abided by the armistice on the Korean peninsula for a half century.

At the same time, the Strategy fails to acknowledge that a preemptive attack could precipitate the very attacks it seeks to prevent. An obvious danger is that the rogue state will use its weapons of mass destruction before it loses them - or deliberately give them to groups that will. A less obvious danger is that terrorists will be able to use the chaos that accompanies war to buy or steal weapons of mass destruction.

Leaving the merits of the deterrence argument aside, the Strategy provides no guidance on when to preempt. The potential target set is "a small number of rogue states," and "the United States will not use force in all cases to preempt emerging threats." President Bush has said that neither North Korea nor Iran is a candidate for U.S.-initiated uses of force.

One danger with a preemptive strategy - that it may be employed too widely - may not apply here. Rather, talk of preemption may be a grand justification for attacking a single country, namely, Iraq. If so, it is hardly needed. The Bush administration itself has made the case for military action based on Baghdad's defiance of numerous UN Security Council resolutions.

The Strategy's silence on the circumstances that justify preemption raises another and more likely danger: countries will embrace the preemption argument as a cover for settling their own national security scores, as Russia has already hinted at with Georgia.

As Henry Kissinger has argued, "It cannot be either in the American national interest or the world's interest to develop principles that grant every nation an unfettered right of preemption against its own definition of threats to its security."

The Strategy recognizes this problem by warning nations not to "use preemption as a pretext for aggression." But until the administration can define the line separating justifiable preemption from unlawful aggression in a way that gains widespread adherence abroad, it risks seeing its words used to justify ends it opposes.

To implement its national security policy, the Strategy calls for organizing "coalitions - as broad as practicable - of states able and willing to promote a balance of power that favors freedom." The Strategy says little, however, about how the United States can best secure the cooperation of others.

Instead, "coalitions of the willing" will be created as needed to address specific threats and opportunities - presumably only to dissolve once the issue at hand has been addressed. The mission creates the coalition, and not the other way around.

Previous administrations have emphasized the role that international institutions can play in helping forge international consensus. The Strategy implicitly dismisses such arrangements. It insists America "is committed to lasting institutions like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Organization of American States, and NATO as well as other longstanding alliances."

But the repeated references to strengthened alliances make no mention of how this might be done, what new arrangements might be created, or what happens when allies disagree. Rather, while noting that "we will respect the values, judgment, and interests of our friends and partners," the Strategy emphasizes that "we will be prepared to act apart when our interests and unique responsibilities require."

This approach to coalitions rests on two dubious assumptions. The first is the presumption that coalitions sufficient to the task will form in every instance. On issues where U.S. primacy can carry the day, such as destroying rogue states, this may be true.

In other areas, however, coalitions will founder as long as some remain outside. This is especially true when it comes to curtailing the spread of dangerous technologies. It matters little that some nations follow America's lead in controlling such diffusion, if others do not.

The second dubious assumption is that formal institutions contribute little to American interests other than helping to achieve specified missions. History suggests otherwise. International institutions provide for regularized interactions that, over time, can turn separate national interests into shared ones.

NATO, to take one example, helped knit Western Europe together during the Cold War and is now extending the boundaries of the European zone of peace. By downplaying such institution building, the Strategy forfeits an opportunity to build the common interests that most of its recommendations presuppose exist among the United States and its allies and partners.

The Strategy correctly argues that failing states threaten American security. Where it comes up short is in outlining how to keep states from failing and how to rescue those that have failed.

This is not to say that the Strategy does not favor helping poor countries become prosperous. It calls on rich nations to seek "to double the size of the world's poorest economies within a decade." To that end, it pledges to "promote the connection between trade and development."

It also repeats President Bush's vow to increase core U.S. development assistance by 50 percent "for projects in countries whose governments rule justly, invest in their people, and encourage economic freedom," and to increase the amount of developmental assistance given in the form of grants instead of loans.

These initiatives are commendable. They could promote economic growth in many countries. But they will not necessarily help save failed states, whose difficulties go far deeper than a lack of capital investment.

The administration's development strategy envisions a form of tough love - states that embrace reform will be rewarded, those that do not will go without. Failing states, however, are precisely the ones least capable of ensuring the rule of law, stemming corruption, and following the sensible economic policies that the administration stipulates as conditions for help.

There is the risk that the countries that need help the most will not be eligible for it, and the countries eligible for it will be the ones that need it least.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2002.