Changing World Climate Requires a Dynamic Foreign Policy


Feb 15, 2013

Paratroopers during air assault training

photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod/U.S. Army

This commentary originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report on February 14, 2013.

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama focused on the need for the country to "continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans." This should certainly be the nation's priority. But we will need to do more, and for this we need to look back and also forward.

Since World War II, the United States has pursued a strategy that involves the ability to project military power to distant regions and to confront more than one enemy at a time. This has been important not only to deter adversaries but also reassure allies. Yet, how that strategy has been implemented over the decades has changed, as threats, alliances, and military capabilities have evolved.

As the nation ends a decade of war and confronts serious domestic needs, the question arises as to whether this strategy needs to change. Outgoing Defense Secretary Panetta says no, because in his view the United States faces threats in both the Pacific and the Middle East and those threats could possibly lead to conflict with an aggressive or a collapsing North Korea and against Iran in response to its closing the Straits of Hormuz.

We agree that this time-tested strategy needs to stay. But how it is implemented needs to change, given the following:

  • Threats today are more diverse and less predictable. They range from isolated terrorists using new tactics, to nuclear detonations, with an array of serious problems in between. They also include new threats, as the president said, including cyberattacks on power grids or communications infrastructure by individuals and nation states alike.

  • U.S. allies have demonstrated that they can share more of the burden of their defense and assume responsibility, as European countries have recently, in confronting threats such as those that have arisen in Libya and Mali. The United States needs to take the initiative to design plans, assistance programs, and exercises with this goal in mind. The United States can and should support its partners when interests align.

  • Projecting power need no longer be premised on maintaining a vast array of large, permanent overseas bases. The ability to operate with speed and precision coupled with the globalization of threats, not only violent extremists but also from the rising ambitions of some regional powers, argue for a very different global posture. A broader set of temporary bases, assistance to partners, and joint exercises need to be the new face of American power overseas.

  • Projecting force and operating in more than one place at a time need not include the highly demanding—and highly debatable—objective of invading and occupying offending regimes. Absent a state collapse, a deliberate, if largely unstated, choice not to invade and occupy could be more reassuring to our partners and even contribute to the de-escalation of conflicts short of the use of nuclear weapons.

  • Planning for military operations also needs to be built not on the worst-case scenarios of times past but on a recognition that conflicts arise and responses are called for in a political and diplomatic environment more likely to include warnings. These conflicts also bring with them the imperative of finding partners, as well as international support, through global and regional institutions.

As Secretary of State Kerry and former senator Chuck Hagel outline their thinking on the nation's strategy, let us hope that they both hold firm to the strategy that has served us well in the past and have the courage to explore a very different set of political and military ways to accomplish it.

Lynn Davis is a senior political scientist and director of the Washington office and Andrew Hoehn is senior vice president for research and analysis at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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