To Begin Again

By Commander James Stavridis, U.S. Navy

The second major shift in the international system is evident in the demands for increased democratization in a wide variety of areas, including Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Africa, and Asia. In many cases, this development has spawned a new set of problems. Indeed, in many areas, the post-Cold War era has been characterized by "states…being pressed in different, unpredictable, and potentially violent ways by ethnic, religious, or political groups seeking self-determination in the form of autonomous rights within existing states, their own separate countries, or reunification with homelands across their borders." 3 The role of the United States will be to encourage responsible moves toward democratization and to provide assistance and support where appropriate—while promoting regional stability.

The increasingly interdependent global economy is the third key element in the developing international environment. Many complex issues will face strategic economic planners—trade, currency alignments, the global flow of raw materials, international arms sales, and environmental concerns. In a changing world, we must begin again to examine both the premises and the tools of U.S. security policy.

A New Security Environment

Without question, the most troublesome aspect of the new security environment is the accelerating proliferation of advanced armaments. Today, six nations—the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Britain, India, and China—admit to having nuclear weapons; two others—Israel and Pakistan—are believed to have them as well (South Africa admitted to once having nuclear bombs, but claims to have destroyed them in 1990). Several other states have shown a high degree of interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, including Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Korea, and Algeria. 4 Of growing concern is the ultimate disposition of the large nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union. Many analysts believe it will be controlled eventually by Russia; others are worried about the potential for "instant proliferation" if some republics keep the nuclear weapons on their soil—or, worse, sell them for hard currency. Chemical weapons have been developed by many states and, reportedly, 11 countries—including Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Israel, and North Korea 5 —still are conducting biological-weapon research.

These developments are made more ominous by the spread of delivery technology for such weapons. Iraq's "supergun" project was an attempt to develop a long-range nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons delivery system. The Central Intelligence Agency estimates that 15 to 20 Third World regimes will possess medium-to-long-range ballistic missiles by the year 2000. 6

In addition to these weapons of mass destruction, many unstable countries are buying advanced conventional weapons: cruise missiles; diesel submarines; aircraft; tanks; armored personnel carriers; digital radars and sonars; sophisticated command, control, and intelligence systems; and portable antiaircraft weapons. Acquiring modem weaponry could tempt some countries into adventurism, like Saddam Hussein's forays against Iran and Kuwait.

Another worrisome aspect of the global security environment is the possible rise of regional hegemons. While a degree of regional leadership has some benefit, a local power with hegemonic ambitions can disrupt an entire region. Examples include Iraq in the Middle East, India in the Indian Ocean basin, and Libya in North Africa. Although most such efforts eventually fail, they create temporary pockets of instability that can be detrimental to the interests of the United States and its allies.

The Economic Dimension

So long as a wide economic gap exists between the countries of the industrialized Northern Hemisphere and those of the less-developed Southern Hemisphere, there will be a potential for economic conflict. Few nations of the South will take on more advanced nations directly, but more will use other methods-sponsoring terrorist groups, attacking Western activities and allies, and creating obstructions in global organizations-to discomfit the industrialized world. Direct military conflict over economic issues is more likely to occur between the nations of the South, and such wars could have serious consequences on U.S. interests.

There is potential for economic issues to create intractable differences between industrialized nations and, ultimately, cause conflict between them. A U.S.-Japanese war over Kobe beef or Honda Preludes is quite unlikely, but, as an example, tensions may develop between Japan and some of the newly industrialized countries of the Pacific Rim—over trade and natural resources-before this century ends.

U.S. Interests

Almost 150 years ago, Lord Palmerston commented that nations have no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests. Before the United States can formulate an effective strategy, it must determine its permanent national interests.

A good starting point is with the four broad interests articulated in the National Security Strategy of the United States:

  • The survival of the United States as a free and independent nation, with its fundamental values intact and its institutions and people secure.
  • A healthy and growing U.S. economy to ensure opportunity for individual prosperity and resources for national endeavors at home and abroad.
  • Healthy, cooperative, and politically vigorous relations with allies and friendly nations.
  • A stable and secure world, where political and economic freedom, human rights, and democratic institutions flourish.

From these broad goals, several more specific interests can be identified:

Economic Power: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher predicted the restructuring of the global economy into three great "blocks," each dominated by a different currency—the U.S. dollar, the Deutschmark, and the Japanese yen. Whether this occurs or not (and there is evidence to suggest that it is), a fundamental U.S. interest should be to remain the world's premier economic power.

Political Influence: Will the United States reprise President John F. Kennedy's vow to "bear any burden, pay any price" to support democracy throughout the world? Or will its course be that advocated by John Quincy Adams, that the United States "go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Our interests lie on a middle path. Intervention on the side of democracy should meet two clear tests: a legitimate national interest in seeing democracy established; and the means to assist in its birth and sustenance.

Military Capability: U.S. military interests are straightforward. We must maintain deterrence-to prevent attack on the United States and our allies—and the ability to protect specific U.S. interests whenever and wherever threats to them emerge.

Geostrategic Imperative: The dominance of the Eurasian landmass by a centralizing power must be avoided. It does not matter if the power is Russia, Germany, or even a union of European states; the basic geopolitical premise that the dominance of the Eurasian landmass by a single state is not desirable remains sound strategic policy. Similarly, we cannot allow the Western Pacific Basin to be dominated by a single country—be it Japan or China.

Strategic Options

Developing a U.S. strategy that will safeguard our interests in this evolving global order is a daunting task and a wide variety of broad strategic approaches are currently being touted as the replacement for containment. It is here we must truly begin again.

Disengagement: The advocates of this policy—on both the left and the right—hold that the United States should withdraw from the world. They assert that U.S. global leadership during the Cold War was a historical aberration and, with Cold War over, the United States should fix its attention on domestic problems.

Democracy First: A second group of observers believe that the United States should pursue a policy of supporting emerging democratic governments with economic aid, moral support, and (where required) military assistance.

This idea—which echoes the Wilsonian worldview—has many supporters among the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Former Secretary of State James Baker has said that a major goal of U.S. foreign policy ought to be "the promotion and consolidation of democracy." 7 Carl Gershman, the President of the National Endowment for Democracy, observed that "democracy is our central purpose and has been since our nation was founded on the basis of universal democratic principles." 8 The Clinton administration's approach to Yugoslavia echoes some of these thoughts.

International Organizations: Buoyed by the success of the United Nations in the Persian Gulf War, many foreign-policy thinkers have called for a world that relies to varying degrees on supranational organizations, especially the United Nations to settle disputes through arbitration and to make and keep peace—at times, using military forces under U.N. control.

Pax Americana: This school of thought holds that because the United States is the only superpower, the world is not proceeding toward a multi-polar structure, but a uni-polar one. 9 Its advocates believe that the United States should be concerned solely with ensuring the world develops in a manner that benefits its national interests through the unilateral use of U.S. military, economic, and political power.

A Strategy of Engagement

Disengagement is not a viable policy for a nation that is the world's political leader with major foreign economic and military interests. International organizations are important in various activities, but may be at least a century away from true political significance. A strategy of "democracy first" has an idealistic appeal, but will not be universally applicable. The simple-minded unilateralism of "Pax Americana" ignores that fact that the world is not ready for the United States as global policeman—and the U.S. taxpayers are clearly unwilling to pay for the forces required to play such a role.

The best course would be to combine several traditional U.S. strategic approaches into a new, and admittedly demanding, approach: a strategy of engagement. This strategy will require the United States to act as a catalyst—as it did brilliantly in the Persian Gulf War. It also means leading efforts to create sensible and fair global economic structures and offering encouragement and assistance to nascent democracies in regions where our vital interests are engaged—i.e., Eastern Europe, Central America, and the Pacific Basin. Finally, it will require the willingness to apply military force to protect its vital interests.

A strategy of engagement suits our national strengths: an insular position, from which we can operate with some degree of geographic distance; strong military forces with mobility and reach; a strong economy based on free-market institutions; a willingness to participate in the world; and an enthusiasm for democratic institutions.

The Tools for the Job

The strategy of engagement is the way by which the United States can act in support of its national objectives in a positive way. However, it is important to realize that not all the problems that will be faced by the United States can be solved by political and economic means (although they will form the greater part of the engagement strategy). Some problems—whether caused by the proliferation of modern weapons, conflicts over resources, or ancient, intractable ethnic hatreds—will demand military solutions.

As President George Bush said, in a 2 August 1990 speech at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies: "In an era when threats may emerge with little or no warning, our ability to defend our interests will depend upon our speed and agility. We will need forces that give us global reach. No amount of political change will alter the geographic fact that we are separated from many of our most important allies and interests by thousands of miles of water." As if to illustrate the point, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on the same day.

This "geographic fact"—coupled with the probability of several simultaneous crises, the decreasing number of overseas bases, and the wide variety of possible scenarios—means that the United States must concentrate on developing mobile, flexible forces capable of responding at every point on the vertical ladder of escalation—from the "presence" mission, to blockade, to strike warfare, to the seizure and occupation of territory.

In some cases, there is no substitute for forces on the scene—e.g., U.S. Army and Air Force units in West Germany during the Cold War-but political obstacles to permanent stationing of U.S. land and air forces over seas are substantial. With the defense budget certain to be cut even further, it is doubtful that the United States could maintain forces of adequate strength in every critical region. Furthermore, the presence of U.S. forces might become a political liability—domestic and international—for any host government. Therefore, in the future, the United States will have to rely upon the most flexible and mobile elements of its military: joint air and sea power.

If the United States decides on a military deployment to an area in crisis, the final size and shape of the force will depend on a variety of factors—e.g., the availability of bases in the crisis area; the size and capability of the enemy; and any political constraints.

As soon as it is clear that a U.S. military response is required, however, the initial joint force should be capable of performing many missions, to give policy makers as much flexibility as possible in dealing with the situation. The joint force should be able to:

  • Establish absolute command of the sea and air.
  • Provide a secure area into which further forces—including heavy land forces-could be introduced.
  • Perform strike missions, ranging from strategic deep strike against an enemy's "center of gravity" to battlefield support.
  • Impose a complete blockade on all ports and all coastal areas.

A New Type of Force

The question now arises: Just what type of joint force would have these capabilities? Certainly, the ships and aircraft of a Navy carrier battle group (CVBG) could perform many of these tasks under the direction of a joint warfighting commander-in-chief. Many of them could be carried out by the ships, aircraft, and Marines of a joint amphibious task force. And, the aircraft of an Air Force composite wing are not limited to strike and air-superiority missions; they are capable of many naval operations as well.

But instead of separating sea power, amphibious power, and air power into separate and discrete entities, these forces—a carrier battle group, an amphibious task force, and an Air Force composite wing—should be combined routinely into an integrated strike force under the direction of a single joint commander.

Under this concept—elements of which are being examined at Atlantic Command headquarters today—the battle group, the amphibious force, and the composite wing would be assembled as an identified team and "work up" together much like a Navy battle group does today. 10 This means meetings among the key players down to the midgrade officers in each of the component forces, which would produce a series of warfighting memoranda detailing the force's tactics. Ideally, the component forces would enjoy a relatively long-term relationship before being deployed. The strike force would train, be briefed, participate in exercises, and deploy as a joint team.

During periods of peace, a joint integrated strike force could deploy to critical areas as CVBGs do today, or be used strictly as a surge force that would head to a region in times of crisis. In the first case, the Navy and Marine units would sail to the operational region, and the Air Force wing would fly to a base in the region that could support its operations. In the second case, the units would be based and train in U.S. territory, ready to move into regional crisis areas as required. While the second option would be less desirable—because the strike force would be denied the experience of deploying together—it would be less expensive and less demanding on the personnel and equipment of the force's component units.

Of course, a joint integrated strike force would not be expected to go it alone when deployed. Whenever operating overseas, it would be supported by satellites, long-range, land-based aircraft-P-3 Orion patrol aircraft, airborne warning and control system (A WACS) aircraft, tankers, and bombers—and seaborne logistics units. If the crisis demanded a heavier force—e.g., an Army mechanized division—it would be available to move out from the United States. Elements of the Army division could be included routinely for the strike force.

The advantages of integrating such a force are many and the synergism powerful. First, the units would have trained, operated, and practiced warfare together at the tactical and operational level for months before a given deployment or operation. Many of the basic doctrinal and operational problems that currently tend to emerge only in the crucible of battle would have been resolved.

There are tremendous advantages of scale associated with training operations undertaken by three such large units. These would include expanded use of explosive ranges, air-combat maneuvers, and tanker support; communication frequency allocation savings; shared national-level intelligence and briefings; and mutual use of support forces (e.g., AWACS planes and bases).

Such operations would use assets more efficiently by allowing each service to do what it truly does best—e.g., long-range strike by the Air Force bombers, maritime air superiority by Navy fighters, and surveillance by joint E-2 Hawkeye/AWACS operations.

Furthermore, such packaging would ensure that any shortfalls in logistics and basing could be covered. If forward bases were not available for Air Force fighters to cover Air Force strike missions, carrier-based Navy fighters could do the job. Air control for aircraft operating overland could be performed by Navy Aegis cruisers. The preparation for and execution of operations by a joint integrated strike force would result in a viable truly integrated warfighting doctrine that would be refined and updated based on lessons hard won in the real world.

Finally, the level of mobility and flexibility in an integrated strike force would be extremely high. Take air power missions, for instance. Long-range bombers could reach any point on the globe in a matter of hours. They would be followed by carrier-based aircraft within days, and, assuming bases would be available, Air Force aircraft within a week: Army heavy units then could be introduced as necessary. The flexibility of such a force would produce warfighting capabilities along a seamless time-line in the crisis arena."


As the United States moves forward into a turbulent decade, it must remain willing to be, by turns, a leader, a catalyst, and a coalition builder in a complex world. In order to pursue a strategy of engagement effectively, the United States must retain strong and ready military forces to employ in support of national interests.

As the defense budget shrinks, greater efficiencies will be required of the services. The development of joint integrated strike forces would be a logical outgrowth of the increasing level of joint experience and the requirement for mobile, powerful forces capable of responding rapidly around the world. A joint integrated strike force concept—combining the best elements of sea and air power, with land power in reserve—would be a powerful evocation of U.S. resolve and capability to maintain a stable and peaceful world.

1 John Gaddis, "Toward the Post-Cold War World," Foreign Affairs (Spring 1991), p. 102.

2 Peter Grier, "The World Through Colin Powell's Eyes," The Christian Science Monitor, 11 September 199 I, p. 9.

3 Glen Frankel "Upheaval in Europe," Baltimore Sun, 10 July 199 1, p. 2.

4 Dan Fesperman, "Iraq's Progress on Nuclear Arms Rocked Experts," Baltimore Sun, 10 November 199 1, p. 1.

5 David Fairhall, "Eleven Countries Defying Ban on Germ Weapons," The Guardian, 5 September 1991, p. 1.

6 ''SDI and Nuclear Instability," Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, 1 September 1991, p. F-2.

7 James A. Baker, "Democracy and American Diplomacy," Address to the World Affairs Council, Dallas, Texas, 30 March 1990.

8 Carl Gershman, "Freedom Remains the Touchstone," The National Interest, Spring 1990, pp. 83-86.

9 Charles Krauthammer, "The Unipolar Moment," Foreign Affairs: America and the World 1990-1991, pp. 22-33.

10 See Admiral Paul D. Miller's monograph Swords and Plowshares, January 1993.

11 This concept of the sequencing by which Air Force and Navy forces would be introduced into a crisis arena was suggested in discussion with Colonel Buzz Moseley of the National War College Faculty in Washington, D.C. in August 1991.


A 1976 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Commander Stavridis is currently in the training pipeline en route to command the USS Barry (DDG-52). He has served previously as the executive officer of the USS Antietam (CG-54) and operations officer of the USS Valley Forge (CG-50). He holds a PhD from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and has served in a variety of strategic and long-range planning assignments.


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