The United States is at an “East of Suez” moment. As the economically stressed British found necessary a half-century ago, it’s now time for U.S. leaders to triage our national interests. Accordingly, they must reconfigure the military element of national power narrowly to serve our foundational interest.
Americans must accept an uncomfortable truth: No longer have we the geo-strategic preponderance of the 1940s that enabled us to shape the postwar global environment. In 1950 the nation was fully capable of resourcing National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68), the guidance that configured the buildup of our military element to lead and execute the Cold War containment strategy.
In the post–Cold War 1990s, we appeared preponderant in our unipolar moment, but in decade two of the 21st century, unipolarity is over. A compounding array of global challenges confronts a fiscally constrained America that awaits a grand strategy. No near-term national-security budgets will rise to the level of the NSC-68 percentages of 1950s-era federal budgets or gross national product sufficient to resource any offset strategy to regain credible global military preponderance. What, then, is our foundational national interest, and who determines it?
At the turn of the past century, when the United States entered as a power player on the world stage, American national interest was determined and effected by the first generation of highly placed acolytes of the preeminent strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan: notably Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, and John Hay. Following them throughout the American Century have been succeeding generations of Mahanian acolytes including Henry Stimson, Averell Harriman, NSC-68 author Paul Nitze, and self-styled economic strategist George Shultz, to name a few.
They and others were all intimately connected with the highest levels of national finance interlocked with what evolved as the high-industrial sinews of the country—steel, railroads, automobiles, oil, media, utilities, aerospace, electronics, and nuclear technology. True national interest sustains itself over the long term when it is directly connected with the foundational infrastructures critical to American viability, prosperity, and growth. These interlocking enterprises produce national wealth and have always been the core drivers of the political economy and the institutions of governance.
America’s 21st-century sinews are information-age. They have brought forth more complex interpretations of national interest. National finance is now interlocked with today’s foundational information-technology sectors, yet purported strategic leadership articulates merely sub-national narratives. Apparently, our should-be acolytes are not even conscious of their responsibility either to effect pursuit of long-term national interest or to decide how the military element can serve that interest. The Navy has a duty to awaken them.
The United States waged two world wars and the Cold War in the context of what some call the second industrial era. In the Mahanian sense, throughout the American Century our long-term national interest was to pursue export-led growth and secure critical materials for the means of production. To that end, the gun-club, carrier, missile, and nuclear Navy was an evolving expression of a maturing U.S. techno-industrial base. It was a maritime force, configured and postured to control the seas and project power—to be sure, serving deterrence all the while.
In this century’s information age and globalized “new economy,” our long-term national interest is more abstract: It is to maintain our means of consumption and provision of services and to guarantee U.S.-imposed norms governing the international system of trade and investment. This foundational national interest requires not a costly interventionist grand strategy, but rather the classical offshore balancing of a maritime power whose primary military element is the Navy, today’s network node of an information-dominant joint maritime force.
Now more than ever, our resource-constrained military element must be an expression of America’s information technology–driven base. Other national leaderships get it. Those leading continental powers Russia and China applied First Gulf War lessons to their own offset strategies. They informed their IT-driven military expressions in the anti-access/area-denial environments that are today’s Fulda Gaps. Our wake-up call was a non-kinetic, left-of-launch message sent to the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) by a Russian Su-24 Fencer aircraft on 12 April 2014 in the Black Sea.
Mahanian doctrine holds that a properly conceived national interest reflects the foundational sinews and national establishment of the era and must inform implicit long-term grand strategy. Given projected fiscal realities, any explicit offset strategy that would attempt to regain global preponderance invites a fool’s errand.