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Rethinking U.S. National Security Strategy: Restraint and Renewal

November 13, 2009 // 11:00am12:15pm
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When it comes to U.S. national security policy, there is a broad view of the long standing agenda and what the U.S. should be doing. At a Wilson Center on the Hill event on November 13, 2009, Barry Posen, Professor at MIT and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, offered a critique of current U.S. national security policy and suggested an alternative new grand strategy for the future – one based on restraint and renewal. Samuel Wells, Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center moderated the discussion.

According to Posen, U.S. grand strategy should focus on the basics—safety, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and power position. It is important when talking about national security to distinguish "philanthropy" and "welfare" issues from those that are at the core of national security. He noted that if policymakers do not make this distinction then it increases the likelihood that the U.S. will commit military power to philanthropic and welfare objectives.

Why a grand strategy? It has the potential resolve issues of resource scarcity, coordination, and accountability in the development and implementation of U.S. military and foreign policy. According to Posen, the relative power position of the U.S. has changed from where it was in the past, and this should cause the U.S. to reevaluate how it approaches security issues.

Since the end of the Cold War, a rough consensus has emerged about U.S. Grand Strategy. This consensus spans the Democratic and Republican Parties. The U.S. should be active in managing the world's international and internal security problems, and America's military should be forward deployed.

The outlines of an alternative grand strategy are clear. The U.S. should focus on its power and capabilities, and put a greater emphasis on its long-term power position. Infrastructure, he suggested, is key to sustaining the military power. He also noted that it will be imperative for the U.S. to reduce its dependence on liquid fuel. What is missing from the current consensus is convening power. To move on many of these issues it will require those in power to spearhead the change. Posen notes that in most discussions of U.S. grand strategy resources are talked about as if they are infinite, butas the .S. finds itself increasingly resource-constrained the cost of resources must be considered. The U.S. has gotten use to being the great power, which it still is, but the gap is narrowing. As the gap narrows, alliances such as NATO will become very important. The U.S. does need to focus globally on a handful of issues: the suppression of Al Qa'ida, the inhibition of Nuclear Proliferation, and the retention of an ability to preserve balances of power at either end of the Eurasian land mass. These policies need to be pursued while the U.S. husbands and improves its own resources. The alternative strategy calls for the U.S. to be less forceful in international politics. Democrats tend to favor international institutions, and Republicans tend to favor alliances, such as NATO. Both have their benefits, however, changing the structure of NATO would be in the interest of the U.S. Posen suggested that the U.S. should give up control of the NATO military command structure, noting that this will cause other countries to have to step up and fill the void.

There will also be issues when it comes to collective goods. Trade may be less free; countries may be less willing to work with each other, and if the U.S. were to reduce its presence in the Gulf, then oil prices are likely to rise.

Posen noted that his new grand strategy has been met with some criticism. The most significant may be that the American public would never support a plan like this. Others believe that looking at a policy like this is obsolete. He suggested that it will take at least one two-term president to make this happen. There needs to be a point where the U.S. says to the world that it will not care more about the world's security than the world does.

Drafted by: Elizabeth Byers
David Klaus, Consulting Director, Wilson Center on the Hill

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