Fewer Swords, More Plowshares: A Marine Rethinks National Security And The Threat From Unsustainability

With a new foreign policy team about to join the Obama Administration, and with the possibility of budget cuts for the Department of Defense, are changes ahead in how the United States approaches national security? That question is on the minds of thought leaders in the security and defense communities. In the discussion, a novel idea is emerging: that sustainable development at home is a critical dimension of America’s foreign policy and national security strategy. (For examples, see here and here.) One of the thought leaders is Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby. Before retiring from the Marine Corps in 2011, he served as a special strategic assistant to the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. While in that post, Mykleby and his colleague, Navy Captain Wayne Porter, proposed a new vision for a 21st Century American grand strategy in a paper entitled “A National Strategic Narrative.” They suggested that the U.S. needs to build security through sustainable development at home, creating the credibility and influence to lead the world to a more lasting peace and prosperity. That path, they suggested, is less expensive and more effective than investing solely in the traditional tools of foreign policy, which have been mostly dominated by military power. I asked Col. Mykleby about these and other issues facing President Obama in his second term. The resulting interview is long but well worth reading. It offers a fresh approach to national security from someone who has served at the highest levels of the U.S. military. I’ll post it in two parts. — Bill BeckerQ: As Congress and the President hammer out an agreement to cut federal spending, what are your concerns about the impact on our military effectiveness and national security? Can we save money without sacrificing security?

A: To be honest, I’m not too concerned about our long-term military effectiveness. We have the finest, most professional, best-equipped, and most lethal military force the world has ever seen. I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon, with or without budget cuts. I say this simply because I believe the quality of our military is mostly tied to the quality of our people (and the quality of their training). I’m not saying budget cuts won’t be painful, but we need to have some historical perspective on this. Our national defense budget historically has been cyclical; it looks like a sine wave. We’ve survived budget cuts before; we’ll survive them again. During my career in the Marine Corps, we never seemed to have enough “stuff.” That’s why I always found it useful to remember the words of former Marine Corps Commandant General Al Gray, “Fight with what you’ve got; make what you need.”

In the face of potential budget cuts, however, I am concerned about how effective our nation will be if we don’t start getting smarter about how we pursue our national interests, including how, when, and where our military is or is not employed. In the foreign policy context, this is a political issue that needs to be first and foremost in the minds of our civilian leadership. If you want to reduce the military budget, fine. But you can no longer look to the military to serve as the convenient near-term solution to all the vexing, unforeseen problems that we are currently facing, and will continue to face.

Doing more with less has its limits and it’s not fair to keep demanding more and more out of our men and women in uniform (as well as our diplomats and intelligence professionals, for that matter), particularly if you cut their resources. We need to strike the right balance across all our national resources and tools (public, private, and civil). This means we need to actually start thinking strategically, systemically, and, most importantly, wisely about how to best pursue our enduring interests of prosperity and security within our existing resource constraints. As Cicero points out in his On Duties, “Arms are of little value in the field unless there is wise counsel at home.” Given our current national condition, we need to start leveraging some wisdom at home if we’re going to make it in the 21st Century.

To do this, we need to get our brains around the fact that national security in the 21st Century does not just mean defense.

Defense is part of our security, but only a part. The big national security challenges we face today are not all about the things that start at our shores and extend outward and they certainly are not exclusively about nefarious geopolitical actors that we can point to on a map. National security today has more to do with the integrated systems, both within our nation and around the world, that constitute our society today (food, water, climate, the natural and built environments, transportation, energy, public health, education, etc.). We can no longer afford to expend our national prosperity in pursuit of an illusory promise of security that is mostly defined in terms of defense that echo from our 20th Century past. We need to put more emphasis on the realities of our 21st Century future.

This may be a pipe dream, but the silver lining could be this: Perhaps budget cuts will give us reason to look at ourselves honestly and with a sense of purpose and initiate institutional changes across all organs of government in terms of roles and missions; organizational relationships and authorities; and our overall procurement and R&D processes. It’s probably time to dust off both the National Security Act of 1947 (NSA-47) and Goldwater-Nichols, frameworks we use today but that were developed within the context of the Cold War, and design a new construct for the 21st Century environment. Such a design needs to better integrate not only the functions of defense with those of diplomacy and development in a more purposeful manner, but also the domestic functions of education, research, energy, agriculture, infrastructure, transportation, industry, public health, etc. The world is far too complex and interconnected to limit our global engagement to the convenient bins and paradigmatic constructs that worked during the Cold War. This is probably a bit cliché to say these days, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

As to your question about saving money without sacrificing security, I’ll take it one step further. I think we can be both prosperous and secure…in fact, I don’t think you can have one without the other. Simply put, prosperity and security are inextricably linked together (at least if you want them to be enduring).

This was one of the basic points Wayne Porter and I were making in the National Strategic Narrative. And I’d like to point out this isn’t new stuff. If you’ll recall, recognizing and fostering the linkage between prosperity and security was the very same argument that was repeatedly made, and never abandoned, by the likes of General George Marshall, President Eisenhower, and George Kennan — some of the best strategic minds our nation has ever produced.

Today, given the fact that the United States constitutes roughly a quarter of the global economy, we still have the weight to alter large-scale market forces and shift the direction of the global economy in a more sustainable direction. There is huge economic opportunity emerging in the world if we just consider we have to fold approximately 3 billion people into the global middle class by mid-century (and along with their arrival comes a 300% increase in consumption rates). If we crack the nut right here at home on how to live healthy, productive lives in the presence of resource constraints, we can show the world a different path of sustainable development and profit from the resultant market recalibration. Not only will we create long-term security for ourselves and the global community, we will also ensure a bright and prosperous future for our kids and grandkids. I’d say that’s something worthy of our collective efforts as a nation and as individual citizens. It also makes great economic, and security, sense.

Q: The paper you and Capt. Porter wrote caused quite a splash in security circles. You called for a new “national strategic narrative” that moves from us from “containment” to “sustainment”. What did you mean by that? What are some examples of how “sustainment” would be applied?

A: Actually, what we were saying is we need to move from “containment” to “sustainability.” Our basic premise was that containment was a strategy of control that leveraged force and power to pursue our enduring interests. In the post-World War Two environment, we could treat the world as if it was a closed system; a system where we could manipulate certain variables to achieve deterministic results. Particularly in the context of the Cold War, this made sense…and fortunately it worked. Unfortunately, the logic and instruments of containment are no longer valid in today’s more interconnected, interdependent world. Our sense is we need to approach the world more as an open system; as an ecology. We need to alter our approach because trying to apply the closed system, control logic of containment to today’s open system environment has done two things.

First, the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy) has kicked in at scale. The rate of change is exceeding our national capacity to leverage control and we have begun to fold in on ourselves in confusion and frustration as we try to impose a 20th Century logic on our 21st Century reality.

Second, this confusion and frustration has led us to a place where we seem more concerned with preserving the status quo both at home and abroad rather than adapting and thriving as the dynamics of the global “strategic ecology” shift and alter. And in any ecology, organisms that seek to preserve the status quo tend to become monocultures and monocultures invariably wither and die. Not exactly what we seek to accomplish.

It’s in this context that we applied the ecological concept of sustainability to grand strategy simply because the concept clearly maps to our enduring interests of prosperity and security (and is in keeping with our national values). Somewhere along the way, we came upon the following definition of sustainability: Sustainability is an organism’s ability to remain diverse and productive over time. Diversity means we need depth, redundancy, elasticity, and resilience in the systems that make up our society. In my Marine mind that means we need to have the capacity to take a gut punch and come back swinging, whether that punch comes from a physical attack, weather events spawned by climate change, a financial disaster, etc. This is what constitutes security in the 21st Century.

We also need to be productive, but we can no longer afford to define productivity in strictly quantitative terms. We simply don’t have enough resources to continue with our current industrial age mindset. We have to think of productivity in qualitative terms if we are going ensure the long-term vibrancy, health, and prosperity of future generations. The issue of quantity versus quality isn’t a philosophical argument; it’s an issue of math and science. It’s really that simple.

There’s one last thing I’d like to say about sustainability as a grand strategic concept. Sustainability fits nicely into a uniquely American style of grand strategy. When America has done grand strategy well, it has used its economy to do the strategic heavy lifting while aligning its governing institutions and foreign policy to take on the great global challenge of the era. In World War Two, we were the Arsenal of Democracy, arming and equipping our allies while at the same time building our own forces to take on the scourge of global fascism. In the Cold War, we took on global communism by effectively rebuilding the economies of Western Europe and Japan while reorganizing ourselves and our alliances to contain and outlast the Soviets.

Today, the great global challenge of our era is global “unsustainability.” If we can first get our own house in order and set our nation on a more sustainable path, our example (and our strength) will give us the credibility and influence we need to lead the rest of the world in a more positive direction. This is what Wayne and I meant in the Narrative when we said we need to practice smart growth at home so we can lead with smart power abroad.

Figuring out how to actually do this is what I am now focused on, along with Patrick Doherty, at the New America Foundation. If you want to see how we think sustainability can be implemented as a grand strategic concept, I encourage you to read a piece Patrick wrote that was published by Foreign Policy: “A New U.S. Grand Strategy: Why walkable communities, sustainable economics, and multilateral diplomacy are the future of American power.” Patrick’s paper lays out in clear, functional terms how we can leverage large pent up pools of demand for walkable communities, regenerative agriculture, and a revolution in resource productivity to unlock the excess liquidity we have in our economy, get it working to fuel a new American grand strategy, and shift the direction of our nation in the 21st Century. It’s our attempt to provide the “so what” follow-on to the National Strategic Narrative.

In part two, I’ll ask Col. Mykleby whether sustainable development can really prevent future conflicts; about the Department of Defense goal to use renewable energy technologies; and whether our military forces should be involved in helping other nations engage in sustainable development.  — Bill Becker is Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), an initiative of Natural Capitalism Solutions to help the President of the United States take decisive action on global warming and energy security.