In Defense of Strategic Thinking

In Defense of Strategic Thinking
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The National Defense Strategy presented by Defense Secretary James Mattis, while generally well received, has drawn some criticism. Points of criticism involve the Strategy’s prioritization and clustering of challenges, the disparity between ongoing military operations and the document’s strategic vision, and the mismatch between budgetary aspirations and realities. Details are outlined here and here. Further scrutiny of these criticisms reveals the same apathy in strategic thinking found in abundance over the last 25 years of leadership.

Regarding the prioritization and clustering of challenges, both President Donald Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy clearly articulate a return to state competition as the primary long-term threat to America’s vital national interests. In fact, the National Security Strategy uses the words “competition” and “rivals” a remarkable 32 times, compared to just four in the 2015 NSS. Furthermore, in contrast to purposefully opaque language of earlier documents, these documents clearly detail the who and why of the security environment, in priority order. In doing so, these strategies outline the focused, whole-of-government efforts required to counter explicitly defined and prioritized challenges.

Nowhere are these priorities more evident than in the South and East China Seas and in Eastern Europe. China and Russia’s coordinated operations in every domain – land, sea, air, cyber, finance, and law – fall short of conflict, but both states are carrying forward long-term, insidious, and deliberate attempts to undermine established international rules. American pre-eminence in the boardroom, on the international stage, or on the battlefield is not preordained. Nothing puts America’s long-term prosperity at risk more than the deconstruction of the laws that have undergirded U.S.-led international order for the last 70 years. 

This is not to say that rogue regimes and transnational organizations no longer threaten America’s vital interests. Rather, these clear-eyed documents accurately assess that the current and future strategic environment requires a plan that prioritizes Russia and China, the competitor nations Russia and China whose known revisionist strategic goals represent an existential threat to the American way of life. The NSS and NDS still bring into account the national stratagems over the last 17 years — ideas that have fashioned America’s current instruments of power into highly effective tools capable of mitigating regional and terrorist threats. But transitioning the political, military, intelligence, industrial, and financial complexes that have coalesced around these recent stratagems to focus on peer-to-peer competition will require the most strategic of all assets – time.  

This leads to the next misguided criticism, concerning the disparity between ongoing military operations and the document’s strategic vision. During this time of strategic transition, national leaders must re-evaluate the alignment of current operations’ resourcing and goals to ensure alignment with the new vision. To this end, specific criticism of the decision to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan is premature. “Preventing terrorists from directing or supporting external operations against the United States…” remains a stated objective of the NDS, albeit reduced in priority. With the gains made in Syria and Iraq freeing up resources, the decision to increase troop strength in Afghanistan is in perfect alignment with the new strategy, and criticism to the contrary is an unwise rush to judgement. 

Finally, the strategies' lack of budgetary alternatives is cited as a weakness. This argument holds some validity. The Department of Defense is acutely aware that it is beholden to Congress on budgetary matters, and the NDS recognizes this in its introduction by stating, “without sustained and predictable investment to restore readiness and modernize our military to make it fit for our time, we will rapidly lose our military advantage….” 

For 36 months over the last eight years, the government has operated with either no budget or a continuing resolution. Given the current and projected political atmosphere, attempting to account for the many possible budgetary permutations within the NDS would be an unproductive and unnecessary dilution of the strategic vision. The actions outlined in the NDS are aspirational after all, but not to the point of making objective obtainment impossible. 

The unipolar world of the last quarter-century lulled U.S. leaders, and quite frankly those of her partners and allies, into a period of strategic slumber. Would-be competitors did not sit idly by, dutifully accepting U.S. global leadership as an unalterable reality. Russia’s and China’s not-so-benevolent strategic visions are whole-of government attempts to rewrite the international rules to their explicit benefit.

In the face of growing global competition, America must rise, as she always has, to reprioritize and meet this challenge. The 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy have broken the United States free of its malaise and represent America’s return to the realm of true strategic thought.

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