As the United States confronts economic difficulties and growing perceptions if its gradual withdrawal from global affairs, the American people and their policymakers need to ask: "why is this happening?"
A powerful explanation rests with how we defined our defense strategy during the Cold War. In the struggle against totalitarianism, policymakers and scholars defined the nation's "defense" far too narrowly.
Facing a serious geostrategic competitor, debates about national defense were dominated by how much the U.S. spent on defense, capabilities of our military forces and those of our adversary, and wars we fought. With this threat, it was reasonable and practical for the nation to emphasize this narrower approach to "defense."
With its victory in the Cold War, the U.S. emerged as the only economic and military superpower. Sadly, all good things must come to an end.
With America's five-year economic downturn, China's steady rise, and the steady drumbeat of fears in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East of America retrenching or in decline, the nation must revisit what "defense" means.
Moving forward, Americans can no longer define defense so narrowly. This is the moment for the nation redefine "defense" in broader and more inclusive terms.
Redefining National Defense
The nation's national defense has always been about far more than weapons, capabilities, and budgets. A new and more expansive strategy for "defense" embraces, as I wrote in The Diplomat earlier this year, "rebuilding the domestic foundations of American power."
America's defense strategy fundamentally hinges much more on the depth, breadth, and power of the nation's economy and infrastructure than it does on military power.
Debates about whether the U.S.is withdrawing from its position of global leadership raise a fundamental question: Can America's defense strategy be effective when the domestic foundations of its power are weak? The answer, obviously, is "no."
Why America's Power is Declining
Why has there been a decline in the domestic foundations of American power? And how did we let this happen?
To begin with, the Cold War struggle against Soviet totalitarianism and the decade-long war against extremism in Afghanistan and Iraq, consumed immense resources-tens of trillions of dollars.
With its victory in the Cold War, Americans believed that the nation's power, staggering by any standard, permitted it to deal with any challenge. In effect, we ignored the age-old imperative in defense of keeping one's "house" in order.
But now, facing economic troubles and worries of its decline or withdrawal, the nation must recast its defense strategy more broadly to encompass rebuilding the domestic foundations of America's power.
Defining "Defense" Narrowly Has Serious Consequences
Failing to define defense broadly weakens the nation's ability to provide the leadership the world needs. If the U.S. is weak at home - facing anemic economic growth, high unemployment, soaring national debt, budget deficits as far into the future as the eye can see, and political gridlock - how can allies and adversaries take the U.S. seriously?
When its infrastructure is crumbling, America's ability to tackle global problems, large or small, is in doubt. Policymakers worried about the nation's economic health are easily distracted from dealing with foreign policy problems. They will be easily persuaded to postpone or ignore problems requiring U.S. involvement. In each instance, the moment simply won't seem "right" for action. Worried about the costs of leadership, policymakers will be tempted to rationalize why a specific crisis does not require American involvement.
Seeing the nation's weak economy, or perhaps believing the U.S. has played too great a role, policymakers may believe that deficits and debt are incompatible with exercising global leadership. If the costs of leadership deter policymakers by persuading them that action is not possible or is someone else's responsibility - or that exercising leadership directly competes with the enormous costs of competing domestic priorities - we have a U.S. in retreat.
Worryingly, this nation is deeply divided, distracted, and adrift in a world desperately needing American leadership to defend peace, security, freedom, and prosperity. Does anyone seriously believe that China or Russia can play such a role - or that these states have the resources and will to do so?
How America Rebalances "Defense"
The obvious solution is for the U.S. to rebalance what it means by "defense."
First, it is time to rebuild the nation's long-standing consensus on the principles that govern the nation's defense. With American politics so polarized and no evident consensus on most matters, starting to rebuild the foundations of power is one step toward unifying the nation. Rebuilding the domestic side of national defense will broaden what we mean by defense and help renew the nation's sense of purpose.
Second, the way to rebuild the domestic foundations of power is to focus on the economy. This means modernizing American infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and the electric power grid.
It includes building health care and retirement systems to provide a social safety net for everyone. Education remains a national problem, with American children falling farther and farther behind their counterparts in many nations, despite extraordinary spending. Simply stated, every facet of America's power base needs serious rebuilding.
Third, the risk is that in redefining "defense" more broadly during times of economic and political duress, the nation will make "unforced errors." One such error is to believe that America can retrench without harming its interests and those of friends and allies.
There is no more damaging or dangerous policy for the U.S. than to abandon its leadership role, which will foment insecurity, chaos, and fear. Any degree of U.S. retrenchment or withdrawal runs the risk of being a massive strategic failure of our own making from which the U.S., its friends, and allies will suffer grievous harm.
Fourth, for too long U.S. policymakers paid lip service to striking a balance between defense and domestic prosperity. To produce the "right" national defense strategy, policymakers must balance rebuilding the domestic elements of power with the classic requirements of "defense."The U.S. cannot gut defense while reworking the domestic elements of its power. Getting this strategy right involves a delicate balance.
An America divided and unclear about its responsibilities is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, for now the U.S. does not face any truly serious global adversaries. China and Russia, while worrisome, present obstacles rather than existential threats. Neither has the power to do serious harm to the U.S., as long as the nation exercises a modicum of preparedness. The same logic applies to Iran, North Korea, and others.
To return to basics, failing to define "national defense" in comprehensive economic and military terms weakened American influence. When America's leadership role is in decline, the world suffers.
The U.S. must resolve how it tackles national defense on its own. Otherwise, a crisis of someone else's choosing will force the nation to solve these problems. Failure is not an option in getting national defense right.