by Kristin M. Lord

Ten years into the 21st century, America confronts upheaval abroad and two crises at home, one economic and one a crisis of vitality.  All carry risks for the United States, even dangers.  They are also entwined, in cause and effect, and in the responses required.

Together, these challenges threaten to undermine American power, stature, and confidence.  But, regrettably, the political difficulty of confronting them will tempt American leaders to do precisely the opposite of what is required.  This would be tragic since, in the era we are entering, the United States should be poised to thrive.

The World America Faces

Upheaval abroad encompasses the violent and unpredictable turmoil engulfing the Middle East; cataclysmic natural disasters; the prospect of persistent conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq; China’s evolving ambitions in its neighboring seas and territories; the spread of powerful capabilities to groups and individuals who lack a stake in the international system; and other political, economic or natural eruptions  not yet apparent.

These upheavals are merely symptoms of a broader global power transition now underway — driven by technology, demographic change, and markets, and by powerful new coalitions between people, industries, and states. This transition features the oft-noted rise of new powers such as China, India, and Brazil but also the less-remarked on rise of new powers within states: massive middle classes that will lift vast numbers out of poverty and initiate a period of economic and social dynamism even as they create intense new stresses on resources and the natural environment.  This transition will also create intense new political stresses on governments, which are likely to become more pluralistic even if they do not become more democratic, and pressure to deliver economic growth to nations and jobs to ever growing numbers of individuals even as technology makes some jobs unnecessary.

Within countries, these pressures will spur new competition for influence as new centers of power and populations grow.  (The population of Pakistan, to give just one prominent example, is projected to grow from 169 to 295 million by 2050.)  These political and economic competitions will create new winners and losers, and will spawn anger in some.  While nothing new, those with grievances now have within their reach a historic potential both to connect with others who share their distress and to inflict harm, extensively and far from their native homes.

Globally, as countries compete for jobs and markets, resources and influence, their competition is likely to be cloaked in nationalism as peoples and their political leaders grasp for what unites them as so much pulls them apart.  This competition may usher in more frequent military confrontations, often on the seas or in cyberspace, and always with the risk of escalation.  Yet, given the diffusion of military capabilities and the damage they can wreak, more conflict may not beget more war, at least not between states.  Competition, in many forms, will dominate.  And the United States must be prepared for this world.

America’s Path

Because the world will grow more complex, with more nodes of influence and more vectors of conflict, it may appear to require a vastly higher investment in America’s military, diplomacy, and foreign assistance.   It may seem to require a grand strategy that will align resources and contingency planning for every eventuality.   It may seem to call for an even more robust commitment of American forces abroad to protect wide-ranging interests from wide-ranging threats and to reassure American allies who will be ever more anxious of threats and wary of abandonment.

Yet the scope and scale required of effort required for this approach would be unaffordable.  It would also be counterproductive, and it would drain the lifeblood of American security.  It undervalues key modes of influence and inflates the ability of U.S. government agencies and armed services to control global events.  A different path is necessary.

At its very foundation, American security derives from its strength, which in turn derives from an economy that is robust and adaptive, a society in which mobility is possible and innovation is rewarded, and a shared commitment to justice that extends to all and unites the many in a common venture.  It derives from a sense of vitality and possibility that attracts both dollars and talent, and rewards exertion and ingenuity.  And it is nourished by a thirst for innovation that betters the lives of Americans but also serves the world.  Economic strength generates not only the resources but also the global connections and creative power that will enable the United States to confront the range of unexpected challenges it is likely to face in the future.  Many of these challenges are unpredictable, so the greatest protection against them is 1) strength 2) a dynamism that enables a people to believe that solutions are possible and 3) the agility and wisdom to use those assets well.

This strength and dynamism is in jeopardy.  America’s debt is crippling and, if not addressed, will constrain American options in the years ahead.  Military spending sustained at post-9/11 levels would divert minds and dollars from investments with greater potential to generate sustained economic power; meanwhile, the military acquisitions process is ossified and slow, forcing Americans to overpay for military capabilities, some of which quickly become outdated. Some entrepreneurs and scientists no longer consider America the land of greatest opportunity, and are lured abroad by better-funded laboratories and faster growing markets.  Social mobility in America is declining, and with it the meritocracy that challenges the system and undergirds the social contract in which achievement is rewarded handsomely but ultimately open to all.

Alternatively, a turning inward may seem fitting.  America is overstretched and, in countries around the world, the political grandstanding that accompanies globally diffused power may lead to an America berated, not venerated, even as Americans die protecting others who then curse us and even as America depletes its coffers to help those who then either spurn us or thrive without us. Such isolationism would be erroneous, however, even if it were possible (which is unlikely), and even if retrenchment and rethinking are in fact in order (which they are).  In the world we are part of, global engagement is necessary to both security and prosperity.  Strength will come from connection and leverage not retreat.

To protect America’s national security in the years ahead, then, six things are necessary.

1)      A robust but reshaped military presence in the world, retaining the strength necessary to defend against a range of often unpredictable threats but emphasizing flexibility and limiting America’s visible military footprint, which generates opposition in a world where power is diffusing and nationalism is increasing.

2)      A renewed economic foundation, built on fiscal sanity but also an economy and society that rewards innovation, empowers the many, and allows potential to flourish.  The time of vilifying business must conclude and a more nuanced treatment of business should follow.  The business community is essential to creating the global connections, national wealth and individual opportunities America will need to thrive.

3)      A new appreciation of politics within foreign countries and the dedication to reduce political leverage over the United States by those we do not wish to empower.  This will require new dexterity in American diplomacy, not just by diplomats but also by military leaders and all those who represent American interests on the world stage, with increased sensitivity to the complex political environments of foreign nations , and with greater focus on cultivating relationships with multiple centers of power.

4)      An embrace of both competition and connection, a national mindset that will enable strength, project vitality, and engender resiliency.  America is served well by a vibrant global economy, but must be prepared to compete within in it.  We will not always come out on top.  But we will benefit more than we are hurt; a reaction to limited losses should not torpedo far vaster gains.  Competition strengthens, even as it challenges, and that strength is America’s fiercest weapon.

5)      A recognition that the world will evolve faster than we can predict and in ways beyond our ability to control.  Preparedness will therefore require flexible capabilities, adroitly applied.  Intervention abroad should be undertaken with a fundamental humility about how what we can accomplish.

6)      An acceptance that many of the best, fastest and most responsive solutions to the many stresses described above may not come from government.  However, government can invest in and establish a conducive environment for the more agile private and not-for-profit enterprises that develop these solutions.

Together, these principles would promote economic growth, spur a new national confidence that encourages bold solutions to difficult challenges while improving the lives of individual Americans, and enhancing American power on the global stage.  They could herald a new American exceptionalism, born not of arrogance, but of a renewed potential for greatness.

The world will be increasingly contentious and America will be challenged.  We should face that competition squarely, without fear or resentment.  In the years ahead, security may need to come less from the sword and less still from the shield, and more from leverage, agility and reinvention.  These traits encapsulate America’s history but also its best path forward.  If they are embraced, no country is more poised to thrive in the turbulence that will define the 21st century.

Kristin Lord is Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security.