Security Policy and the Question of Fundamental Change

Author data: 
John Steinbruner
Publication Date: 
November 2010
CISSM Working Paper
The Advanced Methods of Cooperative Security Program
Document Type: 
Working Papers

Over the course of the 2008 election, the idea of fundamental change became the dominant theme of American politics, and to some degree the capacity to undertake it was displayed in response to a crisis of confidence in financial markets. When the flow of credit necessary to support normal economic activity virtually ceased in the final quarter of the year, prevailing ideology was abandoned and long-established policies radically altered in feats of reaction that would have been considered inconceivable just a few days before they actually occurred. The initial actions taken did not master the problem, and the process of doing so will apparently be lengthy and torturous. Nonetheless the ability to redirect policy in response to calamity was demonstrated at a moment—the final weeks of a presidential election—when it normally would have been considered least likely to occur.

The deeper question, however, is whether the United States political system can anticipate calamity before it occurs and undertake the fundamental redirection of policy necessary to avoid it. The financial crisis revealed that the leading institutions had been driven into unsustainable levels of debt by a misconception of risk that permeated the market. No one with direct responsibility noticed until the collapse occurred. A comparably significant misconception of risk lies at the core of prevailing security policy with yet greater potential for catastrophe. The risk results from operational practices of nuclear deterrent forces that are not assuredly safe or strategically justified but are deeply institutionalized. The underlying question is whether the United States can comprehend smoldering danger and adjust to changing circumstances that are ultimately more consequential but less immediately compelling than the financial crisis has been.

The political system that faces this question has been rightly revered for its ability to protect individual rights and to prevent the abuse of power. Judged against absolute standards, its historical performance in that regard has hardly been flawless, and in fact the protection of disadvantaged constituencies remains among the more urgent problems of American society more than two centuries after the constitutional design was enacted. Judged against the record of other forms of government, however, it can fairly claim preeminence given the size and diversity of the population it serves.

That accomplishment is so seminal and its preservation is so vital that most Americans are extremely reluctant to acknowledge the price that has been paid. The United States political system, designed and painfully evolved to prevent tyranny, has grave difficulty formulating coherent policy that is responsive to common interest. Coordination of a deliberately divided and protectively restrained government depends on a degree of consensus that is difficult to achieve and even more difficult to change once it has been achieved. Provisions for protecting minority rights, moreover, make government policy highly susceptible to the self-serving influence of interests that are economically privileged and intensely invested in a particular cause. Those features pose a question as to whether the American political system is capable of adapting to rapid and radical changes of circumstance that require the highly organized defense of common interests in terms that are different from established habits. Is it a magnificent dinosaur headed for extinction?

One can reasonably hope that metaphor is overly dramatic, but the underlying issue is quite serious. Radical changes of circumstance, summarized in the term globalization, are widely acknowledged and ubiquitously discussed, but the ability to comprehend the implications let alone to manage them has not been demonstrated. The implosion of the global financial markets is a warning with much broader implications than yet acknowledged.

It is tempting to imagine, as Plato did, a concentration of executive power in a manner that assures dedication to legitimate common purpose as well as the wisdom required to serve it. The overwhelming burden of historical judgment holds, however, that there is no such formula, a judgment most succinctly summarized in Lord Acton’s famous dictum: “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Given that apparent feature of the human condition, it would not be appropriate to contemplate a constitutional redesign in response to the process of globalization, but it is therefore vital to accomplish adaptation by revising the operational consensus that prevails in the United States and by treating the various interfering pathologies to which the political system is susceptible as they occur.

The term operational consensus refers to the concepts of interest and to the principles used to pursue them that provide the basis for institutionalized policy. Broadly shared working assumptions about these matters are largely implicit and hence difficult to document directly, but they are necessary for any society to act coherently. They enable the actions of numerous individuals and organizations to be coordinated at feasible cost in terms of time and effort. The embedded assumptions that play this role for security policy have been forged through formative experience and extensive evolution. They are not easily changed because they must be replaced rather than simply abandoned and because the replacement process itself depends on formative experience and extensive evolution.

For the United States, the formative experience that provides the foundation for contemporary security policy began with the Great Depression and ended with World War II. As a result of that sequence the federal government became far more consequential domestically than it had ever been before, and the United States itself became far more consequential internationally. It was a moment of maturation brought about not merely by the passing of time but by response to momentous events. It gave the country as a whole an organizing and energizing focus – the defeat of imperial aggression – that proved to be as vital for economic rehabilitation as for national defense.

And for a half century thereafter a central feature of the experience was relived as the United States developed history’s most capable military establishment in perceived global confrontation with the Soviet Union, which was assumed to present a danger of imperial aggression comparable to the belligerent regimes of Germany and Japan. That assumption sustained the broadly accepted clarity of purpose that had been forged in the World War II experience and has provided justification for financing the military establishment at an average rate of more than $400 billion per year in constant 2004 dollars.  Clarity of purpose and justification for resource allocation are essential elements of an effective operational consensus.

With the advantage of more detached retrospect, the strategic necessity of the Cold War confrontation can be questioned. But regardless of the judgment ultimately made in that regard, it is evident that whatever validity the legacy retained was vitiated in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its alliance system. Those events decisively removed any immediate possibility of conventional warfare on continental scale and hence any credible threat of globally significant imperial aggression. They did not eliminate the confrontation of intercontinental range nuclear forces that had supported the two opposing alliances, but it has been presumed that the deterrent effect of those forces would preclude their deliberate use once they were disconnected from any mission of territorial acquisition.

The reigning concept of imperial threat has not been replaced, however, and it is extremely difficult to do so outside the context of an active war.  In the absence of a credible strategic enemy, it has been so far impossible to devise a practical substitute. The currently prominent phenomenon of terrorism cannot be equated with massive imperial aggression and cannot be addressed in the same way. Nor can a “rising” China be plausibly cast in the global imperialist role based on its history, current policies and extraordinarily demanding internal development imperatives. The United States as well as the international community as a whole is in serious need of an alternative formulation.