On Friday, April 8, as members of the U.S. Congress engaged in a last-minute game of chicken over the federal budget, the Pentagon quietly issued a report that received little initial attention: “A National Strategic Narrative.” The report was issued under the pseudonym of “Mr. Y,” a takeoff on George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram” from Moscow (published under the name “X” the following year in Foreign Affairs) that helped set containment as the cornerstone of U.S. strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union.
The piece was written by two senior members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a “personal” capacity, but it is clear that it would not have seen the light of day without a measure of official approval. Its findings are revelatory, and they deserve to be read and appreciated not only by every lawmaker in Congress, but by every American citizen.
American Priorities Are Ailing
The narrative argues that the United States is fundamentally getting it wrong when it comes to setting its priorities, particularly with regard to the budget and how Americans as a nation use their resources more broadly. The report says Americans are overreacting to Islamic extremism, under investing in their youth, and failing to embrace the sense of competition and opportunity that made America a world power. The United States has been increasingly consumed by seeing the world through the lens of threat, while failing to understand that influence, competitiveness, and innovation are the key to advancing American interests in the modern world.
Courageously, the authors make the case that America continues to rely far too heavily on its military as the primary tool for how it engages the world. Instead of simply pumping more and more dollars into defense, the narrative argues:
By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans — the scientists, statesmen, industrialists, farmers, inventors, educators, clergy, artists, service members, and parents, of tomorrow — we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future. Our first investment priority, then, is intellectual capital and a sustainable infrastructure of education, health and social services to provide for the continuing development and growth of America’s youth.
Focus on Investing in the American Workforce
Yet, it is investments in America’s long-term human resources that have come under the fiercest attack in the current budget environment. As the United States tries to compete with China, India, and the European Union, does it make sense to have almost doubled the Pentagon budget in the last decade while slashing education budgets across the country?
The report places considerable emphasis on the importance of achieving a more sustainable approach to security, energy, agriculture, and the environment. Again, it is important to stress that this narrative was penned by senior military thinkers, not the Sierra Club. The simple fact is that any clear-eyed analysis pretty quickly comes to the same conclusion: The United States has established an incentive system that just doesn’t make any sense. It continues to pour tens of billions of dollars into agricultural and oil subsidies every single year even as these subsidies make the gravity of the environmental, health, and land-use problems the country faces in the future ever graver. As the report argues, America cannot truly practice the use of “smart power” until it practices “smart growth” at home. While some may be quick to argue that the Pentagon should not be considering issues like smart growth and investments in America’s youth, this goes to another key point from the authors: America won’t get its approach to policy right if it leaves foreign policy and domestic policy in tidy little silos that ignore the interconnection between the two.
Stereotyping the Rest of the World Is Counterproductive
The paper argues persuasively that the tendency of Americans to broadly label the rest of the world has been hugely counterproductive. The authors point out that the tendency over the last decade by some Americans to view all Muslims as terrorists has made it more difficult to marginalize genuine extremism, while alienating vast swaths of the global Muslim community. In a world where credibility is so central to America’s national interest and reach around the globe, the overheated domestic debate about the war on terror has never served it very well.
Lastly, the narrative makes a clarion call for America to look forward, not back, in today’s interconnected world:
And yet with globalization, we seem to have developed a strange apprehension about the efficacy of our ability to apply the innovation and hard work necessary to successfully compete in a complex security and economic environment. Further, we have misunderstood interdependence as a weakness rather than recognizing it as a strength. The key to sustaining our competitive edge, at home or on the world stage, is credibility — and credibility is a difficult capital to foster. It cannot be won through intimidation and threat, it cannot be sustained through protectionism or exclusion. Credibility requires engagement, strength, and reliability — imaginatively applied through the national tools of development, diplomacy, and defense.
The budget deal over the weekend lopped $8 billion off of funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Defense spending was left untouched. Congress doesn’t seem to have gotten the wake-up call. Φ
John Norris is executive director of the Sustainable Security program at the Center for American Progress.