It’s been 17 years since the infamous Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S soil. These attacks instilled widespread feelings of vulnerability and anxiety that were previously unknown to large segments of the American public. This launched a new era of American foreign-policy endeavors embedded with the purpose of protecting the United States from its new post-Cold War enemies, transnational terror organizations. However, a new congressionally mandated report by the National Defense Strategy Commission surfaced some potentially serious implications of our current strategies in keeping future Americans safe. The question is not as much what are the threats, although there is room for debate, but rather are we capable and willing to adequately prepare for future national security challenges?
The U.S. has been transfixed by a two-decade-long war on terrorism that has thinly stretched the U.S. military, even with its massive budget. The bipartisan commission warned that our current military is built to fight low-end conflicts such as terrorism and counterinsurgencies rather than high-tech conflicts that would also utilize air, sea and cyber campaigns. The commission’s report concluded that the U.S. military’s readiness to fight peer competitors such as China or Russia is critically low while noting that cyber is a more urgent and all-encompassing threat to U.S. national security than ever before. Furthermore, the gap in U.S. comparative advantages in technology research and development is closing. The implications of the closing technology gap will impact all services and thus the commission recommended 30 options to regain our defense competence.
Defense Secretary James Mattis’ national defense strategy has called for a transition of drawing back from the Middle East and concentrating our capabilities on an aggressive Russia and emerging China. Both Russia and China have instituted “whole government” approaches to their national security apparatus, which allows for a more complete integration of all hard- and soft-power tools that each country possesses. This strategy has allowed China to pour resources into civilian research and an industrial technology base in which the U.S. previously had a sizable advantage. This could mean that the next critical war-fighting technology is just as likely to be developed in China as in the U.S.
The rapid increase in globalization after 2001 is one side effect that leaves U.S. policymakers somewhat paralyzed or limited in mending U.S. shortcomings. The United States both militarily and economically has become excessively reliant and intertwined with foreign components. This presents a security risk and challenge to the U.S. economy and, consequently, our military. The U.S. military is also impacted by the military technology development and spending in Europe, which can make it harder for U.S. forces to fight alongside allied troops or coalitions.
The report comes at a time when the Trump administration routinely communicates and centers its rhetoric on protecting American interests first. The serious challenge is that the defense budget must grow even further for the United States to build the military the report calls for. The divisiveness among members of Congress will undoubtedly use the report to descend into entrenched political stances rather than deliberate about both short- and long-term implications of a military that could neither deter nor fight its peers. The reality of the situation is which path puts “America First,” an even bigger and more technologically advanced military or keeping the defense budget where it is out of fear of our growing national debt?
The right answer may be unknown for now, but if our past lends us any insight it’s that our defense apparatus will not slow or deter China. China’s emergence has happened despite U.S. foreign policy’s unipolar dominance since the end of the Cold War — while the Kremlin has not been deterred from advancing its key foreign-policy ventures in Syria and Ukraine. However, Congress and the White House should see the value of a proactive defense restructuring that can help further American interests at home and abroad. Otherwise it will roll the proverbial dice and end up having to retroactively react, as in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Adam Wilson is a master of public policy candidate at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.
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