Micah Zenko (Council on Foreign Relations) and Michael Cohen (National Security Network) argue in their new piece for Foreign Affairs that we’re living in the safest period for decades, if not centuries – but that there’s no reason to be complacent about it. They write that “fully comprehending the world as it is today is the best way to keep the United States secure and resistant to the overreactions that have defined its foreign policy for far too long” Their answer, like mine, is to embrace pre-emptive aid and reconstruction – a 99 percent doctrine rather than Dick Cheney’s paranoid 1 percent threshold for military aggression.
If the main challenges in a 99 percent world are transnational in nature and require more development, improved public health, and enhanced law enforcement, then it is crucial that the United States maintain a sharp set of nonmilitary national security tools. American foreign policy needs fewer people who can jump out of airplanes and more who can convene roundtable discussions and lead negotiations. But owing to cuts that began in the 1970s and accelerated significantly during its reorganization in the 1990s, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been reduced to a hollow shell of its former self. In 1990, the agency had 3,500 permanent employees. Today, it has just over 2,000 staffers, and the vast majority of its budget is distributed via contractors and nongovernmental organizations. Meanwhile, with 30,000 employees and a $50 billion budget, the State Department’s resources pale in comparison to those of the Pentagon, which has more than 1.6 million employees and a budget of more than $600 billion. More resources and attention must be devoted to all elements of nonmilitary state power — not only USAID and the State Department but also the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the National Endowment for Democracy, and a host of multilateral institutions that deal with the underlying causes of localized instability and ameliorate their effects at a relatively low cost. As U.S. General John Allen recently noted, ”œIn many respects, USAID’s efforts can do as much — over the long term — to prevent conflict as the deterrent effect of a carrier strike group or a marine expeditionary force.” Allen ought to know: he commands the 100,000 U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan.
Upgrading the United States’ national security toolbox will require reducing the size of its armed forces. In an era of relative peace and security, the U.S. military should not be the primary prism through which the country sees the world. As a fungible tool that can back up coercive threats, the U.S. military is certainly an important element of national power. However, it contributes very little to lasting solutions for 99 percent problems. And the Pentagon’s enormous budget not only wastes precious resources; it also warps national security thinking and policymaking. Since the military controls the overwhelming share of the resources within the national security system, policymakers tend to perceive all challenges through the distorting lens of the armed forces and respond accordingly. This tendency is one reason the U.S. military is so big. But it is also a case of the tail wagging the dog: the vast size of the military is a major reason every challenge is seen as a threat.
Read, as they say, the whole thing.