A central premise of the Obama Administration’s brand new National Security Strategy (NSS) is the need for the United States whenever possible to act in concert with or even through friends and allies. Under the heading of Pursuing Comprehensive Engagement, the NSS declares that “America’s national security depends on these vibrant alliances, and we must engage them as active partners in addressing global and regional security priorities and harnessing new opportunities to advance common interests.”
Regarding the use of force, the NSS continues to assert the right to act unilaterally if necessary. To that end, the U.S. will maintain the necessary military capability to act as necessary on land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. But the NSS also recognizes the importance of greater reliance on friends and allies. Thus, the document states that the administration’s approach to the use of force “also includes helping our allies and partners build capacity to fulfill their responsibilities to contribute to regional and global security.”
Unfortunately, the NSS kind of fumbles the ball when it comes to explaining how the U.S. will help our allies build their capacities to contribute to regional and global security. The NSS says that the U.S. will invest in the capacity of strong and capable partners. But the only partners mentioned are so-called weak and failing states that need basic support to provide security and government services. While it is certainly important to help friends in need, particularly if their situation can give rise to broader conflicts or their territories serve as the base for global terrorism, this is only half the battle. What about all our other friends and allies, the countries that are not failing and which are able to manage their own security but on whom we need to rely more for managing regional and global security problems? Just because the NATO countries, Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, Australia and Japan are not in danger of failing does not mean the administration doesn’t need to spend time, effort and even resources helping to build their capacities.
Just look at the situation on the Korean peninsula. The Republic of Korea faces a serious asymmetric threat from the North. The U.S. maintains a military presence in the South as well as additional forces in the region. But even with our presence and its own military capabilities, more could be done to improve South Korea’s ability to provide for its own security and even contribute to broader security in the region. Our ally could benefit from additional capabilities in such areas as air and missile defense, anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasures and long-range ISR.
When the NSS speaks about ensuring strong alliances it focuses on improving diplomatic relations with allies and on sustaining the capability and credibility of U.S. forces. Virtually nothing is said about building the military capabilities of our allies and close friends.
Missing from the NSS is an approach that I call empowering collaborative defense. This involves ensuring that friends and allies have the means to provide better for their own security and to collaborate regionally and with the United States in providing regional security and stability. Many of our allies would benefit from investments in such areas as integrated air and missile defense, advanced ISR, tactical ASW, theater lift and precision strike. Not only could the U.S. provide much of that additional capability, but it also could develop a larger strategic architecture that would help to rationalize and integrate investments by allies both within and across their respective regions.
The NSS provides a lot of new ideas for improving U.S. relations abroad, expanding the national security toolkit and dealing with emerging security threats. It’s too bad that it did not focus enough on building the capacity of our most important allies and friends to provide for their own security, thereby taking some of the burden off the United States.
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