Rethinking National Security

Good perceptions abroad, a strong economy at home, and effective leader all combine to bolster national security.

When talking about modern security challenges last April at the Air War College, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted that the "range of security challenges – from global terrorism to ethnic conflicts, from rogue nations to rising powers – cannot be overcome by traditional military means alone." This Friday evening, the presidential candidates will also discuss their ideas for meeting security challenges. How each candidate charts his plans for national security will be critical. Given the unconventional threats that the United States faces today, national security has come to mean more than just having a strong military force. Today's challenges – terrorism, energy crises, nuclear proliferation, for example – cannot be solved just by deploying troops or stockpiling weapons. They require broader strategies and good fundamentals. National security involves the perceptions that other countries have of us, the strength of the economy, and the quality of our leadership. It is time for us to rethink national security to address twenty-first century issues.

Even as a superpower, the United States cannot face its threats alone. Threats such as terrorism have global implications, bypassing traditional borders and affecting people all over. Because of this scope, the US needs allies to help contain and eliminate these problems. For that to occur, countries must be willing to cooperate with us. National security thus requires positive perceptions – that countries have a favorable image of us and cooperate as a result. In the first Gulf War, the US used the United Nations to rally support against Saddam Hussein. The fact that it was willing to use multilateral approaches to confront a threat gave the US much support and aid; a coalition of 34 countries lined up to help. In the second Gulf War, the US skirted the UN Security Council and unilaterally confronted Saddam Hussein. It achieved its goal, but with fewer allies – only six other countries took part in the invasion – and widespread resistance. The first one was over in a matter of months; the second one has lasted over five years. In 1991, countries saw a US that wanted an international response to an international conflict; in 2003, countries saw a US that went after its goal despite overwhelming opposition. The former case invites cooperation, the latter hostility.

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If we evoke more outrage than approval, we create a higher security risk. Fewer countries want to work with us, and when we act to promote our security interests, it comes across as arrogance more so than defense. And that encourages resistance – countries and groups become more apt to rally against us and what we stand for, making it much more difficult to achieve our goals. The US is at a low point in terms of how the world views it; it is seen by some as a bully that pursues its goals as if no other country existed. This is a perception that negatively impacts national security. In a connected world with connected, far-ranging conflicts, the ability to convince others to come to our side is critical. Positive perceptions ensure that we won't be alone in a crisis.

Positive economics matter as well. Wars and conflicts are expensive, and it takes a strong economy to pay the bills. Moreover, the costs are long-term, and often take years to be completely paid in full. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the war in Iraq could cost more than $2 trillion – meaning that it would be more expensive than the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and second only to the cost of World War II (which, when adjusted for inflation, cost about $5 trillion). It is not enough to be able to fight a war, or react to a crisis; a country has to be able to pay for it. Moreover, in such a crisis, the country still has to pay for the home front: the need for food, health care, and education do not go away when military conflict breaks out. The tremendous price of war affects how much can be allocated to other spheres. If an economy cannot handle that extra weight, its ability to defend itself weakens. National security needs a country's economy to be strong enough to fund its defense without adversely restricting its abilities to cover its other basic needs. It should be remembered that one of the major reasons why Hitler was not confronted before he invaded Poland was that the Allies were still feeling the effects of the Great Depression. With urgent domestic needs, paying for another war seemed impossible. This is precisely the situation national security seeks to avoid. A strong economy is instrumental.

Just as instrumental is leadership. Problems are bound to occur no matter who enters office; the test of good leadership is how he or she can solve them. A leader has to prepare for both the expected and the unexpected, to be able to confront the issues at hand but be aware and alert for what can suddenly arise. Statistics, figures, and reports reveal the situation at hand, but it is up to the leader to think analytically and explore possible outcomes. This is especially important given the conflicts leaders today face. Unlike the days of the Cold War, the threats are not clearly defined and are not confined to a particular geographic boundary. Today's leaders thus have to be decisive in their action, but flexible at the same time. Threats are to be confronted, but can come from any place at any point in time. A strong leader has to think critically, and in the nation's best interest.

Not only that, he or she has to inspire people to follow. People have to believe that they are being led in the right direction – because many national security decisions, such as war, involve a great deal of sacrifice and commitment. Positive, effective leadership rallies people to the task at hand. People elect a leader to guide them through challenges and issues that they couldn't solve on their own. It is essential to elect a leader capable to guide his or her citizens through the difficult times to a more positive outcome. National security requires vigilance, strategy, and confidence -- and it is a leader's task to embody those requirements.

As the debates unfold and as Americans prepare to go to the polls, we have to consider who will best ensure the national security. And we have to see national security in more than just physical defense. Good perceptions abroad, a strong economy at home, and effective leader all combine to bolster national security. As Gates articulated, keeping only to the traditional tactics is inadequate in the twenty-first century. The security of the country must be re-analyzed so it can prepare for the new and broader challenges ahead.