A Plea for Smart, Forward U.S. Military Engagement
Image Credit: U.S. Army

A Plea for Smart, Forward U.S. Military Engagement


The recent global economic downturn has generated doubts about American resilience and our ability to lead in the world. Far from being a nation in decline, however, the United States’ global standing remains unmatched and the imperative for it to lead in today’s tumultuous environment is clear. Those who assume that in order to recover economically the United States must close its overseas bases and bring its military forces home misunderstand the role the U.S. military plays in promoting global prosperity. The United States has benefited enormously from a highly interdependent and globalized economy – one that has relied on the security and stability underwritten by our armed forces and our alliances for over 70 years. In this context, we simply cannot divorce “American” interests from “global” interests or otherwise opt out of the system economically or militarily.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

As the U.S. military downsizes following a decade of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, we face a strategic inflection point with respect to how we restructure and re-posture our forces abroad. The United States has an opportunity and a responsibility to shape the global environment through its leadership, global reach, and ability to catalyze positive multilateral activity that enables and encourages others to share the burden of global stability and security. This means being present in key regions of the world where threats are likely to emerge and focusing our military activities on prevention and preparedness.

Our military posture should thus be tailored in a strategic way that reflects the imperatives of regional threats and respects the interests of partners and allies. In places such as the Korean peninsula, the Straits of Hormuz, or Malacca, a clear, visible U.S. posture is required; in other regions a less visible, over-the-horizon presence may be more appropriate. In some places, part-time use of shared facilities and flexible access agreements may constitute the extent of U.S. military presence. In all of these regions, the United States can and should continue to build and lead powerful partnerships and alliances founded on shared norms such as freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of disputes, respect for the rule of law, human rights, and civilian control over the military.

Key to our global rebalancing is President Barack Obama’s renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific. Militarily, this means the United States will sustain a robust presence with our long-term allies while enhancing our military activities with other partners across the region. Our posture from Hawaii to the Indian Ocean will be more geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable. Our bases in South Korea and Japan will remain the cornerstone of our presence in Northeast Asia, where we will enhance our cooperative planning and military exercises. We will leverage the geo-strategic value of our U.S. territory by moving a few thousand marines to Guam, and we will forward deploy new littoral combat ships in Singapore. Up to 2500 marines will be scheduled to rotate in and out of Darwin Australia for bilateral training exercises and we will ramp up our utilization of other Australian ports and airfields as part of a wider re-commitment to this key ally. Such moves, along with increased military cooperation with the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam demonstrate the U.S. commitment to sustaining our leadership while assisting others in meeting the most pressing challenges, from terrorism and piracy, to freedom of navigation or humanitarian disasters.

This re-commitment to Asia should not be interpreted as our abandoning our leadership role elsewhere in the world. In the greater Middle East and Central Asia, our military activities will continue to support multilateral solutions to shared security threats. Following our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, we will transition to a lighter, but scalable footprint focused on countering terrorism, deterring the destabilizing behavior of Iran, ensuring the free flow of commerce, and checking the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Instead of maintaining permanent installations, U.S. air and naval forces will likely rotate in and out of countries such as Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and, potentially, Afghanistan and Iraq. In the wake of the Arab Spring, our military-to-military engagements with the region’s rising democracies can help promote the development of civilian-led security forces, respectful of human rights and the rule of law.

Our military posture in Europe reflects the fact that NATO, through American leadership, remains the indispensible global military alliance. We have fought hard and learned valuable lessons together over the past 10 years, from the major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to our multilateral operations in Libya, to operations against pirates in the Red Sea. Our U.S. military posture in Europe will leverage these lessons to ensure that the alliance remains capable of responding to emerging threats in and outside of the European theater. We will retain two modernized brigade combat teams along with seven other enabling army brigades and air forces optimized for global reach and partnership. We will build a robust missile defense architecture sustained by forward-based Aegis cruisers and maintain a network of bases and agreements that ensure our ability to train regularly with allies and respond to crises.

This emphasis on partnership and multilateral activities is also reflected in our posture across Africa and South America. In regions where few U.S. forces are permanently stationed, the United States’ day-to-day military posture should remain tailored toward the needs of our partners, focused on high-priority activities such as countering violent extremism, halting illicit trafficking and support to law enforcement. A focus on building partner capacity will enhance their abilities to meet local and transnational challenges before they become larger crises.

A robust, forward engaged U.S. military is the right strategic investment at this critical inflection point. As we emerge from a decade of war and reduce the overall size of our military, we cannot afford to have our remaining forces inefficiently garrisoned at home training only themselves. Not only does forward engagement allow our forces to train the way they will most likely fight–abroad and with allies–but it is also a more efficient way to ensure they are postured to respond should deterrence fail. As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta asserted, “We do not have to choose between national security and fiscal security.” Continued U.S. leadership in the world, underpinned by smart forward military engagement, is imperative to our domestic economic prosperity and to shaping the future security environment.

Michèle Flournoy is Co-Founder of the Center for a New American Security and former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. Janine Davidson is a Professor at George Mason University and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans. This article is adapted from “Obama’s New Global Fosture,” which appears in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief