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Can George Kennan Guide 21st Century US National Security Strategy?

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Can George Kennan Guide 21st Century US National Security Strategy?

A new report by a Washington-based think tank argues that the US should heed the advice of the father of containment.

Can George Kennan Guide 21st Century US National Security Strategy?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Center for New American Security (CNAS) has published an interesting new report calling for  “more clear eyed strategy” that seeks to “avoid trivia” and to shore up its long term strategic position

The author of the report, former U.S. naval officer Jerry Hendrix, now senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Programs at CNAS, tries to sum up his thesis in one single axiom: “U.S. policy should heed Secretary of State George Marshall’s injunction to George Kennan as the latter established the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning: ‘Avoid Trivia.’”

Hendrix thinks that this this simplistic piece of advice has remained unheeded among policy makers in Washington with the result that the United States is less and less suited to face a number of growing challenges to its national well-being.

“The United States has strayed from this path by becoming entangled in the land-based vicissitudes of other regions, over-regulation of free intellectual and economic markets, and a weakened fiscal condition due to profligate deficit spending, and its position in the world has been commensurately degraded,” he underlines.

In particular, Hendrix notes that, “deficit spending and growing debt, along with a weakening economy and crumbling national infrastructure, present a growing threat to the United States that may far exceed traditional security threats (…).”

Overall, with a few exceptions, the paper is a reiteration of Richard N. Haass’ concept of an American “Restoration Doctrine”, which he proposed a few years back. Haass’ analysis corresponds neatly with Hendrix’s assessment (see: “Bringing our Foreign Policy Home” and “H.G. Wells and Defending the ‘Restoration Doctrine’”) by arguing that the United States better husband its domestic resources and avoid  going “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

The CNAS author dismisses ISIS, the current Ukraine crisis, and the fight against Ebola as “trivia” from a long-term strategic and realist U.S. national security perspective.

Rather, like Haass’s, Hendrix emphasizes the need for nation-building at home. “The nation’s road and bridge system require massive repairs and its energy distribution system should be addressed quickly” and “New oil and natural gas pipelines should be built and old ones modernized to allow for more efficient distribution of traditional and cheap sources of energy,” and the electrical distribution system should be modernized, he argues.

Where the two differ is the prescriptive part of their analyses. Hendrix believes that the United States, “ must accept the simple truth of the strategic landscape: that a maritime strategy is our national security strategy, at our founding, at this time, and into the future.” Haass does not mention this aspect.

“A realist grand strategy for the United States must seek to shore up its fiscal condition at home, to strengthen its economy by investing in research and development to place the nation once again at the cutting edge of technological development, and to return its defense focus to the maritime environment that has so well served it since its founding,” Hendrix further elaborates.

Like most realists, Hendrix also attacks the notion of “American exceptionalism” and how it resulted in a confused and disjointed national strategy, since it makes it difficult to assess the United States’ “real economic and military interests. He also notes, that his work, “is not an argument for isolationism”, a common preemptive knee-jerk defense against any pro-interventionist, pro-democracy crusaders.

At one point in the text, Hendrix passes an alarming assessment of the current strategic realities facing the United States. “If the goal were a strategy to undermine the power and influence of the United States and bring its era of global leadership to an end, a Bismarckian grand strategist could not have designed a series of events as debilitating as those of the past fourteen years,” he notes.

As I argued yesterday, I recognize that it is part of any serious national security professional’s job description to occasionally pronounce Cassandra-like warnings about impending national security catastrophes (the “Gathering Storm Syndrome”), yet, this is exactly the sort of non-sequitur statement that makes me doubt the ability of Washington DC-based analysts to “disenthrall” themselves as Abraham Lincoln would have called it.

The United States is by far the most secure and least exposed country among NATO to conventional invasion, and even asymmetrical threats. “All the armies of Europe and Asia…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher,” to quote Abraham Lincoln again.

In all fairness, Hendrix does note a similar sentiment in the text, yet he statement lacks proportionality. I previously wrote (see: “Can the United States Produce Good Defense Analysis?”) that, “the lack of exposure to the outside world, often produces a peculiar introversion, most notably observable in Washington  (…)”As Robert Jervis’s notes in his book Perception and Misperception in International Politics: “If people do not learn enough from what happens to others, they learn too much from what happens to themselves.”

In short, Hendrix’s paper is worthwhile examining, not least for the fact that it shows how traditional American realists see the world. The former U..S. naval officers thoughts are best summarized in a Winston Churchill’s remark from 1901: “For my own part, I see little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers.”