Small Wars Journal

A National Strategic Narrative

Wed, 04/20/2011 - 9:55am
A National Strategic Narrative

by Mr. Y

This Strategic Narrative is intended to frame our National policy decisions regarding investment, security, economic development, the environment, and engagement well into this century. It is built upon the premise that we must sustain our enduring national interests -- prosperity and security -- within a "strategic ecosystem," at home and abroad; that in complexity and uncertainty, there are opportunities and hope, as well as challenges, risk, and threat. The primary approach this Strategic Narrative advocates to achieve sustainable prosperity and security, is through the application of credible influence and strength, the pursuit of fair competition, acknowledgement of interdependencies and converging interests, and adaptation to complex, dynamic systems -- all bounded by our national values.

The Full Article is available at the Woodrow Wilson Center


Bob's World

Thu, 04/28/2011 - 5:36pm

The containment that Kennan argued for was the physical containment of Sovietism. It was real politics, and Nationalist China was considered as part of the team of "good guys" that would work together to keep the Soviets in that physical box. We still stood for Self-determination and other core US principles upon which our nation was founded.

There were two simple vital national interests to which we were committed:

1. Prevent the Eurasian landmass from being dominated by any hostile power or coalition of powers (which drove our involvement in WWII as well to counter German and Japanese efforts);

2. To protect a world trading system hospitable to the unrestricted movement of goods and capital.

Then Mao prevailed in China and gave us the finger and linked up with the Soviets. At that point vital interest #1 was in serious trouble; and the containment of Sovietism morphed and expanded to a much less real, much more ideological containment of communism.

Suddenly self-determination, a core principle, had to be compromised to "democracy." We also came to learn that containing an idea was much harder than containing a state, and that populaces seeking liberty from fromer and current colonial systems that adopted communism as an ideology demanded that we shelf some other core US principles to attempt to suppress such movements to avoid giving up areas under our influence to this Sino-Soviet threat's area of influence.

Today, we still cling to a version of this idological containment and attempt to apply it to "Islamism" and wrestle how to deal with populaces seeking liberty that have been forced to turn to organizations such as AQ for support.

Puck and I discussed this "Sustainment" concept, I personally prefered "Empowerment" as a more viable concept. He wrote his paper, I wrote mine. We differ in many ways, but agree, that the status quo is not sustainable. Certainly we have changed our approaches by degree as Bill Moore points out. Intervention under Clinton, Preemption under Bush, and a lot of fuzzy COINdinista developmentism under Obama to date. At the core of all remains this ideological containment. Hell, we work to contain AQ in the FATA.

For those interested in a different twist on this one can google Defense Concepts, "A Grand Strategy of Empowerment, A Return to Values-Based Realism."

Backwards Observer

Thu, 04/28/2011 - 2:41pm

I just read George Kennan's Long Telegram for the first time. They don't seem to make elder statesmen like they done used to.

From Part 2: Background of Outlook(excerpt)

<blockquote>It should not be thought from above that Soviet party line is necessarily disingenuous and insincere on part of those who put it forward. Many of them are too ignorant of the outside world and mentally too dependent to question [apparent omission] self-hypnotism, and who have no difficulty making themselves believe what they find it comforting and convenient to believe. Finally we have the unsolved mystery as to who, if anyone, in this great land actually receives accurate and unbiased information about outside world. In atmosphere of oriental secretiveness and conspiracy which pervades this Government, possibilities for distorting or poisoning sources and currents of information are infinite. The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth--indeed, their disbelief in its existence--leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another.</blockquote>

From Part 5: [Practical Deductions from Standpoint of US Policy](excerpt)

<blockquote>(5) Finally we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.</blockquote>

<em>Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.</em>


Thu, 04/28/2011 - 12:26am

The Mr. Y pseudonym notwithstanding, the whole paper is set up as a compare and contrast between X and Y so to speak: between old-think concepts and their new ideas. Between containment and sustainment, etc. My point is not so much to attack the Kennan link, although I think there's more to his argument than the received "containment" wisdom, as it is to point out very briefly the weaknesses in their contrasts. Lots of false apples and oranges points.

There are some valid points and their call for change certainly rings true, but their ideas for change are a lot of hope and gladspeak. Sustainment, for example, is not an active policy. It is a modifier to a policy end. It is a policy adverb, not a policy verb. You don't sustain as an end, you sustain as a means to an end You can have sustainable containment or sustainable engagement or sustainable annihilation. Or you can unsustainable versions of all of these. Finally, it isn't new that you can't control the world. We never could. It has always been chaotic and too complex for us to control. Just ask the 9 guys that got killed by our "ally" in Kabul today. Their murderer didn't get the engagement, sustainment, fair competition, popular will message quite as clearly as MisterY would have hoped. More sustainable and intelligent policies? Yes. Hope that people will realize that they want to be just like us? Not so much.

Lisa, I think many of us are wondering exactly what is the message? Change? We have been changing. The only people that are locked into the Cold War paradigm are those writing these papers arguing for change. We're actually locked into a CNAS paradigm, one that doesn't work, and yet we're blaming our shortfalls on the Cold War paradigm that only exists in some folks' imagination? The paper makes the illogical argument about resilience, and how globalization is essential to maintain it? It argues we can out compete any other country? You can take those arguments to Pittsburgh and talk to the steel industry if you can find it, or Detroit and talk to the auto industry once they pay back their billions of dollars loaned to them by the U.S. government or any other number of locations where businesses can't compete given the current conditions with some foreign countries who have lower wages, disciplined workers (without the corrosive and corrupt unions we have), less substance abuse, better education at the basic level, etc. These are problems that will take decades or more to fix, and the interim solution is not to embrace globalization assuming a few happy thoughts will make us competitive. A greater percentage of our defense materials are procured from foreign countries, and that is simply dangerous, because as I stated above the world has always been unpredictable, and just because a country is friendly or at least tolerant enough of us to do business with us today, does not mean they will so tomorrow. Y's paper was full of old ideas, illogical arguments and happy thoughts rebundled to look new, but without much basis in reality. X's paper was based on sound . X's paper was in line with our national values.

lisa (not verified)

Wed, 04/27/2011 - 11:44pm

As a matter of fact, the authors did not presume to compare themselves to Kennan. The Woodrow Wilson Center chose to release the paper under that pen name. The authors verified this fact during their interview on NPR's "on point". How unfortunate it would be if their message was lost because people thought they were trying too hard....


Wed, 04/27/2011 - 3:00pm

I think that their ideas have value in a way, but by trying too hard to set their assessement of the world and their ideas up as new and unique, they damage their message. Since they set themselves up as a new Kennan, it is important to note that people gloss over some of Kennan's most important observations. I cited a couple of them in my article in Survival earlier this year:

George Kennan wrote that 'many foreign peoples ... are tired and frightened by experiences of the past, and are less interested in abstract freedom than in security.

When addressing the Soviet threat, Kennan, 'much depends on [the] health and vigor of our own society, and our ability to face the deficiencies therein.

You can read the full text of his now-declassified cable at:

Other observations: Closed system/open system, so what? Was the world ever "controllable" and is it really all that much more chaotic now than it ever has been?

"Fair competition": What is that? Each person/firm/state will have a different answer.

Sustainment: Yes, we need to consider how spending (pissing away) our national power on poorly defined and arguably overblown threats/concerns affects us and stop doing that. However, I don't think sustainment and containment are logically related as exclusive options or antonyms. They shouldn't be juxtaposed. Containment in some situations may be the most sustainable option. They are two different things that are not mutually exclusive. Sustainable policies = yes. It is always best to choose the policy that disinvests the least amount of national power to attain a given end. Containment is a policy option.

Exclusion versus engagement: Who are we really excluding right now?

Finally, regarding this statement which comes in the midst of references to the Westphalian system: "It is the popular convergence of interests among peoples, nations, cultures, and movements that will determine the sustainability of prosperity and security in this century." Popular will has become the new "universal truth." The assumption being that if you let everyone's will be voiced, their preferences will be exactly like ours and we can live happily ever after. This is only an updated version of universal truths we've chased in the past: divine will, laws of nature, laws of reason, etc. So, the imagination that there is one popular will and that we have to all end up at the same endpoint is essentially a refutation of the Westphalian system in the long term. This is why people are so stirred up. It is, in a way, a return to the religious wars, only now the religions include "popular will" and other secular ideologies, in addition to politicized Abrahamic religions.

SteveG (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 7:29pm

When viewing a narrative of this scope (outlining the board our entire foreign policy framework should be "played" upon) we must view the big picture and only drill down into the details where and when they fit this overlying structure. The mixture of principles and interests are what founded our great experiment of a country, and that mixture in large part is what made us grab the imagination of the world. Our other cultural imperatives like exploration (frontiers and space) along with freedom, industriousness, innovation, logistical sophistication and sheer audacity are what held people's attention and made many want to emulate us.

Bill M you raise so many great discussion points in this thread I wish the forum accepted more html options to quote and respond to sub topics. Thank you for posting so much!

In terms of foreign policy maintaining these goals and strategies strengthen and expand our SOI (sphere of influence) and the stronger that tie to allies and third parties becomes, the stronger our security becomes.

The author seems to believe our prosperity is not sustainable without fixing the structural problems of the third world, but does not make clear why this is the case.

The authors probably though this needed no explanation. No matter our individual political leanings/affiliations, we can all agree that the economic growth of China, the opulence of Dubai and the rising importance of India and southeast Asia all leave us with a feeling of bewilderment. How is this happening? What are the impacts to the USA? Why aren't WE enjoying this exponential growth from our own domestic initiatives and foreign policy rewards? The goal of foreign policy at its heart is to promote interdependent relationships that transfer tranquility, security and opportunity to our citizenry...isn't it? Well wouldn't it stand to reason that setting economic, informational, and industrial capabilities to third world nations (if done smartly)would benefit us two-fold? It would establish strong allies AND provide future competition. Since when have we as a nation been afraid of competition? We all know it raises the skill level and prosperity of all involved.

Using the containment theory set forth by George Kennan was corrupted in its execution from a diplomatic/intelligence strategy into a military one. Even he was vocal about this. It was skewed then, but ultimately effective at great cost, but today its mind-numbingly misguided and hurtful to our interests.

The true message in my opinion of this report, is that we must focus internally. No our streets never ran with gold as so many immigrants of the past wished. But with this framework in place, we can sure polish up this rusty behemoth we call home. We are the (relatively) modern day birthplace of innovation, of technology, of entrepreneurial spirit. Lets remember that.

Is it right that our politicians, bankers and speculators were allowed to cause an unprecedented global recession? Is it right to try to increase our debt ceiling? Is it right that our CEO's can earn 30 times the wages of their employees that have had stagnant wage growth for 30 years while the hopeless earn federal assistance in record amounts? Is it right that our transportation, water and energy infrastructures are degraded and incapable of continuous improvement without total overhaul? Is it right that 15-20 years of industry policy has forced our manufacturing base out of country, exposing us to huge security risk? Why are our national graduate programs a majority of foreign students?

Lets retake our position as having the finest scientists, political theories and implemented technological systems.

Applying this narrative to our trade treaties, educational initiatives, infrastructure upgrades and intelligence staffing and decision making will benefit us for decades to come. And if not, it certainly wont hurt as much as using the globe as a checker board of independent reactionary policies to any flare-up this dynamic globe throws in our face.

slapout9 (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 4:19pm

Bill M,

Not really, that is why we (US)were given the ability to make Foreign Treaties and as necessary to amend the Constitution. The ability to adapt was written within the plan. But the adaption had to be within the original Design Concept or it would be subject to tremendous corruption. Kinda like the situation we are in today.

Slap, this doesn't address the necessity of global integration; securing the global populace; or using our hard earned riches to develop the rest of the world. Obviously these guys saw the world as a closed system. 

slapout9 (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 3:06pm

IMO instead of a Strategic narrative we need a Stregic Scorecard and should look at the greatest Strategic plan ever written. The United States was literally created (designed) by Plan NOT a free market.

It has 6 specific missions it is supposed to accomplish for all of it's citizens.

The 6 Missions are:
1-Form a more perfect union.
2-Establish justice.
3-Insure domestic tranquilty.
4-Provide for the common defense.
5-Promote the general welfare.
6-Secure the blessings of Liberty for us and fututre generations.

That should be our Strategic Scorecard and every citizen should be given one before every election and compare it to the condidate they voted for or will vote for.

I agree with all APH has written (in the first post), and will add I see little new in their proposed national strategy, and frankly I am hard pressed to discern a strategy, or strategic narrative in the paper. Most of the points being presented are not new and most of the recommendations are already being implemented to varying degrees.

I felt the narrative lost credibility throughout due to its distortion of history. The premise that all is new and more complex than ever before, especially more complex than the world that resulted in the National Security Act of 1947. Mr. Taleb addressed this faulty way of thinking in "The Black Swan" when he addressed the opaqueness of history. He wrote about what he called the "retrospective distortion" or how we can assess matters only after the fact, and that history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality. I suspect the national security planners in 1946 and 1947 didnt quite see it the same way that "Y" authors did. I suspect they saw a very complex world post WWII that was rapidly changing (brand new threats that required a new way of thinking and a new security structure) and they werent sure how to respond to such unpredictability. The world was complex then and it is complex now, but I agree with the authors that 1947 Act is no longer relevant in todays world. They again distorted history in my view when they limited their view of history (again to the Cold War) by writing that the belief of the "last half century" was that the world was closed system that could be controlled through technology, power and containment. First off Im not sure how anyone could believe this time period or any other period in history was a closed system? Mankind has always used technology, power and determination to achieve prosperity and power. One only needs to look at the story behind the Panama Canal to see mans use of technology and determination to overcome nature to facilitate global trade, along with hundreds of other examples long before the Cold War. Our history didnt start at the beginning of the Cold War and it didnt end when the Cold War ended.

While I agree with the authors that "U.S." security and prosperity are enduring national interests, I found many of the proposals in this paper border line illogical and based on assumptions that if not out right faulty, are at least debatable. I also found their use of terminology to be confusing. One example (and there are several) is that we need to shift our emphasis from power and control to strength and influence? Power is all about influence, and not just military influence. What do they mean?

Strongly agree that our power/influence is based on our success at home, and our first priority should always be America first. Obviously a bankrupt nation (financially and/or morally) cant project power from its shores effectively for long. However, I find their claims that our interdependent global economy is in our best interest. Somewhere in the paper they addressed resilience and were not resilient when we outsource our jobs overseas, or transfer our factories overseas to pursue cheap labor and lower taxes. Resilient communities dont have to be closed, but they do need to protect their systems and be able to disconnect from the outside world.

As APH stated we are still in a zero sum world, and while the authors addressed the importance of energy security, they didnt address that fossil fuels are limited and that the "raise of the rest" will put increasing demands on those few resources, which in turn will lead to tension between States (and possibly war). Take any number, but for purposes of illustration well say their is only a 100 tons of Uranium left in the world to mine and we need 30 tons a year, Russia needs 30 tons a year, China needs 30 tons a year, India needs 30 tons a year, and so on, and failure to keep the nuclear power plants running will result in grave damage to the affiliated national economies, then we are still in a zero sum world. A strategy or strategic narrative of hope doesnt address that or many other real issues that our national leaders must wrestle with. Nor does it address the reality that others wont embrace our world view and will pursue their perceived interests with force if they can, so deterrence still plays a critical role.

The authors lost me when they started addressing trends, and then addressed joblessness and illiteracy as trends? We have been reducing illiteracy for years, and joblessness comes and goes based on economic cycles, it isnt a trend. Then they embraced the same unsubstantiated argument that dragged our nation into nation building when they claimed the poor, fatherless, and unemployed youth were vulnerable to recruitment in radical organizations. Many if not most terrorists come from educated and middle class families. Getting away from our tunnel vision on Islamic terrorists, the child soldiers in Sierra Leone didnt all come from such deprived conditions, rather the rebels killed their parents in front of them and used force, terror and drugs to coerce the kids into their gangs/militias. Assuming we could have got to the left of this problem, would have investing in schools and development prevented it? Or more likely, would have investing in developing Sierra Leones security forces been a better investment in "hope" of trying to prevent this tragedy?

Finally why did the authors only address diplomacy, development and defense and neglect to mention information? Could it be that this paper was just an attempt to reinforce the push for the empty rhetoric of the 3Ds? We have always done the 3Ds, sometimes well and sometimes not so well, but this paper didnt address what we should do, only that we should continue the 3Ds. I would it give the paper a C- at best.

Bill C. (not verified)

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 4:43pm

But should we say that Fareed (and Mr. Y?) has missed an important point?

That the path we would seem to be on today has less to do with specific "threats," such as terrorism and Islamic extremism, and more to do with a world-view which defines "threats" in a larger context, to wit: as "a great battle, a race, between the forces of integration and the forces of disintegration" (introduced by then-Pres. Clinton in Apr 1999; reconfirmed as still being in-force as late as May 2010 by present-day Sec of State Clinton).

(Thus, a concept that both precedes and transcends 9/11 and is reconfirmed while still in the throngs of the Great Recession.)

Accordingly, we would seem to need to make our arguments re: propriety or over-reaction within this more-fully defined and more-controlling context (race/battle between forces of integration/disintegration; brought on by globalization, etc.).

And, likewise, we would seem to need to argue as to the comparative attributes and weakness of "power and control" -- versus "strength and influence" -- and use of military versus non-military capabilities -- from this same perspective.

This, unless we wished to challenge, argue -- and then ditch -- this "battle/race/integration/disintegration" world-view first, foremost and altogether.

Bill M.

Sun, 04/24/2011 - 11:17pm

I'll address the article later, I made it half way through; with a lot of notes on it. Can agree with some of it, but I think it also has some fatal flaws.

Fareed in many ways reminds me of Oprah, self-made, intelligent, insightful, popular, and a trend setter (in his case for ideas on policy). I like him, but like all of us he errors on occassion, yet his thoughts are often accepted without much criticism as the right way to view things by a large group of people. I think he is wrong about this article, but no doubt it will gain more currency with Fareed's endorsement. This like your book making it on Oprah's reading list.

One person who is viewed as credible can have a lot of influence if he or she is an effective communicator, if we really want to learn how to influence foreign audiences we first need to learn how to be viewed as credible. Credibility first, and then the message.

Here is what Fareed Zakaria said about this today on his CNN show GPS:

ZAKARIA: And now, for our "What in the World?" segment.

What got my attention this week was an article written under the pseudonym Mr. Y. The article has a bold thesis, even more surprising given who the mysterious Mr. Y turns out to be.

It argues that the United States has embraced an entirely wrong set of priorities, particularly with regard to its federal budget. We have overreacted to terrorism, to Islamic extremism. We have pursued military solutions instead of political ones.

Y says we are under investing in the real sources of national power -- our youth, our infrastructure, our economy. The United States sees the world through the lens of threats, while failing to understand that influence, competitiveness and innovation are the key to advancing American interests in the modern world.

So, Y says, above all we must invest in our children, that only by educating them properly will we ensure our ability to compete in the future. That we need to move from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence.

Y goes on to say that we shouldn't even talk about national security as we have for the past 60 years, we should be talking about national prosperity and security.

Now, I think this is very smart stuff for the new world we're entering in, but it's important and influential in particular, given the source. This article arguing we need to rely less on our military comes from the highest echelons of the Pentagon.

Mr. Y is actually two people, both top-ranking members of Admiral Mike Mullen's team, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are Captain Wayne Porter of the U.S. Navy and Colonel Mark Mykleby of the Marine Corps. It's likely that the essay had some official sanction, which means that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or perhaps even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had seen it and did not stop its publication.

So why did the authors call themselves Mr. Y? It's a play on a seminal essay from "Foreign Affairs" magazine more than five decades ago. The title was "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," and it was signed simply X. The author turned out to be the American diplomat George Kennan, and the article turned out to have perhaps the greatest influence on American foreign policy in the second half of the 20th century.

It set out the policy of containment, that if we contain the Soviet Union, countering its influence, eventually the internal contradictions of the Soviet system would trigger its collapse, and it worked. But Porter and Mykleby say the basic approach, a massive military to deter the Soviets, a quasi-imperial policy to counter Soviet influence all over the world, is still in place and is outmoded and outdated. They call their policy proposal sustainment, and they hope it just might be the policy that will carry us forward for the next 50 years.

Mr. Y is hoping to be the next X, to set the new tone of Washington strategy. Will that happen? Well, the term "sustainment" is silly, but the ideas behind it are not. Washington needs to make sure that the United States does not fall into the imperial trap of every other superpower in history, spending greater and greater time and money and energy stabilizing disorderly parts of the world on the periphery, while at the core its own industrial and economic might is waning.

We have to recognize that fixing America's fiscal problems, paring back the budget busters like entitlements and also defense spending, making the economy competitive, dealing with immigration, outlining a serious plan for energy use, all these are the best strategies to stay a superpower, not going around killing a few tribal leaders in the remote valleys and hills of Afghanistan.

You can read Mr. Y's essay on our website, Read it, debate it and write to your congressman if you agree with it.

And we'll be right back.

Sawbuck (not verified)

Fri, 04/22/2011 - 11:38am

"The dishonesty of this article is so overwhelming, so the authors might have thought twice at revealing their names."

"Vitesse et Puissance" Speaking from experience????????

Vitesse et Puissance

Thu, 04/21/2011 - 8:49pm

One word characterizes this piece. That word is, "Yuck". These guys have bought into the Kantian vision of perpetual peace with a vengeance - but how does this help orient a US foreign and defense apparatus that is systematically underfunded, and even more systematically underappreciated. Do these guys really think that turning up the rhetoric helps an economically beleagered American public pay more of a price and bear more burdens ? Worse yet, have they really bought into the lie that smart power can be had on the cheap ? The dishonesty of this article is so overwhelming, so the authors might have thought twice at revealing their names.

APH (not verified)

Thu, 04/21/2011 - 10:13am

This "strategic narrative" confuses me. It seems philosophically pre-committed to the notion that the world is no longer in a zero sum game with winners and losers, however I see no evidence that this is actually the case. Standards of living can potentially be raised in a non-zero sum game approach, but I have serious doubts that global influence or power is truly beyond the zero sum game approach. I agree with the author that we must balance our principals and interests, but I think the author has placed principals much higher than interests, and that to truly preserve or increase our nation's prosperity will require us to abandon our quest to be loved in the world community and commit to our nation's interests first and foremost.
The author seems to believe our prosperity is not sustainable without fixing the structural problems of the third world, but does not make clear why this is the case. If the author is correct I think we are in deep trouble since I have yet to see evidence that we can improve the conditions of the third world in a sustainable manner.
The author does make some good points, particularly in his reference to "binning" the Muslim world which has resulted in my experience of a large portion of Americans associating Islam itself with terrorism as opposed to treating terrorists as an aberration.