First Principles

Today I attended a fascinating roundtable between former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michéle Flournoy, Lieutenant General David Barno, USA (Ret.) from CNAS, Thomas Donnelly of AEI  and Michael Waltz of the New America Foundation regarding America’s upcoming elections and the defense budget.

The conversation covered a series of issues familiar to Americans interested in national defense: sequestration, perceptions of US decline in the international system, and strategic priorities, among others. What interested me most, though, was what seemed to me an agreement between these distinguished speakers regarding the relationship between civil society and national defense. General Barno perhaps put it best: “The consensus on defense has been lost.”

General Barno meant that while a large part of political society in the United States believes that America should continue to pursue a preeminent military force, that view doesn’t reflect the will of the broader electorate as it once did. Why is this important?

  • Defense retrenchment as an issue transcends party politics. Groups on both the right and the left of American political discourse believe that the United States – for a variety of reasons – should  pursue a less active role in the world. Therefore, electing one party or another into power won’t ensure a robust defense budget.
  • The average American cares much more about other areas of federal spending than they do defense right now.
  • In an age of unprecedented information sharing, the world has ready access to these changing opinions. As a result, foreign governments are already seeking to hedge against a potential retrenchment of US foreign policy.

The uncertainty regarding future defense spending – and the strategy driving said spending – won’t be resolved before the November elections. Much work will likely occur, therefore, between November and the sequestration deadline. Beyond the spending issues, though, defense proponents should consider this question: how do we affect the discourse regarding America’s role in the world and the military’s contribution to that role? Certainly both the civilian government and senior military leaders play an important part in this dialogue, but what about junior officers, senior enlisted leaders, and interested citizens? We all know voters: they are our friends, families, and co-workers. They value our opinions. Why don’t we voice them?

What’s clear to me is that I for one have taken America’s belief in a strong national defense for granted. Perhaps we have forgotten the importance of returning to first principles from time to time. Why do we have a military? What is our military meant to achieve? In what different ways can we achieve those ends? In a democracy, these questions are never – and should never be – fully settled.

We should not view the task of telling the defense story with reluctance or disaffection towards the wellspring of American power, the people. We have a continuing obligation at all levels to communicate a clear message to the American public about the importance of spending their tax dollars towards the application or threat of violence. We cannot assume that Americans are simply fatigued from a decade of war and that they won’t listen. We cannot yield to a widening of the civil-military divide.

There is at least some good news: looking at the world today, there is no shortage of evidence to justify a robust American military. Returning to first principles can work. But to win the narrative of national defense, we need to talk beyond ourselves and reach out to those who have doubts and questions. The people who read this blog and others like it have expertise, passion, and most importantly, a voice. Those voices shouldn’t be silent.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.

3 thoughts on “First Principles”

  1. Frrom US News and World Report yesterday: “A new poll conducted by the University of Maryland and the Stimson Center suggests American voters’ have an appetite for shrinking the annual Pentagon budget.

    Respondents were given information about the size of the yearly defense budget in several ways. After digesting that data, in “three of the five cases a majority of respondents said that the size of the defense budget was more than they expected,” according to a study accompanying the poll results. “When asked for their conclusion, a large majority favored cutting defense.”

  2. I don’t necessarily share this opinion, but there is a growing trend in the voter base that believes the following: We’ve had a professional volunteer force post Vietnam that enjoys preeminent technological advantages,and it’s almost become an unconscious decision that we must use this military power in shaping recent foreign policy. In other words, it has become “easier” for successive administrations since that time to consider an armed response, particularly following the decline of the former USSR. Had we not had such a competent military, we might have exercised more soft or diplomatic approaches to past events.

    I’m more of the opinion that a weaker or heavily defensive military for a country as large as ours will draw more unwanted attention than one that has global reach and strength. Historically,we have shown great restraint, but it is up to us as voters to vigilantly ensure that our leaders do not use military force inappropriately. In 2012, we probably have the highest number of veterans within the civilian population who have seen actual combat since World War II. Those voices, among others, will continue to bringing balance to our internal needs as a nation and I responding to external threats.

  3. I don’t think that a smaller military or reduced overseas presence is necessarily a bad thing, as long as that reduced footprint is attached to correspondingly reduced obligations. Whatever the strategic direction decided by the people’s elected representatives for the military ends up being is fine, as long as our senior leadership expresses to our collective bosses in government that a reduction in expenditures necessitates a reduction in mission requirements.

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