A U.S. soldier with an Afghan interpreter in Laghman province, Afghanistan, December 2014
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The world is not getting safer, for the United States or for U.S. interests. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the 2017 National Defense Strategy described an international environment of increased global disorder, long-term strategic competition, rapid dispersion of technologies, and eroding U.S. military advantages. Protecting the United States requires a strategy of defense in depth—that is, of identifying and dealing with global problems where they occur rather than waiting for threats to reach American shores.

To achieve defense in depth, simply strengthening the U.S. military is not enough; nor the even more urgent task of strengthening U.S. diplomacy and other civilian elements of national power. Enhancing national security must start with the fundamental truth that the United States cannot protect itself or its interests without the help of others. International engagement allows the United States to see and act at a distance, as threats are gathering, rather than waiting for them to assume proportions that ultimately make them much costlier and more dangerous to defeat. Defeating emerging threats in particular puts a premium on having visibility far from the homeland to allow for early warning and rapid adaptation to unanticipated developments. 

As capable as the U.S. military is, the United States’ principal adversaries are more constrained by its network of alliances than by its military might. But continued failure to adequately invest in relationships with allies and partners and to cooperate with them to shape the international environment risks the erosion of this network—allowing a long-tended garden to become choked with weeds. Even worse, it could result in the emergence of other, competing networks, presaging an international order from which the United States is excluded, unable to influence outcomes because it is simply not present.

The United States today is undermining the foundations of an international order manifestly advantageous to U.S. interests, reflecting a basic ignorance of the extent to which both robust alliances and international institutions provide vital strategic depth. In practice, “America first” has meant “America alone.” That has damaged the country’s ability to address problems before they reach U.S. territory and has thus compounded the danger emergent threats pose. 

THE DANGERS OF AMERICA ALONE

Advocates of the current administration’s approach seem to believe that other countries will have no choice but to accede to the United States’ wishes and cooperate on its terms. This is delusion. Sovereign countries always have choices: to compromise with aggressors, take actions opposed to U.S. interests, opt out of assistance when the United States needs it, or cooperate with one another on activities from which the United States is excluded. Assuming otherwise has the result of emboldening adversaries and encouraging tests of the strength of U.S. commitments.

Not even the United States is strong enough to protect itself on its own. Fundamentally, it needs help to preserve its way of life. Cooperating with like-minded nations to sustain an international order of mutual security and prosperity is a cost-effective way of securing that help. But doing so means resisting the temptation to maximize U.S. gains at the expense of countries that share its objectives and instead utilizing the powers of influence and inspiration to enlarge the group of countries that work with the United States to a common purpose.

Those alliance relationships also require a forward strategy—the presence of U.S. diplomats and military forces in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East—to give credence to U.S. commitments. Together, that presence and the relationships it secures create a bulwark against threats, a shock absorber and an early warning system that gives time and space to meet dangers when they arise. To dismiss U.S. involvement today in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere as “endless” or “forever” wars—as both President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden do—rather than as support to friendly governments struggling to exert control over their own territory misses the point. It is in the United States’ interests to build the capacity of such governments to deal with the threats that concern Americans; that work isn’t quick or linear, but it is an investment in both greater security and stronger relationships and preferable to the United States’ indefinitely having to take care of threats on its own.

“America first” has meant “America alone.”

Allies also supplement U.S. military strength. The 2017 National Defense Strategy was built on the assumption of three to five percent real annual increases in defense spending. This assumption has not been borne out by political realities, but a renewed focus on partnerships—on approaching security as a team sport—can reduce what is demanded of U.S. forces. That requires substantial investment to help build capable and willing allies, to negotiate and collectively enforce international rules and practices that restrain adversaries, and to sustain an industrial base that can provide for the defense needs of the United States and help meet those of its most essential allies. In time, such investment will more than pay off, since it enables allies to share more of the burden. 

Defense resources cannot substitute for the many nonmilitary elements that go into national security: diplomats at the State Department, economists at the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, trade negotiators at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control, lawyers at the International Court of Arbitration, development finance experts at the Export-Import Bank and the United States Agency for International Development, and technologists at the Federal Communications Commission.

There are many good reasons to invest in such tools. The military becomes both less capable and less legitimate as it moves outward from its essential functions. The Defense Department can serve to strengthen diplomats abroad and support civil authorities at home by providing assistance in areas such as logistics, the handling of biohazardous chemicals, or emergency contracting, but it should remain the supporting rather than the supported organization—and it should actively avoid the perception of being politicized, as was the case in last June’s Lafayette Square incident with Trump. Balancing the U.S. security portfolio in this way will naturally diminish the prominence of military elements without weakening U.S. defense by providing more diverse and effective contributions from nonmilitary sources. It will also prevent an excessive reliance on the military from eroding the United States’ traditions of civic governance and the advantages of a free society.

Such a rebalancing of the U.S. approach to national security is also necessary, however, when it comes to maintaining the country’s network of alliances and partnerships. Militarizing U.S. national security can dim the attractiveness of the American model, the appeal of which makes it easier for other countries to support U.S. policies. It also fosters an unhealthy division of labor among allies, with the United States taking on a disproportionate share of risk for military outcomes while its allies focus their contributions on development assistance or governance.

THE END OF AMERICA FIRST

The principal external threat the United States faces today is an aggressive and revisionist China—the only challenger that could potentially undermine the American way of life. The United States’ goal, however, should not only be to deter great-power war but to seek great-power peace and cooperation in advancing shared interests. For that, the United States’ alliances and partnerships are especially crucial.

Credibly sustaining the United States’ forward military strategy in Asia will require changes and improvements on a number of fronts: more effective nuclear deterrence, enhanced capabilities in space and cyberspace, dramatic improvements in the ability to project military power, and a renewed willingness to shift resources from lesser priorities. Since China is utilizing asymmetric strategies and technological innovation, the United States also needs a comprehensive approach to restoring what should be, and typically have been, its comparative advantages. The nature of competition has changed dramatically since the Cold War: earlier struggles for technological dominance played out in secretive national labs and other classified, government-sponsored domains, but today, state-of-the-art technology with military applications is being developed largely in the commercial sector with advances driven by consumer demand rather than government directive. Such technologies must be rapidly integrated into weapons systems and other defense platforms to empower new operational concepts and doctrines.

It will also be imperative to maintain robust alliances in Asia, especially with Australia, Japan, and South Korea; to strengthen relationships with partners such as India, Indonesia, and Vietnam that share an interest in maintaining a free and open region; and to participate more fully in and work to improve international organizations so that China cannot manipulate them to the United States’ disadvantage. Those partnerships are also important when it comes to strengthening and diversifying critical supply chains and reducing the country’s dependence on China for critical goods and materials (particularly for rare-earth materials), which the pandemic has highlighted in alarming ways.

Not even the United States is strong enough to protect itself on its own.

Crucially, the United States should not press countries to choose outright between the two powers. A “with us or against us” approach plays to China’s advantage, because the economic prosperity of U.S. allies and partners hinges on strong trade and investment relationships with Beijing. Rather than treating countries as pawns in a great-power competition, a better approach would emphasize common codes of behavior and encourage states to publicly promulgate a vision for their country’s sovereign future and the types of partnerships they need to pursue it. It would also expand the cooperative space in which all countries supporting a rules-based order can work together to advance shared interests. Cooperation across different ideological systems is difficult but necessary, and there should be opportunities to cooperate with China in areas of overlapping interests, such as pandemic response, climate change, and nuclear security. 

In January, when President Joe Biden and his national security team begin to reevaluate U.S. foreign policy, we hope they will quickly revise the national security strategy to eliminate “America first” from its contents, restoring in its place the commitment to cooperative security that has served the United States so well for decades. The best strategy for ensuring safety and prosperity is to buttress American military strength with enhanced civilian tools and a restored network of solid alliances—both necessary to achieving defense in depth. The pandemic should serve as a reminder of what grief ensues when we wait for problems to come to us. 

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  • KORI SCHAKE is Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
  • JIM MATTIS is a Fellow at the Hoover Institution and served as U.S. Secretary of Defense.
  • JIM ELLIS is a Fellow at the Hoover Institution and served as Commander of the United States Strategic Command.
  • JOE FELTER is a Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
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