Security at Home and Security Abroad: Identifying the Necessary Conditions for True National Security
By Raphael Piliero, Senior Research Analyst
What determines if the United States can successfully attain its objectives on the international stage? In past and present debates surrounding international security, a common answer has been to outpace adversaries that militarily threaten the country; as adversaries develop newer and more threatening weapons, the United States either needs to control those assets through reciprocal arms control or develop threatening capabilities of its own. However, this view is unduly myopic. Security is not solely determined by the size of a state’s arsenal or its military might, but by the resilience of the society that is being defended to begin with.
The focus on military strength is not surprising and is hardly a recent development. Since the dawn of civilization and armed conflict, warring societies have sought innovations in technology and operational concepts to stay ahead of their enemies. These innovations ranged from the Greek Hoplite phalanxes of 800 BCE geared toward outflanking Mediteranean rivals to concepts such as Levée en Masse aimed at raising a large standing army for the French in the Napoleonic Wars to defeat other European powers. This continued into the 20th century, with US debates over a potential “Missile Gap’’ suggesting that military strategists felt quantitative superiority in nuclear forces would be necessary to defeat a great-power adversary. Across millennia, the throughline is clear: military strategists identify a threat from a rival and craft new concepts of military doctrine or technology to adapt accordingly.
Against this backdrop, contemporary debates about US military capabilities become far more legible. Countries considered to be adversaries of the United States have developed new capabilities and modernized existing ones, in an attempt to keep pace with the United States or attain an advantage. These countries often have diametrically opposed visions for global governance, disputing the value of democracy, the liberal international order, capitalism, and other fundamental qualities of the US-led international system. China has restructured the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and modernized conventional capabilities, buoyed by rising defense budgets over the past decade, while simultaneously engaging in a protracted build-up of nuclear forces. Russia has developed a slew of new “exotic” nuclear weapons, such as an air-launched hypersonic missile and a nuclear-armed drone, capabilities unrivalled by any country.
In response, prominent figures in the United States defense community claim that new adversary capabilities will necessitate matching them. Indeed, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin prioritized an early directive aimed at studying — and countering — China’s military build-up. Policymakers in Washington have vigorously debated the various nuclear modernization projects, such as a new suite of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) missiles, a new long-range standoff capability, and whether low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons in Europe should be discontinued or not. In a sense, these debates raise questions about the conditions under which the United States will prevail in a future World War — in a conflict that risks “going nuclear,” what arsenal will equip the United States to maintain escalation dominance, deter further aggression and, if necessary, limit damage in a nuclear war?
These debates are valuable, and both sides certainly have merit. However, the conversation could benefit from examining a central assumption, too often taken for granted: what conflict will look like. There’s an unstated assumption that conflict will be direct, head-on, and follow a predictable “escalation ladder.” Here, the belief is that an adversary would challenge the United States in a conventional conflict by staging an air, ground, or naval campaign in the attempt to occupy a particular area, which contains a risk of spiraling into a larger conflagration that could risk a nuclear exchange. In such a conflict, the United States will need to maintain dominance both conventionally and from a nuclear standpoint, having the ability to control escalation at the tactical and strategic levels to end the war on favorable terms. Proceeding from this view, it is thus sensible to attempt to out-pace the military capabilities of adversaries — superior capabilities make it more likely that the United States can both dish out and absorb more damage in a conflict with another state. In a war with, say, Russia, the ability to have hundreds of nuclear weapons spread out across the United States (away from population centers) can be a strategic boon, absorbing missiles that otherwise would go towards cities.
Yet is an open question as to whether this aforementioned linear vision of conflict comports with what modern, 21st century conflicts would entail in reality. While this blueprint has a basis in reality when conflict is primarily state-to-state, contemporary conflicts have increasingly taken place between states and decentralized groups or non-state actors, such as the wars the United States fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, even within state-to-state conflict, this may not be realistic, since US adversaries have come to realize this form of conflict is disadvantageous to them. The United States spends more on defense than the next ten countries combined, and there are few domains where an adversary can realistically lay claim to competing head-on with the United States. Moreover, the world saw first-hand the downsides of a direct conflict with the United States in the 1991 Gulf War, seen by many strategists as the first “modern” conflict. Supported by the advent of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and other space-enabled assets, the United States used precision-guided munitions, advanced operational concepts, and seamless cross-branch coordination in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield. The result was the brutal decimation of the Iraqi military, one of the world’s most advanced, in a matter of weeks. Adversaries took note: a head-on, linear conflict with the United States was a losing proposition.
Instead of fighting a losing battle, adversaries adapted, with US “...conventional superiority creat[ing] a compelling logic for states and non-state actors to move out of the traditional mode of war and seek some niche capability or some unexpected combination of technologies and tactics to gain an advantage.” Instead of fighting in the vein of the Gulf War, the two World Wars, or countless wars of the past — meeting on a battlefield for a traditional, all-out war of attrition, bringing to bear all military forces — adversaries have begun to fixate more on indirect, unconventional ways of waging conflict. Dubbed by some as “hybrid” or “grey zone” warfare, this strategy trades on a sometimes ambiguous line between war and peace, where an aggressor takes actions that deliberately fall short of traditional thresholds for conflict. This enables US adversaries to circumvent disparities in military strength; while the US military may be far stronger, the use of that strength would seem disproportionate in response. While the United States could win an all-out conflict with an adversary, responding in such a manner to, say, a cyber-attack or an encroachment on an unoccupied island, would be non-credible due to its lack of proportionality. This has been dubbed the “Senkaku Paradox,” a reference to several disputed islands between Japan and China that have little value; as China encroaches on this disputed territory, nobody plausibly believes the United States would risk war over it. Yet, the scenario allows China to make a claim to the territory of a US ally, undermining the credibility of US security guarantees.
In the face of these military challenges, an overwhelming display of military strength is less helpful; after all, adversaries have designed a way of conflict that all but guarantees the conflict will not rise to that level. A prime example of this is the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, where conflict in the “grey zone” — cyber aggression, propaganda purporting to establish that Crimea was Russian territory, and the use of troops without Russian military insignia to sow confusion — resulted in Russia getting their way without much direct conflict with the United States at all.
Future conflicts will be decided less by traditional military strength and more by overall societal resilience. The defining feature of hybrid warfare is that it is whole-of-government, involving aggression in the political, economic, and social dimensions alongside the military domain. Gunshots and bombings are replaced by cyber-attacks, energy coercion, and propaganda across media channels, an attempt to carry out Sun Tzu’s directive to “subdue the enemy without fighting.” From this perspective, the greater threat is not a weak military but a weak society, vulnerable to these forms of coercion. When citizens distrust their government, they become “soft targets” for disinformation and propaganda, as weak civilian infrastructure is susceptible to disruption in both physical and cyber domains. To use an extreme example, suppose an adversary has used potent enough disinformation to affect public sentiment in the United States surrounding a war; the most advanced military technology in the world is useless if the soldiers operating it have decided the war is not worth fighting.
One visceral illustration of the shortcomings in the contemporary debate over security can be seen in a potential conflict in the Baltics. Numerous journalists and political scientists have speculated in recent years about the potential for a Russian attack against an eastern member of NATO, such as Estonia. The debate usually proceeds along similar lines, with military strategists questioning whether the United States can maintain tactical and strategic superiority (having conventional dominance in a conflict, controlling escalation if Russia decides to cross the nuclear threshold with nuclear weapons, maintaining superiority at the strategic level, and more). However, such a “conflict” might not ever rise to this level, instead being resolved on unfavorable terms to the United States without military aggression. Some have suggested a “Narva Scenario” where Russia uses propaganda, disinformation, and economic coercion to orchestrate a secession referendum in a predominantly Russian-speaking Baltic town, such as Estonia’s town of Narva. Suddenly, Russia has carved out a portion of an allied state, existentially threatening the cohesion of NATO — all without firing a shot. Here, Russia’s modus operandi would be to keep the conflict non-military if possible, avoiding having to square off with the conventionally superior US military. The dispositive question of the “conflict” will be less the military capabilities of the United States and instead intra-societal questions in Estonia: can propaganda and disinformation be filtered out? Do Estonians in susceptible towns trust their government? Has Russia painted a compelling narrative about their model of government?
The proposition that conflict is not solely a state-to-state competition in military capabilities is not a new one. In the 1980s and 1990s, a groundbreaking development in international relations scholarship emerged from the “Feminist International Relations” (FIR) movement. FIR was a reaction to the Waltzian neo-realist tradition in international relations, which concentrated analysis almost exclusively on state-to-state interactions. The specific leaders, model of government, or happenings within a state were not relevant; instead, the structural proclivities and corresponding pressures of the international system shaped state behavior, encouraging states to seek protection from an anarchic environment.
FIR takes issue with this core assumption of neo-realism, challenging the fixation on solely international-level pressures. This assumption, FIR theorists argue, creates an artificial divide between intra-state and inter-state conflict, ignoring how the national happenings within states can be co-constitutive with international pressures. For FIR theorists, all states did not engage with each other on the international stage under identical conditions; whether a state was patriarchal, unequal, or denying security to its citizenry would shape its propensity for aggressive foreign policy. The implication was a broader theory of international relations, with analysis existing outside of the narrow ambit of international pressures. A state’s structure of government, degree of political representation, and social equality were taken as potent drivers for that state’s behavior in international politics.
Such a perspective has relevance to the contemporary debates over hybrid conflict: analysis cannot just examine the weapons or strategies a state will use to fight other states without examining what occurs at home. Given that hybrid conflict is whole-of-government, the onus is on states to have their own house in order. Institutions must be resilient, the citizenry must be secure and trust that the government works for them, and disinformation must not be able to gain a foothold in the marketplace of ideas. All of the military might in the world is not useful if the “war” will be lost before it even begins.
What can government officials do? Take the aforementioned example of a Russian fait accompli against a Baltic state such as Estonia. Instead of exclusively planning new military capabilities and operational concepts, policymakers in NATO should consider how to avoid losing a dispute on unfavorable terms at an even lower level of conflict. This will require identifying points of vulnerability in Estonia’s civil society, where Russia can use unconventional, coercive tactics to achieve their objectives. Put differently, military planning should account for the realization that the majority of the “fighting” may well take place before the first shot is fired.
There are a number of lessons for the United States, as well. As Russian interference in the 2016 election aptly demonstrated, the United States is hardly immune to disinformation and hybrid aggression. While the United States may have the strongest military on the planet, military capabilities may no longer be sufficient to assure internal and external security. Climate change, economic inequality, a democracy failing to deliver on its promises to millions of Americans, crumbling infrastructure, and more should not be thought of as supplements to national security, but rather core components of a secure and resilient society. As adversaries probe for new weaknesses in the soft underbelly of the United States, military improvements will not be a catch-all answer. Instead, the onus is on the nation to widen the aperture of “security.”