Reflections on U.S. Military Policy

By Hermann, Oliver; Shrock, Jonah | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall/Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Reflections on U.S. Military Policy


Hermann, Oliver, Shrock, Jonah, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


Providence, RI, 8 May 2017

Douglas J. Feith is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, where he heads the Center for National Security Strategies. As under secretary of defense for policy from July 2001 until August 2005, he helped devise the U.S. government?s strategy for the war on terrorism.

Brown Journal of World Affairs: Various analysts have said that we are at an inflection point for U.S. strategy, involving declining U.S. primacy or growing multipolarity. Do you think that analysis is correct? If so, what would be your key parameters for U.S. strategy going forward?

Douglas Feith: I'm not keen on buzzwords like "inflection point," which have no clear definition. You raise a significant point, though: the United States previously had a particular position in the world, which you refer to as "primacy." Especially after the Soviet Union's collapse, the United States had a position of unique importance in the world. We were the predominant military power, and our enormous economic strength gave us influence. But in the Obama years U.S. influence diminished: in Europe, with the Russian action in Ukraine; in the Middle East, with U.S. inactivity in Syria; and in East Asia, with the assertiveness of the Chinese in the South China Sea and the lack of a strong U.S. response. People in the United States and around the world question whether the United States still is the kind of predominant power that we were in the 20 years or so after the USSR's collapse. One of the things that President Trump wants to do is to rebuild and reassert U.S. power. It's not yet clear whether he and his team will do this wisely.

Journal: And if you were trying to think of a few parameters for strategy going forward-some notions to inform U.S. policy-what might those parameters be?

Feith: I think that the weakness exhibited by the United States in the last eight years or so damaged U.S. interests and created enormous problems. The most obvious examples are the ones that I mentioned: the Russians in Ukraine and the catastrophe in Syria. Consider the millions of Syrian refugees: many have tried to get into Europe, which has radically changed European politics. Chinese aggressiveness in the South and East China Seas has changed politics and the strategic situation in Asia. All of those things have damaged our interests. So has the Iran nuclear deal, which I think is going to encourage various countries to pursue nuclear weapons. There was also the weak U.S. response to North Korea's nuclear program, which was likewise a failure of the Bush administration. The combination of the North Koreans getting away with their nuclear activity without an effective response, and then the Iranians defying the whole world and at the end of the day being rewarded for their nuclear program, did severe damage to the global architecture of nonproliferation. The world is going to be a more dangerous place as a result, and U.S. interests are going to suffer.

When the United States signals a lack of interest in getting involved in major world problems, or a lack of capability or will to engage in defense of our own interests or those of our friends and partners, there are consequences. The ill effects can take many forms: erosion of security; economic harm; humanitarian disasters, such as the Syrian and Afghanistan refugee problems; threats to democracy and human rights abroad and at home; and increased risk of the spread of weapons of mass destruction. My key point is that we can't avoid the effects of world affairs by adopting isolationist attitudes. Some Americans want to run away from the violence, corruption, and extremism of the world, but the problem is that, if we try to run away, those problems will chase after us. Isolating the United States from North Korean or Iranian missiles, from Islamist terrorists, or from Russian or Chinese cyberwarriors is not possible. We need strategies to shape world affairs in ways that protect and serve our interests in security, freedom, and prosperity, or we'll be at the mercy of problems being exploited by others. …

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