21st-century U.S. defense strategy

Two basic principles guide the United States National Defense Strategy unveiled Jan. 5. The first is the rising significance of the Asia-Pacific region to U.S. national interests. The second is a new fiscal environment: Washington just does not have the resources to fund a defense wish list as it did in the past.

The challenge for U.S. defense planners, and their allies and partners, is ensuring that the two principles do not conflict and that U.S. national interests — and those of allies and partners — can be secured even in a time of growing budget constraints. The key challenge is making sure that potential adversaries do not misread U.S. intentions and capabilities and mistake reconfiguration for weakness.

U.S. President Barack Obama is laying out the parameters of U.S. international engagement at a time of transition. The new U.S. defense strategy, like the foreign policy revealed late last year that emphasizes the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia, is an attempt to articulate and frame U.S. policy after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The new National Defense Strategy outlines five U.S. defense priorities: countering extremist and terrorist threats; halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; making the Asia-Pacific region a priority; emphasizing relations with allies and partner nations; and developing innovative, low-cost small presence approaches to achieve security objectives.

The new strategy aims to draw on new technologies and lessons learned in recent conflicts, such as Libya, along with Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Mr. Obama, the United States can ensure its security with smaller conventional ground forces. The trick is getting rid of “outdated Cold-War era systems” and investing in “capabilities we need for the future.” More significantly, and keeping with the message outlined in his National Security Strategy, U.S. security ultimately depends on strength at home — rebuilding national infrastructure and human resources.

Such logic is an irresistible target for defense hawks who equate national strength with the size of the defense budget. Their position is fortified by the administration’s plans to cut about $487 billion in defense spending over 10 years. They charge that those reductions put the U.S. at risk. In fact, however, the core budget will still amount to about $560 billion a year for the next decade, larger than it was at the end of the Bush administration.

And more telling, it will remain larger than the next 10 countries’ defense budgets combined. (And many of them are U.S. allies, a fact to remember when critics counter that some countries are racing to close the gap.)

The U.S. insists that cuts, along with other changes, such as reducing the size of the army, will not undermine the U.S. ability to safeguard its interests. As Mr. Obama explained, military forces will be “agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats.” He also underscored the centrality of the Asia-Pacific to future planning by repeating his pledge that any reductions “will not come at the expense of this critical region.”

The new strategy explicitly disavows the previous requirement to be able to fight two ground wars simultaneously. That has been a staple of U.S. rhetoric for several decades. But the reality was different as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq made plain.

Still, as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explained, the U.S. will be able to “confront and defeat more than one adversary at a time.” And while the Asia-Pacific region becomes the first priority, the U.S. will remain committed to the defense of its interests in the Middle East as well.

The success of this strategy may well depend on how it is interpreted, regardless of content: If potential adversaries believe that the U.S. has lost the will or the capability to fight, then no strategy can succeed. That is why U.S. officials have insisted that the new strategy reflects much more than budget considerations. The review lasted four months and engaged the highest military and civilian leaders, in both the Pentagon and at the combatant commands.

In subsequent remarks Mr. Panetta noted that after the cuts, the U.S. will still field the world’s most powerful military and no country “should mess with that.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was equally blunt, noting that “There may be some around the world who see us as a nation in decline, and worse, as a military in decline. And nothing could be further from the truth.”

Nonetheless, some adversaries will see what they wish, and it is thus incumbent on the U.S. and its allies to reinforce that message. That means Japan and other U.S. allies must work more closely with the U.S. (and other security partners) to signal their own commitment to regional security. That can be done by increasing coordination on diplomacy and working together on defense plans, while Japan upholds its constitutional principles, to ensure that national defense programs and modifications complement each other, and signaling to the world that the U.S. and its allies remain united in pursuit of shared goals and objectives.