The Pentagon Pitches Its New Strategic Narrative

by Allen Ruff and Steve Horn, January 30, 2012

A proposal for a new “grand strategy,” aimed at mobilizing broad domestic support for a decades-long projection of U.S. global power, is currently receiving considerable attention among an expanding circle of foreign policy planners, think-tank academics, public-opinion makers and private-sector elites. It has come not from the State Department or the intelligence community, but from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Appearing under the pen name “Mr. Y,” “A National Strategic Narrative” first appeared in early April 2011, and it has been widely circulated since. Its promoters hope it will come to serve as a blueprint capable of forging a new “national consensus” for a re-branded American globalism capable of winning the “Long War for the 21st century.”

The document’s actual authors were Navy Capt. Wayne Porter and Marine Col. MarkPuckMykleby, two “strategic assistants” to the former head of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen. Ostensibly written in an unofficial “personal” capacity, the “Narrative” clearly would not have seen the light of day without a “sign off” from the Joint Chiefs and probably then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It was vetted by key figures in the foreign policy establishment before its release.

The anonymous “Mr. Y” consciously referenced the Foreign Affairs article on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” that appeared in 1947 under the pseudonym “Mr. X.” Actually written by State Department Russia hand and Moscow envoy George Kennan, it argued that an insatiable Soviet expansionism posed the primary threat to world peace and national security. It came to provide the cornerstone for the U.S. Cold War “grand strategy” of “containment” — the policy to confine the Soviet Union within its East Bloc sphere and halt the spread of communism.

As Anne Marie Slaughter, the State Department’s recent director of policy planning, pointed out in her preface to the newer document, Kennan’s “X article” provided an intellectual framework, a “narrative that fit the facts of the world … well enough to create and maintain a loose bipartisan national consensus for 40 years.”

The backers of Mr.Y’s piece clearly hope that it will do the same.

Context Is Everything…

The Cold War’s end in the early 1990s spelled the demise of containment as a unifying grand strategy. It brought to a close the popular framing of the East-West conflict that portrayed the struggle as a moralistic “good versus evil” ideological crusade with the United States as the “free world” defender against “tyranny” and “totalitarianism.”

As Slaughter pointed out, a new “story” was needed, since such phrasings as “leader of the free world” that encapsulated U.S. power and the structure of the global order for so long now mean nothing to anyone under the age of 30, the majority of the world’s population.

With that Cold War narrative gone, it became clear to foreign-policy planners, military strategists and their imperial think-tank allies, and corporate elites that a new set of explanations was needed to legitimize and maintain domestic support for America’s world power position and global pursuit of a new “national interest.”

Containment, or defense against the “Red Menace” and “communist aggression,” had functioned, after all, to win domestic support for ever-spiraling military spending, expansion of the “military-industrial complex,” growth of the national-security and surveillance state, costly wars and interventions abroad, and an American globalism constrained only by the existence of the Cold War adversary.

The Launch

The “National Strategic Narrative” was formally issued by the public-private “nonpartisan” think tank the Woodrow Wilson International Center at midnight on April 8, 2011. A “rollout” event that same day at the Center’s Washington, D.C., headquarters was billed as a kickoff of anational conversation on the “search for a new national security narrative to guide U.S. policy in the 21st century.”

Attended by an elite overflow crowd, the launch featured a bipartisan panel moderated by New York Times foreign-affairs maven Thomas Friedman. Speakers included the former national security adviser for Presidents Ford and H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, and Brookings Institution neoconservative realist Robert Kagan. Also on board were the soon-to-be editor of The Atlantic Monthly and New America Foundation grand-strategy pundit Steve Clemons and liberal Minnesota U.S. Representative Keith Ellison.

Prominently featured was Anne-Marie Slaughter. The former dean of Princeton’s influential Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs served as director of the State Departments Policy Planning Staff under Hillary Clinton. In that capacity, she headed the 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), the first presidentially mandated four-year assessment of short-, medium-, and long-term imperial objectives.

Arguing that the “Global War on Terror” was too narrow in scope, Slaughter previously was co-director of the Princeton Project on National Security, a mid-2000s multi-year initiative to construct a U.S. national security strategy. Now back at Princeton, she also sits on the advisory board of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the increasingly influential liberal hawk think tank serving the Obama administration.

Slaughter’s “Narrative” introduction began by noting that a national security strategy — a definition of “core” national interests and the way to advance them — already existed and that the “Mr. Y” document was something quite different. Raising the “fundamental question that more and more Americans are asking” regarding the U.S. role in the world, she pointed to the lack of “guiding stars that will illuminate the path along the way.”

She then highlighted the need for “a story with a beginning, middle, and projected happy ending”: a broadly defined “national strategic narrative” with a plot line that could “transcend our political divisions, orient us as a nation, and give us both a common direction and the confidence and commitment to get to our destination.” Further on, she described such a story as “one that all Americans can understand and identify with in their own lives.”

Slaughter’s Wilson Center remarks emphasized a main theme: “that in an interconnected world, the United States must remain the strongest competitor” and “greatest source of credible influence — the nation most able to influence what happens in the international sphere — while standing for security, prosperity, and justice at home and abroad.”

The New Story

Describing an interconnected world filled with both uncertainty and opportunity created by an undefined “globalization,” Porter and Mykleby pointed to the need for “sustainment (sustainability) over containment,” a U.S. “place in a complex and dynamic strategic ecosystem,” and a revival of a liberal international order based upon American values.

As such, the document is loaded with an often contradictory “good cop, bad cop” rhetoric.

Running through it are constant calls for an increasingly sophisticated “global engagement” resting on the “3 D’s” of “diplomacy, development, and defense” — favorable relations and assistance for those aligned with U.S. interests backed, ultimately by a thinly veiled threat of sanctions and force for those state and non-state actors displaying, in the words of the authors, “destructive behaviors.”

Not coincidentally, the same 3 D’s, viewed as “the three legs of U.S. foreign and national security policy,” had already surfaced as the new mantra coming from the strategic think tanks at Washington’s National Defense University, the closely associated CNAS, the State Department, and the USAID.

Calling for international cooperation but not mentioning an increasingly unequal global playing field, the “Narrative” also emphasizes the gains to be made from “fair competition,” no longer viewed as a “zero-sum game” but as a “win-win” situation for those involved. The piece also promotes the increased use of “smart power,” a shift away from a prioritized focus on “hard power” military deterrence and defense left over from the East-West conflict.

Stalwart believers in an American exceptionalism, Porter and Mykleby also speak of spreading the broadly defined but seemingly universal “core values” of an abstract “freedom” based upon “fair competition and hard work,” “a vibrant free market,” and “an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit” as the “engines of … prosperity.”

Clearly moving away from the Bush era’s “my way or the highway” unilateralism, their “Narrative” focuses on maintaining credibility and “influence through example.” Cooperation and free competition, they tell us, are the best way to forward an amorphous “national interest” and “world leadership.”

The idea of “a whole-of-nation effort” combining the 3 D’s abroad with “smart growth” on the home front — longer-term investment in the young as “human capital,” sustainable resources, the environment, and infrastructure — also runs throughout the document.

“Mr. Y” highlighted the need to ensure the nation’s “sustainable security — on our own soil and wherever Americans and their interests take them” and the need “to develop a plan for the sustainable access to, cultivation and use of, the natural resources we need for … continued well-being, prosperity, and economic growth in the world marketplace.”

Resting at the heart of the piece, shrouded in the rhetoric of a revived liberal internationalism, is a concern for maintaining the imperial project.

In some sense very much the realist, “Mr. Y” notes that U.S. strength as a “world leader” was largely derived from its central role in the global economy. Assuming that the dollar will continue as the international medium of exchange, the “Narrative” argues that the American economy will likely remain the strongest in the world “into the foreseeable future.”

The authors point out, however, that “globalization,” while providing “a cultural, intellectual, and social commingling,” has also increased economic interdependence and made narrowly domestic economic perspectives an “unattractive impossibility.” Raising a vague concern about the reality of economic stagnation in the absence of growth, they point out that “prosperity at home” is linked to economic competition abroad and that overseas “development” will remain “one of America’s enduring national interests.”

Drawing to a close, the “Narrative” calls for a “National Security and Prosperity Act,” a modern-day equivalent of the 1947 National Security Act, which at the start of the Cold War merged the U.S. armed forces into what became the Department of Defense and created the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council. The newer act “would integrate policy across agencies and departments” and provide for more effective “public/private partnerships” in order to “converge domestic and foreign policies toward a common purpose.”

As proposed, it would “provide for policy changes that foster and support the innovation and entrepreneurialism of America … essential to sustain our qualitative growth as a people and a nation.”

The country must be prepared for the Long War on all fronts.

The Campaign

In her preface to the “Narrative,” Slaughter expressed the hope that it would provide “a first step down a new path.” She optimistically suggested that all that was needed was for the “politicians, pundits, journalists, businesspeople, civic leaders, and engaged citizens across the country to read and respond.” The public relations campaign immediately got underway.

Mykleby and Porter quickly began appearing before diverse audiences ranging from the ultra-conservative Institute for World Politics to environmentalist conclaves and futurist gatherings, with various centrist think tanks in between. They spoke before the annual meeting of the National Rural Assembly and appeared alongside Slaughter at the recent conference of Pop Tech, “a global community of innovators, working together to expand the edge of change.”

Articles immediately appeared in the opinion-setting press such as The New York Times and influential journals such as the Council on Foreign Relations’ Foreign Affairs. Time editor, Washington Post columnist, and CNN international commentator Fareed Zakaria gave it full coverage and linked the full text on his website.

The “Narrative” soon had its own Facebook page as word spread rapidly on a diverse range of news and blog sites,  from the University of Southern California’s Daily Trojan and the University of Wisconsin’s popular Science Is Fun page to a number of military-oriented sites, including those for the Marine Corp, the counterinsurgency-focused Small Wars Journal, and the right-of-center Veterans Today.

Front and Center at Ft. McNair

The “Narrative” became the centerpiece of a major two-day conference at the National Defense University at Washington’s Fort McNair on Nov. 8-9. “Forging an American Grand StrategySecuring a Path Through a Complex Future” brought together a number of national security–state movers and shakers, military strategic planners, think tankers, and university pundits to discuss the ways to mobilize public opinion and support; on how best to win and maintain “hearts and minds” at home for the Long War.

The symposium notice clearly stated the event would not focus on actual warfare or the preparation for such. The intent, it read, was “to promote a discussion about the elements of, and prospect for a grand strategy for America.” They convened to discuss ways of implementing the “National Strategic Narrative.”

The call noted how the terrain for mapping out a grand strategy had changed with “the empowerment of individuals or small groups with new technologies,” post-9/11. It also observed that “Some would argue that in a democracy it is not possible to attain the necessary consensus to craft and implement a national strategy in the absence of an existential threat” and that “recent political discourse lends some credence to that line of reasoning.”

Disagreeing, the conference announcement spoke of the need to forge that “necessary consensus” and stated the belief that “an American grand strategy is not only possible, but critical to the future of the nation.” They suggested that “A common strategic vision can do much to focus the attention and energies of the nation towards a common good.”

The notice quoted Slaughter’s line from the preface on the importance of “a story with a beginning, a middle and projected happy ending” to orient the nation and a new consensus. Agreeing with the need for such a “storyline” and “associated ways and means” as “the basis for an American grand strategy,” the NDU organizers explained that the goal of the conclave would be to “help illuminate that path to the future.”

The conference panels were clearly top-heavy with Department of Defense and NDU associates. The first panel session, What is Grand Strategy? (How) Can we develop it? What should it look like?” was introduced by Nick Rostow, director of the NDU’s Center for Strategic Research and the son of the Johnson-era liberal hawk Eugene Rostow. Participants included not only Mykleby and Porter, but Robin Raphel, formerly the State Department’s nonmilitary aid coordinator for Pakistan and a one-time lobbyist for Pakistan.

The opening keynote featured Leon Fuerth of the NDU’s Center for Technology and National Security Policy, founder and director of the Project on Forward Engagement at George Washington University and a national security adviser to former vice president Al Gore. Viewed as an expert on arms control and “strategic stability” and somewhat of a futurist, Fuerth more recently has been involved with the Project on National Security Reform, the congressionally mandated public-private consortium whose 2008 findings called for a new National Security Act.

Another keynote speaker was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, the highest-ranking woman in the Defense Department. A major strategic thinker, counterinsurgency advocate, and co-founder of the increasingly influential Committee for New American Security, she had served in 2008 on then President-elect Obama’s foreign-policy transition team, was initially rumored as a pick to become the first woman secretary of defense, and reputedly was a mastermind of the presidents Afghanistan war strategy.

Most of the two-day summit was filled with various panelists holding forth on the need for Slaughter’s grand-strategy “storyline.” A panel on “Educating Strategists,” featured two reps from the NDU’s National War College and three Long Warriors directly tethered to the inter-university Grand Strategy Program network.

One was the associate director of Yales Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, Minh Luong. Another was the CIA historian Richard Immerman, a former assistant deputy director of national intelligence and director of Temple University’s Center for Force and Diplomacy. Historian Matthew Connelly, of Columbia University’s Hertog Global Strategy Initiative, filled out that panel.

Clearly, some of the grand-strategy academics were successfully transitioning from their campus confines to rub elbows with the defense-establishment elite.

Among them, giving another major session key note, was Long War policy wonk and Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver. Perhaps more than any of the academic think tankers present, Feaver best personifies the semi-warrior servant of power that has come of age in the post-9/11 environment.

He heads Duke’s “Program in American Grand Strategy” and is director of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill strategic-planning consortium, the Triangle Institute of Strategic Studies. Moving through the revolving doors that lead to the corridors of power, he twice served as a staffer to the National Security Council under George W. Bush. He also is known within national-security circles as an expert on the increasingly contentious issue of the separation of civilian and military authority.

A presence at an increasing number of strategic planning and grand strategyconclaves, Feaver also has been involved with the high-level coming together of major corporate leaders and the military under the auspices of the Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellows Program, centered at the NDU. A bipartisan long warrior, he also is affiliated with the Center for a New American Security.

Another main speaker was David Abshire, a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan and an early 1960s co-founder of the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies. Abshire, president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, addressed the essential role of the president as “persuader in chief” in winning national support for a grand strategy. He told his audience that “our mission is to draw up the blueprint for a consensus building national grand strategy, utilizing all elements that make up national power — domestic and international.”

In a language reminiscent of the early Cold War, he stated, “We are confronted by the decline of America as the leading global power,” and  “there is a threat as urgent to the nation as in 1861, 1941, and 1947.” The main question for Abshire was “how to convince the mind of the chief executive, as well as the congressional leadership” of that reality.

Looking ahead to “the task of restoring an America with no peer,” he argued that “grand strategy can only be realized if it is owned and driven by the president, grounded in domestic strength, and embraced by the American people.” He called for developing a “public strategy — a public consensus around the national Grand Strategy.”

Back to the Future?

A major lesson that warfare-state planners clearly drew from Vietnam revolved around the strategic importance of “winning hearts and minds,” especially at home. It is a lesson those currently preparing the 21st century’s 3-D Long War have not forgotten. It currently remains uncertain, however, whether their “Strategic Narrative” storyline will mobilize the kinds of broad support needed for their remodeled imperial project.

For one thing, the new story lacks the kind of “Red Menace” “existential threat,” that “scare-the-hell-out-of-‘em” fear factor that proved so crucial in winning elite backing, public support, and congressional appropriations throughout the Cold War.

Filled with an optimism and faith in the country’s “core values” and the ability of an almost mythic “entrepreneurial spirit” to overcome new sets of global challenges, the “Narrative” also avoided any mention of harsh realities, the specific not-so-long-range challenges facing the empire.

At the same time, the national-security corporate state, the military, a media able to manufacture consent, and the imperial consensus remain firmly in place, unchallenged.

The U.S. actually had a grand strategy long before the Cold War, dating to the turn of the 20th century. At that time a late entrant in the quest for empire, the U.S. was locked out of a Chinese market already partitioned by the major imperial powers. The period’s statesmen and military promoters, believers in the invincibility of Yankee know-how, entrepreneurial spirit, and inventiveness, steeped in an American mission story, called for “Open Door” access. Up-and-coming contenders in a divvied-up world, they argued for open competition, free trade, and the right to self-defense.

Today’s military planners and policy wonks are spinning narratives with “projected happy endings” that are taking us back to that future. The outcome will undoubtedly not turn out as planned.