America’s strategic challenge in the 2020s


Professor Graham Allison of Harvard, former CIA Deputy Director Michael J Morrell and retired Admiral James A Winnefield, a former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former Commander of NORAD (which means he knows Canada’s defence situation), have written a very thoughtful analysis of America’s strategic situation in Foreign Affairs on the strategic situation that will face the next American president, who I assume will be Joe Biden, and the whole of the US-led West, including Canada.


They open by reminding us that the US election is not quite over until the legal challenges are done, the electoral college votes and the President is inaugurated. Whoever that is they say “will face the most difficult foreign policy test the United States has experienced since the early years of the Cold War. This test stems not just from specific challenges but also from a growing imbalance among four classic variables of grand strategy: ends, ways, means, and the security landscape. Left unrecognized and unaddressed, gaps between U.S. ambitions and the U.S. ability to fulfill them will generate increasingly unacceptable strategic risks.


And they explain that: “From our experience as national security officials – in the military, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense – we understand why correcting this imbalance is easy to say but hard to do. The policy community resists setting priorities, mostly reacts to ongoing events, and uses the term “vital” promiscuously. Military services and warfare communities are wedded to long-cherished legacy systems that are in many ways misaligned with the full range of U.S. interests. And the thought that open sources now provide insights into global developments as important as those provided by stolen secrets is difficult to accept for an enterprise built to spy.

Overcoming this resistance,” the authors explain, will require “a clear and direct order from the president and disciplined follow-up to hold his administration responsible … [that, clarity and discipline have not been hallmarks of the current, Trump, administration; and they add] … The result of the president’s directive should be a new kind of national security strategy: short and succinct, not all things to all people. It needs to lay out an understanding of ends through the lens of a list of generic, prioritized security interests, as well as guidance on using that list to both resource and employ national power. And it needs to have a clear outline for how the entire symphony will be conducted so the instruments are well tuned and coordinated.

Foreign policy,” they explain, and I really hope that Erin O’Toole, Michael Chong, Leona Alleslev and Alex Ruff, and many other Conservatives read and study this, because it applies to Canada, too, “requires maintaining a balance among four classic variables:

  • Ends, which are what an administration is trying to protect and advance;
  • Ways, which are the strategies, policies, concepts, and methods employed to achieve those ends;
  • Means, which are the elements of national power, acquired through taxing or borrowing, that enable the ways; and
  • The Landscape of Global Security, which consists of economic, and political conditions in which other actors pursue their own interests and upon which one’s own strategy must operate.”

The authors say that “The current loss of equilibrium that characterizes U.S. foreign policy is driven by two of the four variables:

  • First, changes over the last two decades in the global landscape, including major shifts between the relative power of the United States and its major competitors, present an immense challenge. Changes in GDP, which forms the substructure of national power, are telling. Measured by purchasing power parity, the United States’ share of global GDP has decreased from 50 percent in 1950 to 14 percent in 2018, while China’s has recently surpassed the United States’ to 18 percent. Moreover, both China and Russia have capitalized on U.S. preoccupation with two decades of “endless wars” to narrow gaps in conventional military capabilities and to develop asymmetric ones. They have employed technology to exploit democratic societies, and they have weakened U.S. leadership by helping to drive wedges between the United States and its traditional allies; and
  • Second, American voters are signaling their desire for more attention and resources to be used for domestic issues. Moreover, as a result of steps taken to mitigate the economic effects of COVID-19, U.S. government debt has expanded to levels previously thought unsustainable. By the end of this year, that debt as a share of the GDP will reach 110 percent—the highest level since the end of World War II. The result is that the overall resources available for foreign policy will almost certainly shrink.

The problem of “means” and the changed “global landscape” should be very familiar to Canadians. In 1946, after the dust of the Second World War had settled, Canada was one of the few rich nations in the world. Yes, we had run up a HUGE national debt to pay for our share, and much of Britain’s share, too, of the war. (The Brits did, eventually, pay us back, even though we had already forgiven the debt.) But Europe and Asia lay in ruins, only a few countries (including Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA) had escaped relatively unscathed. In 1947 Louis St Laurent, in his not nearly well enough known Gray Lecture, laid out the principles of Canadian foreign policy and committed Canada to playing a leading role in the world. By the late 1960s, after the Korean War and after being a cornerstone of NATO for two decades, Canadian voters were, as Allison, Morrell and Winnefield say American voters are, “signaling their desire for more attention and resources to be used for domestic issues.” Pierre Trudeau was listening in 1968 and he acted.

I was told, many years ago, but what I still consider to be a very good authority, that Pierre Trudeau initially told his inner circle that he wanted to totally disarm Canada and withdraw from all alliances. He was even wiling to go so far as to allow the Americans to have “sovereign bases” in Canada in places like Cold Lake, AB, Bagotville, QC, and Goose Bay, NL to provide for the defence of the American strategic nuclear missile bases. He was told, my source said, that such a course if action would be opposed by the majority of his cabinet and his caucus and by most Canadians, and he would be run out of office and out of the Liberal Party, too. His next proposal was to withdraw, as France had done, from NATO’s military command structure and thus become more “independent.” That too, met stiff opposition from within his cabinet. He finally won agreement to cut Canada’s military commitment to NATO by half and reduce his government’s support for any and all military activities. US President Nixon and European leaders were not pleased; Leonid Brezhnev was; so were many, many Canadians who didn’t necessarily want less “defence” but who, like 21st century Americans, did want a bigger, better social safety net.

The next American administration the authors say, will have to grapple with negative trends in the two strategic variables described above ~ the Landscape of Global Security and Means ~ and “In so doing, it will have to look to the other two variables, over which it has the most control: ends and ways. It will need to adopt a more disciplined approach to ends and a more imaginative use of ways, including all the instruments of national power – diplomacy, military prowess, strategic communications, and economic influence.” My guess is that the next president will use both diplomacy and economic influence to persuade Canada to spend more on defence and to spend more of what it does in America.

The authors propose that the new administration should develop a hierarchy of interests (these are Ends) with five tiers:

  • First is the survival of the country as a free democracy – the most important responsibility of any government. In the Cold War, policymakers frequently reiterated the mantra “the survival of the United States as a free nation with our fundamental institutions and values intact.” Because the United States is geographically blessed with wide oceans and friendly neighbors … [they mean Canada] … this interest traditionally has been threatened only by major nuclear and perhaps biological attacks. Now, information attacks, operating at light speed and unencumbered by physical distance, must be added to that list, because they could permanently alter the character of the U.S. political system;
  • Second is the prevention of catastrophic attacks on the country and its citizens. Numerous threats fall into this category, including a major terrorist attack; a one-off nuclear detonation; a crippling cyberattack on critical infrastructure; severance of undersea cables; or even an electromagnetic pulse attack delivered by a high-altitude nuclear detonation. It also includes criminal groups importing the synthetic opioids that kill tens of thousands of our citizens each year. While these do not threaten the country’s very survival, their high human and economic costs could result in systemic changes to its way of life.” Canada plays a key role in this as part of NORAD but the Americans want us to do more;
  • Third is protection of the global operating system and a U.S. leadership role within it.  Sometimes called the international order, this system comprises the institutions, laws, agreements, and norms that have allowed Americans and others in the world to enjoy seven decades without great-power war and with the greatest increase in economic well-being ever. Within this structure, the United States has led in promoting global economic growth through expanding trade in a rules-based system, facilitating finance with the dollar as the reserve currency, and building a global Internet with open standards. While this system has always been under threat from rivals chafing against it, it is now increasingly stressed from the inside by rising nationalism and populism;
  • Next in the hierarchy comes the security and support of allies and partners – a unique interest in that allies and partners may be thought of as both ways and ends. International alliances are closely bound to the first three imperatives, and while the United States’ leadership role is not always popular at home or abroad, allies play a key role in U.S. security and prosperity … [again this applies especially to Canada in the NORAD alliance] … They contribute to global markets; enhance the United States’ own diplomatic, intelligence, and military capabilities; and provide legal and even moral support in times of need. Having weighty allies on its side of the seesaw of great-power rivalries makes the United States much stronger; and
  • Finally, there is the protection and, where possible, the extension of universal values—including ideals such as the prevention of atrocities, genocide, deliberate attacks on civilians, and chemical or biological warfare, as well as the sovereignty of nations and relief of human suffering. Somewhat more debatable, depending on one’s definition of “universal,” is the extension of democracy itself.

The authors say that “The changing security landscape and growing limitations on means will require the next president to make increasingly difficult decisions about which ends are most worthy of resource allocation and power expenditure. To be sure, higher-ranked ends, including the security of the American homeland and its democracy, are non-negotiable. But if subjected to a thorough review through the lens of the hierarchy of interests above, would others – such as the depth of the United States’ commitment to all current allies and partners, or its determination to maintain military primacy in every area of the world – be refashioned to better reflect changes in landscape and means? … [this is, once again, specially relevant to Canada as a partner in NORAD] … Would such decisions lead to more clever ways to address these interests? In answering these questions, the next president should heed Henry Kissinger’s warning: “No country can act wisely simultaneously in every part of the globe at every moment of time.”

Professor Allison, Mr Morrell and Admiral Winnefield close on a cautionary note, saying that “Changing ways may be even more difficult than adjusting ends. In large systems such as the U.S. national security establishment, internal and external investments in the status quo make it hard to break out of existing practices. In almost all cases, new ways will require shifts in allocation of means among the elements of national power and within the institutions that actually employ them. Nonetheless, the next administration has an opportunity to reset the ways it uses each element of U.S. national power to better serve the United States’ ends. The alternative is to risk advancing unsustainable, or outdated, tactics in service of muddled priorities—with the result that the United States will struggle more and more to provide for the common defense, promote general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.

But their key point is that the next administration, assuming it is a Biden administration, and the ones after that have an opportunity to “reset” American foreign and defence policies so that the four key”drivers,” Ends, Ways, Means, and the Landscape of Global Security, are all kept in the necessary balance. They have proposed a common-sense “hierarchy of interests” (which are, really, Ends) as a guide. Any government might have four or five or six but I think they have covered the strategic ground very well.

There is a lot of meat in here for Canadians. Canada is vital to US security. We are more than just a god, safe, harmless neighbour; our vast territory ad the airspace about it is like another ocean that protects America from danger. Canada has a moral and strategic requirement to help keep America, the world’s greatest power and the ultimate guarantor of our sovereignty, safe and secure. That means doing a full and fare share of defending the continent. That does not appear to be anywhere on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s green, feminist and sunny ways agenda, but it needs to be. It needs to be high on the agenda of any responsible Canadian government. That means Canada needs new leadership and a new, government.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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