Transpartisan Note #33
by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner
U.S. policy experts widely believe that the world order requires strong American engagement. When American engagement becomes weak or uncertain, the order weakens, and aggression and disorder start to become visible and grow.
The Cold War underscored this belief. ‘Containment’ of Soviet expansion won bipartisan support and dominated U.S. policy until the early 1990s, when the Cold War ended. 9/11 revealed new security concerns coming from radical Islamists in the tribal societies of the larger Middle East. Radical, tribal, and transnational forces (outside established national boundaries in pursuit of non- or anti- state objectives) presented, and continue to present, new challenges. No bipartisan policy has emerged to address this new global reality. Very small non-state actors can undermine a nation’s security, both perceived and actual.
Large-scale military initiatives, in Afghanistan and Iraq, clearly failed to solve the problem. Persistent resistance in those countries reminded people of Vietnam. The failure of bipartisan consensus on ensuring global security in this new world of ‘weak states’ leaves the question: how to sustain U.S. engagement in the world order without over-reaching military initiatives?
Under pressure from the Afghan and Iraqi governments and people, President Bush set in motion reducing and President Obama reduced the military commitment to those countries. ISIS stepped into the vacuum, and the self-proclaimed Caliphate created a bloodbath. In Syria, President Obama drew a red line in the sand and then ignored it, successfully eliminating Assad’s chemical weapons program but failing to depose Assad. Russia stepped into the vacuum, and Syria became a bloodbath. For more detail, see Politico.
We think the bloodbaths are flowing, largely, because there is no longer any coherent American presence engaging the underlying forces shaping the world that is emerging. This world is balkanized by persisting sub-group loyalties that retard development of strong nation-states.
Obama seemed to be disengaging America from the global order, and Trump—questioning NATO, withdrawing from trade agreements, and repeating his commitment to America first—seems to be continuing that policy. The world wants America to sustain its global engagement without an unsustainable military presence. We need dialogue and debate on a sustainable policy. We see two potential possibilities for new, sustainable engagement.
One focus is military. If and how we deploy permanent military forces in key strategic locations—as we now do in Europe and in South Korea—is one possible commitment to explore that could play an important role in a new engagement, maintaining order. It is especially true in the larger Middle East. Egypt and Afghanistan are possible venues for this. We need a transpartisan — and bi-partisan — debate about this.
A second focus is civic: a strategy for empowering citizens to resist insurgents that threaten them. The key to empowerment, as the work of Hernando De Soto argues in the first issue of The Transpartisan Review, is ownership (see Fighting Terrorism By Empowering The Poor). De Soto’s work shows that when ownership is made formal, citizens will have a stake in societies for the first time, and they will protect what they own from insurgents. (This belief is widely observed even in the regions threatened by radical Islam.)
In developing new security policy we think it is important to consider expanding De Soto’s ownership concept from peasant land to schools, wells, hospitals, and other community ‘properties’. Strategies for this will likely require active participation of civil society organizations, from both left and the right, that are committed to both order and freedom. This is a large, but essential, transpartisan issue, on both foreign and domestic agendas, whose outlines can be glimpsed in current policy tensions and struggles.