THE BLOG
11/13/2007 06:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Resilience and American Security

With the quagmire in Iraq and the regeneration of Al Qaeda in the Pakistani tribal regions, it is easy to feel gloomy about national security. However, there has recently been an important document released -- unnoticed by most -- that points the way to a safer, more secure future. On October 17, the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps jointly released a new maritime security strategy, titled "A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower". The new strategy calls for naval forces to shift from a strict focus on warfighting to one that emphasizes helping to prevent and contain regional conflicts, counter piracy and terrorism, and expand humanitarian assistance, all in cooperation with foreign navies.

The new maritime strategy recognizes that American security is connected to the stability and security of global networks of "trade, finance, information, law, people and governance." Given that 90% of global commerce travels by ship, the sea is the physical center of this global network. Thus, the traditional mission of protecting crucial sea lanes and homeland security is not enough. As Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations noted in an address at the International Seapower Symposium, "The global system and network and commerce could not function without the free flow on the world's oceans. ... But we all know . . . the disruptions that can occur, whether it's piracy, smuggling of people, of drugs, of weapons, terrorism -- all of that disrupts maritime security."

Roughead's speech on maritime security illustrates a larger point. Globalization has created wonderful new opportunities in commerce, technology, social movements, and intercultural exchange. But the interdependence of this system also leaves it open to disruption and manipulation by terrorists, international criminals, insurgents, and other malevolent non-state actors. This will only increase as technology and the porousness of the global system gives increasing opportunities to those who wish to disrupt it. Non-traditional threats such as environmental disasters also can inflict severe damage, as the 2004 tsunami showed.

For all of the talk of how much the September 11 attacks changed American conceptions of security, policymakers have still not realized its true significance. 9/11 was a cheap transnational operation that struck at the heart of global commerce. Bin Laden boasted that for only $500,000, he had inflicted $500 billion worth of damage on New York, a global financial hub. Terrorists and criminals increasingly seek to use the vulnerable nodes of the global economy to enrich themselves and accomplish their political objectives. Movements as diverse as the Al Qaeda, Nigerian Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigerian Delta (MEND), the Mexican Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) have struck at global oil production. In India, the Naxalite insurgency seeks to bring the Indian state to its knees through the precise targeting of special economic zones. And in the Malacca Strait, pirates attack ships bearing 40% of the world's trade, and some maritime piracy experts have predicted that terrorists could attack shipping or use ships as "floating bombs."

True security is not about tanks and aircraft carriers -- it is about resilience. Resilience, as defined by security experts such as John Robb and Shane Deichman, is the strengthening of the invisible but powerful systems that govern everyday life against catastrophic disruption. These systems, ranging from the government infrastructure that we depend upon daily to the dizzying web of international commerce, literally have of power and life and death over millions of people. Strengthening those systems to withstand global challenges -- such as environmental disasters, disease, war, and terrorism -- is of paramount importance.

Resilience is also a focus on the practical. For example, the obsession over apocalyptic "weapons of mass destruction" ignores the more immediate threat of cheap and easily deployable weapons such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and shoulder-fired anti-air missiles. Most importantly, resilience means responding to the threats to our security through strong, practical policymaking, instead of indulging in "security theater" -- the practice of overwhelming displays of force in order to convince the public that the government is "doing something." Our post 9/11 security policies have been rooted in a lethal combination of "security theater" and outdated thinking that emphasizes offensive conventional force as the sole guarantee of security.

The invasion of Iraq and the support of authoritarian regimes that promise to quench terrorism through brute force has hardly given us security. Iraq has served as a giant R&D lab for the development and refinement of terrorist warfighting tactics. Pakistan's American backed-dictator Pervez Musharraf has presided over the creation of a virtual Al Qaeda/Taliban mini-state that his demoralized military has been powerless to combat. And our support for the Ethiopian invasion and occupation of Somalia-originally intended to combat an Islamist government -- has returned Somalia to a state of anarchy.

At home, our negligent response to Hurricane Katrina is a powerful demonstration of the increasingly corroded foundation of our security. The Century Foundation's report "The Forgotten Homeland" details a litany of neglected vulnerabilities. The vastness of the problem is shocking -- facilities ranging from seaports to nuclear plants remain vulnerable to terrorists, cyber-security has not adjusted to the threat posed by increasingly advanced hackers, and the government has little idea of just who and what enters our borders every year. We urgently need a strategy that focused on building resilience, not more aggressive unilateral actions.

That is why the Navy's new strategy, which focuses on preventing war as much as protecting the homeland, is so important. Teams of Marines, Coast Guard, and Navy units will be dispatched to conduct humanitarian assistance and help combat terrorists, criminals, and pirates. Cooperation with other nations is the strong point of the strategy, with a large focus on exchanges designed to develop relationships with other nations' militaries. Already, naval operations are being launched in West Africa in cooperation with Britain, France, and Spain. Above all, Admiral Roughead noted the success of the new strategy rests on trust: "Trust is not something that has a switch and you can turn on and off... Trust is built through discussions, operations, activities and exercises and through initiatives that each of us may undertake and bring others into. It is built on seeking opportunities to work more closely together."

Using the military to augment existing "soft power" capabilities in this fashion will ultimately have a more positive impact on making Americans safe than the kind of aggressive military action that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration's policies. Cooperative assistance in humanitarian actions and maritime security training helps other nations establish control over their own territorial waters. Terrorists, criminals, and extremists need ungoverned spaces in order to operate -- any approach that builds law and order and shrinks those spaces will make Americans safer. Additionally, Americans working with other navies to hunt down pirates and help after humanitarian disasters makes for far better public diplomacy than Iraq and extraordinary rendition.

Although the Navy had long pushed for the idea of a multi-nation, "1,000-ship" navy that would help preserve order on the high seas, insiders ascribe the new policy to the influence of defense secretary Robert Gates. As Newsweek reported, Gates and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen see humanitarian aid as crucial to solidifying bonds with other nations and defeating terrorism. Gates hopes to implement a larger strategy to use training, aid, and assistance to help strengthen global stability and create relationships that will come in handy during global crises.

Of course, such a plan isn't perfect. As International Crisis Group and ENOUGH Project member John Prendergast noted in an essay for Foreign Affairs, there is a danger that military assistance will focus on more traditional forms of security-building at the expense of resolving conflict and promoting good governance, making those conflicts worse and fueling anti-Americanism. This is even more true in a time of great worldwide suspicion of the United States, suspicion that may inhibit the kind of cooperation that Gates seeks to build.

Critics have also bemoaned that the military has become the largest and most important instrument of American foreign policy -- disturbingly illustrated by the fact that the Department of Defense has more marching bands than the State Department has diplomats. As Foreign Policy magazine's blogger Blake Hounshell sarcastically quipped, "I hope they like John Philip Sousa in foreign capitols."

These concerns are legitimate. The State Department, Peace Corps, and United States Agency for International Development have long been under-utilized as tools of influence and assistance. Those agencies also have greater skill at humanitarian functions than the military. The powerful diplomatic, humanitarian, and cultural instruments of the government have slowly withered away, and more power has accrued to the military and those who seek solely military solutions to complex problems. However, today's expansive security landscape requires an integrated approach with all agencies; the military, because of its airlift and sealift capabilities, is uniquely placed to play a role in helping to build resilience, integrated, of course, with civilian agencies and NGOs.

Unfortunately, the Navy's maritime strategy will not receive much attention in the 24-hour news cycle. There is nothing sexy or attention grabbing about it. But it is a positive development that should be encouraged. It represents a start towards a new conception of security for the 21st century and a move away from the counterproductive policies of the recent past.