Democratic Sclerosis and National Strategy

02/01/2012 12:24 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2012

Democratic sclerosis refers to the tendency of democratic systems to become increasingly encrusted with legacy provisions which inhibit responsiveness to the general welfare and make it increasingly difficult for the government to perform routine tasks.

National security is managed at the highest level by the president using the National Security Council to develop a National Security Strategy which serves as the base guidance for protecting national security. The Defense Department inputs to this document, particularly with the regular Quadrennial Defense Review, and based on the National Security Strategy develops the force structure, doctrine, and capabilities necessary to support the strategy. Congress reviews and may critique the National Security Strategy as well as Defense Department priorities embodied in budget requests, and decides what specific force elements to fund. This is a cyclical process, continually reassessing, revising, and adjusting.

As detailed by the Project on National Security Reform, the system has one very basic shortcoming: no where is there any methodical assessment of overall national strategy, a review of the totality of national interests and how to best attain them. The National Security Strategy necessarily focuses on security issues, traditionally military ones, although there has been a recent effort to broaden this perspective, such as including input from the newly developed Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review now provided by the State Department. A recent Strategic Guidance likewise addresses only missions for the armed services.

Yet the new millennium is bringing an epochal shift fundamentally altering the challenges facing the nation. But a broader appreciation of national strategy is only slowly developing with the recognition that the national well being is being steadily undermined by such factors as economic globalization, a developing economic crisis in Europe, an outsized U.S. external debt, the rise of an autocratic but economically vibrant China, and the uncertain impact of global warming. At the same time, continuing economic distress domestically is raising awareness that military security requirements have to compete with other national priorities. Overall, the system is poorly structured to address such fundamental issues.

Democratic sclerosis severely undermines the U.S. response. Power politics encourage Congressmen and Senators to think of themselves first, and then of their constituents (critical to their re-election) and only after that of the nation. Gerrymandering helps to maintain officials in their positions, but constituent pressures can be very heavy, especially in reelection years, while the role of money in elections has been intensified. So Congress finds it very difficult to balance national security requirements against a background of vocal, well-organized opposition to reductions. There is no better example than the Base Realignment and Closing system. The question of base closures became so divisive and inflammatory that it was necessary to set up a special system for addressing the issue -- an independent group develops a comprehensive list which then can only be accepted or rejected, but not modified piecemeal. This has been reasonably effective, though the longer term result is just that constituent pressure has to be applied earlier and in a more indirect fashion. More importantly, this independent evaluation system only applies to one very specific element of defense posture; it has little direct impact on the defense production complex.

National security reductions are particularly troublesome because any Defense Department procurement was initially set up to address some specific security risk. Risks rarely disappear and it is often impossible to even prove that any diminution has taken place. So any reduction faces an immediate objection that is a failure to adequately address some specific security risk. The problem is all the more daunting if the proposed reduction is not due to some assessed risk reduction, but rather to reduced prioritization against other national objectives. Groups constantly seek to protect their own interests at the expense of the general public. So, for example, it took a veto threat from the White House to end production of the F-22 fighter plane. Both the president and the Secretary of Defense said it was not needed, but it affected jobs in some 40 states and so there was a strong lobbying effort for further production.

Although it is easy to say that national security is not a jobs program, in reality it is. Any new defense facility is greeted with great enthusiasm, not because of its contribution to some distant national security objective, but because of its impact on local jobs. And any proposed reduction in defense facilities is immediately opposed for the same reason -- its impact on local jobs. The military industrial complex and its integral contractors strongly defend their own prerogatives with only lip service to the general welfare. More importantly, this highly organized opposition to change makes any major realignment very difficult, at the very time that such basic realignments are necessary. Abe Lincoln famously said you, ”can't fool all the people all the time.” But history shows you can often fool 50% of the people at critical times – seen not long ago with the justifications and projections for the war in Iraq.

So national security programs must navigate a political minefield. A major reason for funding programs may simply be to keep jobs alive or companies open, regardless of actual national security needs. Any long term program, or program with uncertain or controversial results, will inevitably be challenged on a partisan basis even if there are no viable alternatives. And for any program, there are inevitably winners and losers, and the loser can challenge results on any number of grounds, initiating both litigation and Congressional reviews which can drag out implementation for considerable periods of time.

Of course there is nothing new in groups insisting that the strategic urgency of their particular program necessitates its continuance. What is new is the dramatic shift in the position of the United States vis-a-vis the rest of the world comes at a time when sclerosis is severely clogging the arteries of government. Finding a new Strategic Narrative to set the course of government is important. But even more important is finding a way to unclog the arteries of government.