The National Military Strategy is periodically published to enunciate the overarching goals and objectives for the Department of Defense (DOD). Based on a changing and challenging geopolitical environment, this document outlines the military's missions in the broadest terms. That directly impacts force structure, or how the DOD is organized. In the latest two versions an egocentric addition has emerged--universal values. Portending hubris, that concept is both wrong and potentially dangerous to our position in the world. It is wrong because there are no agreed upon "universal values" and dangerous because it reinforces concerns professed by many people around the world that the United States holds itself to be the supreme judge of moral authority and arbiter of global power.
The current version of the strategy is dated June 2015 and it is the first change since 2011. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's foreword realistically notes, "Global disorder has significantly increased while some of our comparative military advantage has begun to erode. We now face multiple, simultaneous security challenges from traditional state actors and transregional networks of sub-state groups -- all taking advantage of rapid technological change. Future conflicts will come more rapidly, last longer, and take place on a much more technically challenging battlefield. They will have increasing implications to the U.S. homeland." Given the rapid emergence of violent extremist organizations, if anything, this declaration understates the threats and challenges America's future military forces will face.
In the 2008 version of the National Defense Strategy five clear and concise key national security objectives were listed:
• Defend the Homeland
• Win the Long War
• Promote Security
• Deter Conflict
• Win our Nation's Wars
All of those objectives appropriately illuminate the comprehensive nature of what functions are expected to be performed by the DOD.
The 2011 version titled the National Military Strategy brought about a change in thinking. Then the "Enduring National Interests and National Military Objectives" were listed as:
- The security of the United States, its citizens and U.S. allies and partners;
- A strong, innovative and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity;
- Respect for universal values at home and around the world; and
- An international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.
And in the 2015 version of the National Military Strategy U.S. Enduring National Interests are re-iterated nearly identically to the 2011 document and again include "Respect for universal values at home and around the world" as an integral component. While creating a national military strategy is admirable, it should be based in reality. Discussion of universal values is specious--they simply do not exist.
Worse, there are core beliefs held by large segments of international societies that are inherently incompatible and thus are incongruent with the objectives of this document. Introspection suggests that there are few, if any, values that are omnipresent on the American national level, let alone globally. Matt Taibbi's insightful book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap provides a more in-depth exploration of the inconsonances that are now exacerbated at an institutional level. For the purposes of this article a cursory examination is sufficient to illustrate the egregious, though often espoused, errors in thinking about values. Scrutiny of the current situation in the U.S. indicates we do not even have national values that are consistently applied.
"All men are created equal"
Start with the proposition that all men are created equal. Some of the most glaring societal problems are inequalities based on gender, race and heritage. Studies over recent decades continually have found that women in the same position as men earn less in almost every occupational field. That is true even when all participants have advanced degrees in their respective fields. The gap is less at positions held by younger workers but the differential increases with age. While the issue has become a front burner for discussion, the U.S. Congress steadfastly has rejected pleas for legislation that confirms gender-based equal pay for equal work.
While we have enacted laws pertaining to employment based on racial identity, the behavior of the U.S. shows that we don't really hold that to be a universal value either. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014 the wealth disparity between Black and White Americans was 13 to one and between White and Hispanic families, over ten to one. With no concrete actions being taken to alleviate such disparity, it is hard to suggest equality is a universal, or even American value.
Of course the notion that women are held to have equal value to men on a global scale is simply preposterous. In many countries, especially in the developing world, women are even further behind in human rights than in the U.S. Recently UNICEF projected that 30 million young women will undergo genital mutilation in the next eight years. Then consider that even in the Western world human trafficking of females is still a significant problem. That is true in the America as well and the efforts to stop the illicit activities are totally inadequate. If prevention of human trafficking were truly a universal value there would be far greater emphasis to stopping it. In some countries slavery is still an accepted practice. As an example, in Mauritania today there are an estimated half million slaves who cannot own property, have legal custody of their children, or possess a last name. Still those conditions have not prevented the U.S. from supplying military aid to that country for counter terrorism operations. Clearly human equality is not a universal value nor one that interferes with competing priorities for the U.S.
"All people want the same things"
Possibly the most misunderstood is the belief that "all people want the same things," a phrase often embraced by Americans pontificating about global values. When pressed for specifics as to what those things might be they usually fall back on "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This misconception is quickly dispelled by the constant barrage of suicide bombers that terminates the life of the perpetrator along with others. Making the point more dramatically are the statements from mothers rejoicing in the fact that their sons engaged in suicidal behavior called martyrdom, which most Westerners deem both enigmatic and appalling. In the U.S. we tend to value highly individual ownership of consumer goods and the latest electronic trinkets. Other cultures place higher emphasis on such amorphous concepts as happiness or communal cohesion. There are no universal values regarding the wants and desires of disparate societies.
"Human life has extraordinary value"
A traditional Western value is that human life has extraordinary value and is to be protected at all reasonable cost. Domestically there is theocratic-driven debate pertaining to when life begins and the right termination of pregnancy is permissible, if ever. However, in what appears to be cognitive dissonance, the anti-abortion proponents are near universally in favor of states inflicting the death penalty. The international situation is even starker. A review of the horrific execution videos proudly displayed by ISIS demonstrates that the value of human life is not universally accepted. It would be easy to dismiss those actions as those of an adversary for contravening the notion of the value of life. However when you then consider the deplorable conditions under which laborers (including young children) are forced to work in many areas of the developing world, it is hard to contend their lives have equal or extraordinary value. In addition genocide periodically has been ignored despite overwhelming evidence of ongoing atrocities. Consider Cambodia, the Balkans, Rwanda, and Darfur as relatively recent examples. In those cases life had no value whatsoever and the world stood by and allowed the events to continue. Respect for human life is not a universal value.
"Individuals are responsible for their actions"
In the U.S, and most of the developed world, there is an assumption that individuals are personally responsible for their actions. If a person commits a crime, it is him or her that is put on trial, no one else. That concept is not universally held and in many areas families, tribes, or even the entire population is deemed accountable for actions on any one of their members. In such cases retribution for a crime can be extracted by attacking another individual who is related to the culprit. The notion of collective punishment has been applied throughout history. As an extreme example, currently North Korea employs a "three generations of punishment" approach for those charged with serious offenses. That means they incarcerate the offender, their children and grandchildren. While visiting Papua New Guinea two years ago we heard retaliation for murder could be conducted against any clan member associated with the perpetrator. The concept of individual responsibility is therefore not a universal value.
"Shame and honor"
There is no commonly accepted value for violations of shame or honor of a family, clan, or tribe. To this day honor killings routinely occur in many countries and have been carried out in this country as well. One estimate suggests there are 25-28 honor killings in the United States on an annual basis. In the developing world, especially in the Middle East, such actions are a common occurrence. The offenses are often minor or nonexistence under Western laws but fatal to the people involved. Unapproved relationships precipitate many retaliations and most commonly it is a female who is killed--not infrequently stoned to death--initiated by a male member of her family. Honor killings are not exclusively Islamic but are highest in Muslim countries. The notion of shame and honor is clearly not a universal value.
"Respect for the beliefs of others"
In heterogenic societies of the Western world there is a generally espoused value that incorporates respect for the beliefs of other. Multicultural in nature, religious ceremonies of differing faiths are at least tolerated. In America, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and even atheists coexist and function compatibly in our daily lives. Unfortunately, in the Middle East many of the countries are unapologetic theocracies that are not as accommodating. For some fundamentalist Muslims, the world is divided into Dar al-Islam (house of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (house of war). The confirmed goal is to convert all territories into Dar al-Islam. Some elements, such as ISIS, often offer the options of conversion or death; that is for those who survive initial occupation. Again, respect of opposing beliefs is not a universal value.
"Democracy is the supreme form of governance"
The Western world generally accepts the notion that democracy is the best form of government as it allows participation by most of the population. The illusion is that the people have an opportunity to choose those who lead them based on either a popular majority or representative electoral process. Elements of the U.S. political establishment believe that democracy can be exported or imposed. That notion led to the disastrous decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Certain Neocons believed that a democracy could be installed that would serve as a beckon to be followed by the surrounding nations. That did not happen. The United Nations has taken positions against excessive human rights abuses and held a few leaders accountable. While the 2005 United Nations Summit did acclaim that democracy was a universal value, the reality is something quite different.
A few years later I attended and spoke at a special operation conference in Abu Dhabi that was sponsored by a crown prince. In a small meeting he made it clear to the senior American leadership that they did not need to be told how to govern their country. Staunch allies of the U.S., the prince noted that their form of governance was a matter between the established government and those governed. They did not need the U.S. to tell them how they should run their country. Again, there is no universal value on the form of governance best suited.
"Behavior is believable"
Those of us who attended the U.S. Army's Organizational Effectiveness School were ingrained with the notion that "behavior is believable!" To understand the true values of an organization it was important to determine how institutional behaviors correlated with their stated goals and objectives. Not infrequently incongruence between saying and doing was indicative of deep underlying problems. Societal behavior should be the yardstick by which inculcated values are measured, not their platitudes. The notion of universal values is analogous to the question of what is pornography. They both are hard to define, but everyone is sure they will know it when they see it. The standard becomes the eye of the beholder and thus unquantifiable and with great disparity in understanding. Another similarity between values and porn is cognitive dissonance. Studies repeatedly have concluded that societies that have the most stringent sexual mores and constraints are found to be the biggest users of pornographic materials. Similarly our strictest law and order proponents are often the ones caught violating those principles. The litany of disgraced clergy elucidates that notion.
Given the demonstrable vast inconsistencies in application of beliefs, behaviors, and moralities, how can a national strategic document claim that universal values be stated as an "Enduring National Interest?" Recent polls indicate the number of foreign citizens with a positive view of the U.S. has been declining. Our actions in the Middle East and elsewhere have encouraged the perception that we often act as the bully when it comes to international policy. In South America we are referred to as "the colossus of the north," and few people know that the U.S. has made over one hundred interventions on that continent in the past two hundred years. Our incursions in Africa, including proxy wars with the former Soviet Union, have often resulted in destabilization and chaos. Asia too has experienced American intercession that has often had negative impact on the countries involved. Vietnam may come to mind but there are other players including Laos, Cambodia, and even effort to support a free Tibet decades ago.
Conversely Americans at all levels, including the DOD leadership, generally view our interventions as positive and an indication of global leadership. The impact of our actions, however, has rarely been commensurate with the stated altruistic intentions. With due consideration, it would be wise to reexamine the new National Military Strategy and bring it more in line with both our capabilities and without inferring to the world that we are the arbiters of their right to self-determine their system of governance and their own value systems.