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A New Approach to Defending the United States?

The latest from our “Adults in a Room" series.

Words: Jennifer Kavanagh, Kelly Grieco, and Renanah Joyce
Pictures: US Army / Benjamin Wilson

Adults in a Room” is a series in collaboration with The Stimson Center’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy program. The series stems from the group’s monthly networking events that call on analysts to gather virtually and hash out a salient topic. This series aims to give you a peek into their Zoom room and a deep understanding of the issue at hand in less than the time it takes to sip your morning coffee without the jargon, acronyms, and stuffiness that often come with expertise.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration published its National Defense Strategy (NDS), a guiding strategy document that lays out the defense priorities for the United States and articulates the ways the Department of Defense will handle pressing threats.

The defense community sees the document as the primary explanation of how an administration plans to orient the Department of Defense: what it considers most important and how it plans to deploy US resources. This NDS makes clear that the Pentagon sees China as the primary long-term challenge for US national security but  Russia, North Korea, climate change, and other issues should also be of immediate concern for defense policymakers. The NDS explains that it will use “integrated deterrence” as a way to tackle these threats. While the document presents a definition of the concept, experts debate just what it is and how it can be implemented.

The Reimagining US Grand Strategy program’s November 2022 roundtable brought experts together to discuss the new NDS — and integrated deterrence in particular. There was disagreement among the group about the usefulness of the concept and additional debate about whether the strategy was clear enough in its approach to working with other countries to address transnational threats. Three experts explain their view of the NDS, integrated deterrence, and the handling of defense partnerships with “partners and allies.”

Jennifer Kavanagh, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The concept of integrated deterrence — the centerpiece of the Biden administration’s NDS — could help defense leaders make more efficient use of resources and define a more balanced role for the military in US foreign policy in two ways. Integrated deterrence creates space for burden sharing by articulating the limits of military tools used in isolation and the need for contributions from other US government agencies, the private sector, and allies and partners when confronting today’s complex global challenges. It also offers DOD a framework to focus commitments on its highest priorities and avoid over-extension.

Without buy-in from interagency partners and well-defined roles for these partners, the benefits of integrated deterrence may not be realized.

But as articulated in the NDS, integrated deterrence has three shortcomings that could prevent the concept from achieving this promise. First, integrated deterrence requires interagency participation, but its roll-out has been DOD-focused. The concept is used only two times in the National Security Strategy, outside of a short call-out box definition. It does not appear in the Department of State and US Agency for International Development’s Joint Strategic Plan. Furthermore, the boundaries between DOD’s role and other agencies are unclear. Without buy-in from interagency partners and well-defined roles for these partners, the benefits of integrated deterrence may not be realized.

Second, the concept of integrated deterrence is not that helpful in aligning ends, ways, and means, which is one way DOD defines strategy, which complicates implementation. While acknowledging that effective deterrence must be tailored to specific adversaries and threats, the discussion of integrated deterrence remains vague on what the US military aims to deter, focusing primarily on “aggression” and “attacks.” The description of how the United States will deter is similarly open-ended. There are references to developing new operational concepts, working with allies, and modernizing capabilities, but few details on what benefits these concepts and capabilities offer or what responsibilities partners will assume. Beyond defining China as the top priority, the NDS provides little guidance on resource allocation across commitments, making it hard to connect the concept with budget choices.

Third, integrated deterrence covers DOD’s approach to preventing aggression but does not address instances where deterrence fails. Integrated deterrence is still relevant during armed conflict. For example, although the concept is new, there is some evidence that it can effectively avoid escalation within a conflict. DOD officials have argued that the use of integrated deterrence — a combination of economic sanctions, weapons transfers, and diplomatic pressure, all carried out alongside allies and partners — has helped prevent Russia from escalating its war in Ukraine or turning to nuclear weapons thus far.

But the concept of integrated deterrence alone is not sufficient to guide DOD’s decision-making during wartime. Additional detail on how the Pentagon will organize its efforts and allocate resources and forces after a deterrence failure to defeat an aggressor (rather than to prevent conflict) is needed to ensure the “seamless” coordination across the spectrum of conflict promised by integrated deterrence.

Kelly Grieco, Senior Fellow, Stimson Center

There are two key problems with the DOD’s concept of integrated deterrence. First, what the Pentagon views as a novel defense concept is, in fact, neither novel nor a defense concept. Deterring US adversaries through the combined threat of diplomatic isolation, military action, intelligence releases, or economic sanctions has been the bedrock of US grand strategy since at least the Cold War, when the United States practiced “containment” against the Soviet Union. There is little new here.

Another flaw is the attempt to sell integrated deterrence as a grand strategic concept.

Another flaw is the attempt to sell integrated deterrence as a grand strategic concept. A grand strategy defines a country’s enduring national security interests and envisions how the country can best employ its national resources to protect those interests. The distinguished historian Paul Kennedy explains, “The crux of a grand strategy lies therefore in policy, that is in the capacity of the nation’s leaders to bring together all the elements, both military and nonmilitary, for the preservation and enhancement of the nation’s long-term (that is, wartime and peacetime) best interests.” This definition of grand strategy is strikingly similar to the Pentagon’s own concept of integrated deterrence.

But the United States already has a grand strategy document — the NSS — and it has not embraced integrated deterrence as a core concept. To the extent the NSS discusses integrated deterrence at all, it bounds it as a DOD concept, even though its implementation is not entirely within its scope of responsibilities. To avoid inevitable frustration and failure, the Pentagon ought to focus on its core mission — preparing to fight and win future wars — and leave the process of integrating the military with other instruments of power to the government entity already charged with the task: the National Security Council.

Second, military doctrine favors brute force over coercion. It advances core concepts like “seizing the initiative” and maintaining “full spectrum superiority” across the domains of air, cyber, land, maritime, and space. These warfighting concepts aim to control the battlefield and impose the US military’s will on the adversary. But successful coercion requires the adversary’s cooperation, not its control. The goal is to influence the adversary’s decision calculus, specifically how it perceives costs and benefits. Rather than disarm and defeat the adversary, deterrence aims to convince the target that the costs and risks of a given action would outweigh its benefits. Success ultimately turns on convincing the target that it has active choices. As Thomas Schelling famously put it, deterrence is “not so much a contest of military strength as a bargaining process.” But that is not chiefly the responsibility of the military profession, nor should it be.

The Pentagon should play to its strengths: jettison the concept of integrated deterrence for a focus on winning the next war. If DOD focuses squarely on that task, it will be more likely to deter those wars in the first place. The Pentagon should let the White House decide how to best integrate the military and other instruments of power in order to protect and promote US national security interests.

Renanah Joyce, Assistant Professor of Politics, Brandeis University

Allies and partners are at the center of the new NDS. “Allies” are mentioned 141 times, “partners” 145 times, and usually together — the phrase “Allies and partners” appears a whopping 117 times. Lest one wonder what this emphasis means, the NDS spells it out in a striking sentence: “Mutually-beneficial Alliances and partnerships are our greatest global strategic advantage — and they are a center of gravity for this strategy.” Just what is a center of gravity? Carl von Clausewitz, the great Prussian military theorist, called the center of gravity “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends… the point at which all our energies should be directed.” The center of gravity, in a nutshell, is the thing upon which success or failure hinges. Whoever secures it wins.

To call allies and partners a center of gravity is thus a striking statement and invites a broader debate about the merits and risks of a center of gravity that lies almost fully outside of US control. For now, assuming that US strategy does indeed hinge on allies and partners, US policymakers would do well to consider two key questions and a practical imperative.

If alliances and partnerships really are the center of gravity, how are US government and DOD energies directed against strengthening and protecting these relationships? Equally important, how will adversaries target the US center of gravity? As with any defense strategy, the “enemy gets a vote.” US rivals are eager to deter the United States and erode its strategic advantages. They will go after these relationships if they believe that allies and partners are key to US strategic success or failure.

Using the term “allies and partners” bundles together actors who differ along key dimensions.

Adversaries have many ways to try and peel off US allies and partners. They can attempt the kind of brute force attack underway in Ukraine or, more pervasively, engage in military and economic coercion. Russia has used economic coercion to deny the US military access (e.g., Kyrgyzstan), and China has shown increasing willingness to use economic coercion against US allies to force changes in their foreign policies (e.g., Australia). Many of Washington’s closest security partners have Beijing as their primary economic partner, which opens the door for economic coercion.

Using the term “allies and partners” bundles together actors who differ along key dimensions. Disaggregating allies and partners along these dimensions will be crucial for getting the strategy right and implementing it effectively. One dimension is interest and value alignment. Literature on US security force assistance shows that the United States and its partners have divergent interests. Even when they share some important interests, states inevitably have other, different interests that can lead to problems with free-riding, moral hazard, or misuse of assistance. The degree of interest and value alignment means some partners and allies will be much more reliable than others depending on the context.

Another dimension is the level of commitment. There’s a reason that Sweden and Finland moved to join NATO this year: US commitment to NATO is different than to partners like Taiwan or to partners who may possess strategic assets that the United States wants to use but who will never get a security commitment.

What’s at the core here is what the United States really wants from its different relationships. Not all allies or partners are useful because of their military capabilities. Some are useful because of their strategic assets (think Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti or Subic Bay in the Philippines). How the United States invests in these relationships is (and should be) different.

Jennifer Kavanagh, Kelly Grieco, and Renanah Joyce

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