Fewer Swords, Smaller Shields: Defining a New National Security Ethos

After the shock and awe of 9/11, the United States essentially adopted a sword-and-shield strategy to prevent future terrorist attacks. The sword, of course, was the U.S. military with its self-touted goals of "global reach, global power" and "full-spectrum dominance." The shield, too, was primarily the U.S. military, augmented and stiffened by a surging national security state, to include a new Department of Homeland Security and a vastly expanded network of intelligence and surveillance agencies.

In the aftermath of 9/11, it's perhaps unsurprising that we unleashed this military sword while dedicating vast sums to building more and bigger shields. But our problem today is the persistence of this strategy and its narrow, warrior-based ethos. It defines "national security" in strictly military terms, strictly in terms of thrusting endlessly at enemies real or imagined, while simultaneously hiding behind bigger shields, whether these be enormous bases and embassies overseas or more invasive surveillance technologies here at home.

The main result of our sword-and-shield strategy has been two debilitating wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) that have made us less safe. At the same time, we've spent trillions of dollars on national defense, feeding the insatiable hunger and endless growth of a military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about five decades ago.

Having moved to wield the rapier of Special Forces and drones instead of the broadsword of Big Army, the Obama Administration has otherwise left the Bush sword-and-shield strategy unchanged. Mitt Romney has done little but promise more spending on a greater variety of swords and even bigger shields.

Given all these swords and all these shields (and all of our frustrating wars and all of the lives spent), the key question of the 2012 presidential election should be: Are we truly more secure now than we were twelve years ago?

I would say "no." It's now obvious that we invested so much of our wealth (and ourselves) in our military and various foreign entanglements that we neglected to address critical issues right here at home (our economy, our nation's infrastructure, our schools, the list goes on and on). Even now, we continue to spend a trillion dollars a year on weaponry and war, on intelligence and surveillance, on more and more swords and shields.

It's high time to define a new national security ethos. Without abandoning swords and shields completely, how about a laissez-faire foreign policy? How about leaving the world alone, as much as we are able? Few doubt that we carry a big sword (or stick); how about having the confidence and maturity, to quote Teddy Roosevelt, to speak softly?

This is not about returning to isolationism (we'll never return to those days). Rather, it's about recognizing the limits of power. Swords and shields do have their limitations. It's not true that you can do anything with a sword but sit on it. Democracy doesn't spread at the point of a sword, a fact that's true not only of democracy abroad but of democracy here at home as well.

Consistent with a laissez-faire foreign policy, let's revive the Monroe Doctrine, with a twist. Recall that in the nineteenth century, the United States enjoined the major European powers not to meddle in "our" hemisphere. Two broad oceans (and Britain's Royal Navy) helped to enforce this doctrine.

It's a good idea to limit foreign meddling. How about we apply it to ourselves? Less meddling overseas, a quieter form of leadership, a return to speaking softly (and acting more democratically). And martial virtues only in those instances where they're truly needed.

Fewer swords, smaller shields, and more belief in our own democratic virtues and values: that's what I'd like to see as our new national security ethos.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.