Fighting the Next War

The case for a new national security act

The Heads of State

In 1947, after three years of debate and considerable controversy, Congress passed the National Security Act, which President Truman signed on July 26. That law unified the separate Army and Navy Departments, including the Marine Corps, into what became the Department of Defense; created the new United States Air Force from the previous Army Air Forces; and established the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. Along with the various memoranda and directives that implemented its intentions, the act became the guidepost for the conduct of the Cold War.

The Cold War, of course, ended two decades ago. It is time to consider a new national security act—one more appropriate for a multipolar world. The twin revolutions of globalization and information are remaking economic and political structures. New threats to security—failing states, the rise of stateless nations, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, ethnic nationalism and religious fundamentalism, climate degradation, mass South-North migrations, global pandemics, fragile energy networks, and resource competition, to name a few—generally don’t lend themselves to military solution. No one nation, not even the United States, can deal with them alone.

Warfare itself is changing. Organized violence by nation-states, though still plausible, is diminishing. Instead, unconventional conflicts involving stateless nations, tribes, clans, gangs, ethnic nationalists, and religious fundamentalists are clearly rising. Sooner or later some lethal combination of drug cartels, arms syndicates, international mafias, and terrorist groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction.

All of these factors require a more sophisticated understanding of security than that which defined the Cold War. Neither al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Taliban in Pakistan, the mafia in Russia, nor the drug cartels in Mexico fear our strategic weapons, large Army divisions, or carrier task groups. We need a new statutory basis to do for 21st-century security what the National Security Act of 1947 did: lay the legal groundwork for defensive policies that address the realities of a new era.

Laws are not panaceas. But simply drafting and debating a National Security Act of 2011 would offer the therapy of reflection. Where are we now? Where are we trying to go? Who can help us get there? Whom should we realistically be afraid of? How might they threaten us? What are the limits of military power? Most of all: what can we do now to reduce threats in the future?

Underlying these questions are foundational issues like civilian-military relations, chains of command, and decision-making authority, especially in crises such as 9/11—issues that should be subject to greater public debate.

In November 1993, I wrote to President Bill Clinton suggesting that he stood roughly where Harry Truman did in 1945 and that, using the Truman model, he might ask a small group of advisers to consider a new national security strategy and, if necessary, a new national security act for the post–Cold War era. Not until 1998 did the president join then–Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in creating the Commission on National Security, and even then we were not given the mandate to consider a new law.

But such a reform is needed now more than ever. The 20th-century equation of national interest with national security produced two results: America’s role in the world was almost totally defined in military and security terms; and the vast defense structure created in 1947 became the overwhelmingly dominant force in defining our national priorities.

This has meant that the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the ever-growing intelligence community all took their share of national resources, and only then was the remainder parceled out for domestic investment needs. If we wanted large-scale investment in education, a national highway system, and national research laboratories, we lumped them all under “national security.”

Even more troubling were the political implications of the security state. If one ideology or party defined itself as the “security” party, it could dominate national power. Whoever dominated national security dominated the state.

The security state also required a constant threat. The Soviet Union served that purpose for 45 years. Now al-Qaeda has to suffice. A new national security apparatus should assume a less mythical and far more manageable profile, and it should no longer focus on the search for monsters to destroy.

In 1947, President Truman established an army of industry. In the 21st century, we must establish an army of intelligence, information, and usable technology. Thomas Jefferson wrote that asking the nation to rely on the laws and policies of one generation for the changing needs of the next was the same as asking a grown man to wear the coat he wore as a boy. The 21st-century United States must lay aside the coat worn by its 20th-century self.