PrintPrint CiteCite
Style: MLAAPAChicago Close


America's Role in Global Security: The Mayo Clinic, Not the Emergency Room

Speaker: John Hillen, Olin Fellow for National Security Studies, The Council on Foreign Relations
October 7-8, 1998
Foreign Affairs


Note: Remarks as prepared for delivery

How can you get very far,
If you don’t know Who You Are?
How can you do what you ought
If you don’t know What You’ve Got?
And if you don’t know Which To Do,
Of all the things in front of you,
Then what you’ll have when you are through,
Is just a mess without a clue,
Of all the best that can come true,
If you know What and Which and Who.

—From Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh


America’s search for a post-Cold War security identity has produced a wide-ranging and fascinating debate that often resembles swinging for a piñata. Not only is every contestant equally disadvantaged in knowing where the piñata is or what it looks like, but everyone is armed with the same stick with which to swing away. Given the wide range of “answers” provided, no one observer or school of thought can be said to have a great advantage over the others in searching for this elusive target. Thus far the contest has seen clashing civilizations, reluctant sheriffs, tempted superpowers, coming anarchies, agile strategies, benevolent hegemonies, unipolar movements, multipolar movements, pasts as prologues, America coming home, history ending, imperatives of leadership, and every variant of neo[add movement here]ism imaginable. The debate has shifted the template of political camps as they relate to foreign affairs[1] and, against a background of relative disinterest on the part of the body politic, provided a rich vein of ideas, plans, and visions.[2]

Nonetheless, the practical necessities of governing narrow the choices considerably, and the public policy world is left to deal with fairly pragmatic alternatives that represent a middle road somewhere between the poles of isolationism and excessive activism Kissinger proposed that the answer to Who You Are can be found in a history of the always present tension between America’s altruistic values and calculated national interests.[3] A modern-day strategist, however, should not necessarily be concerned with answering Who You Are through a weighty historical analysis or psychological self-examination of the American nation.[4] The day-to-day bottom line of Who You Are is manifested not only in the interplay between America’s crusading impulses and its need to protect national interests but in what Robert Tucker referred to as “the great issue of American foreign policy today.

It is the contradiction between the persisting desire to remain the premier global power and an ever deepening aversion to bear the costs of this position.”[5] Seen in a less pejorative light, this “contradiction” is in fact a very reasonable desire on the part of the American people to have a post-Cold War security policy that preserves American involvement in global activities that benefit the United States but does not squander U.S. resources on an unfocused and wasteful campaign of global gendarmerie. I’d offer that the criteria for determining this equation are most readily found in Which to Do (below).

Who You Are also depends in large measure on who you think everyone else is. Identifying the roles, interests, capabilities, and sundry imperatives driving other actors in the global arena will greatly influence the identification of an American role in the world. The American role is guided by some immutable values and interests but is not constant in and of itself. It will shift and change according to the roles and actions of allies, potential and real adversaries, international organizations, other nongovernmental groups, and certain transnational forces. America’s perception, both real and received, of the role that should be played by the likes of the United Nations, the OSCE, (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) Japan, South Africa, the Khmer Rouge, large multinational corporations, and all other global players will shape its view of its own role considerably.

In all those calculations, there really is only one constant principle on which the United States can start to define its role in the global security arena: political actors will most often assume roles and responsibilities that match their interests and capabilities. This constant may occasionally be violated, but it has a way of enforcing its own equilibrium. After all, a political entity can act (usually detrimentally) in a way that outstrips its interests or its capabilities for only so long. For instance, this may be a situation at which the United States will soon arrive in Bosnia. Current U.S. policy maintains that America must continue to do the heavy lifting in Bosnia as long as there is an international military force there. The rationale for staying remains the same as it was for going in the first place: the possibility of a brutal war in “the heart of Europe”—an area of vital interest to the United States.

Nonetheless, apparently the brutality of a renewed war is not quite so imminent, and the Balkans not quite so in the heart of Europe, that the European powers are willing to stay engaged if the United States leaves or shifts to the role of junior partner. This incongruity of roles, responsibilities, interests, and capabilities in Bosnia is becoming more apparent as time goes on. Thus, the question Congress recently asked the president really is: “At some point in this Bosnia intervention shouldn’t we see that the ultimate resolution is at least a little more important to the Bosnians and then to the European powers than to the United States?” It is a fair question.[6]

The role that the United States should play in the complex and unpredictable global environment of the post-Cold War world must be one that avoids both damaging isolationism and wasteful activism. To chart this middle course that carves out a unique role for the United States and, at the same time, leaves some important security concerns to the leadership of others, America must recognize that, despite “the imperative of American leadership,” the United States cannot lead everywhere. Therefore, the United States must recognize that there is a hierarchy of organizations involved in global security and that this “system” runs on one principle imperative: that every actor’s “jurisdiction”—its roles and responsibilities—will generally match its interests and capabilities. In security affairs the United States sits atop the system. It is, after all, the power with the most far-reaching national interests and the most potent military capabilities. Allies and international organizations in which the United States is involved make up the rest of the hierarchy—a cooperative system of countries and organizations that play important supporting roles.

The role that the United States should assume in global security can be compared to that of the Mayo Clinic in health affairs, the FBI in law enforcement, or the Supreme Court in the judicial system. In each of these systems, these organizations assume leadership in a hierarchy of involvement that includes organizations on more local levels. These systems conduce to order because there are clearly defined demarcations of responsibilities that are natural to the interests and capabilities of each level. Each system has a built-in “triage” capability that allows the various organizations in the system to discriminate among which illness should be cured where (or when), which crime should be investigated by whom, and which case should be tried in which court. Like the Mayo Clinic in an unhealthy world, rather than make military house calls for every case of insurgent heartburn or colic, the United States should support the local “doctors” who fill that function as the need arises. Moreover, the United States, as the only organization in the system capable of doing so, should be committed principally to leading interventions where the “illnesses” are truly consequential and when the unique and decisive capabilities of the American military are critical.

This global security system is somewhat self-enforcing but can be upset when powers in the system act in ways that do not match their interests and capabilities—when organizations live outside their means. A good example is the experience of the United Nations between 1992 and 1995. Then the great powers (led by the United States) and an ambitious U.N. secretary-general elevated the United Nations to a strategic role that put more weight on the organization than it could bear. Burdened by attempting to manage tens of thousands of combat troops in several complex, expensive, and dangerous military operations, the United Nations failed and was greatly discredited. The entire episode prevented real progress on collective security and placed the United Nations back on the whipping post of American public opinion.[7]

The United States, as the premier military power in the world, can help to keep the global security system on track by clearly laying out its own military role as well as leading powerfully and managing creatively in its alliances and in the international organization to which it belongs (as is examined below, the United States painting itself into a box in Bosnia and then being held hostage by its allies and the local factions does not satisfy the prerequisites of good leadership or effective management). The United States cannot and should not do everything. For the most part, it should attend to larger security problems worldwide while it supports its allies and like-minded countries that have responded first to global security needs in their own regions. In a hierarchical and cooperative system, the role the United States plays is unique. While many countries can exercise power in local military affairs, only the United States can deter and defeat major-power aggression in any region of the globe. Maintaining its primacy in this area will require a fair and honest estimation of What You’ve Got and Which to Do.


Unlike the answer to Who You Are, the answer to What You’ve Got is a relatively fixed target at any one time. The tools of U.S. power—economic, diplomatic/political, cultural, and military—can be measured for the most part. While this will deal almost exclusively with U.S. military power, several points on the other manifestations of power are worth noting. First, while the United States is the unchallenged economic juggernaut of the world for now, its economic power is in relative decline. The U.S. share of world GDP has fallen from almost 50 percent to just over 20 percent in the past 50 years. U.S. political and diplomatic muscle has seen a similar relative decline since the end of the Cold War. As Kissinger noted, “America is more preponderant than it was ten years ago, yet, ironically, power has also become more diffuse. Thus America’s ability to shape the rest of the world has actually decreased.”[8]

The other point worth noting is that most economic and almost all cultural power is non-governmental and (thankfully!) not controlled by government agencies but by hundreds of thousands of private enterprises.

However, the federal government still has a monopoly on strategy, both in setting the goals and determining the means. In terms of military power, the combination of bureaucratic momentum accumulated during the last 50 years and the search for the “peace dividend” has ensured that in the post-Cold War era the United States will basically have what it did during the Cold War era—only less. Details over force structure and budgets need not be re-hashed for this audience. Suffice it to say that it is a premise of mine that What You’ve Got is currently inadequate for (1) what the U.S. national security strategy states it is able to do today; and (2) the need to prepare for the future. The QDR (Quadrennial Defense Review) did not change the fundamental problem of the Bottom-Up Review that, as Andy Krepinevich wrote, is a plan “that offers insurance we probably do not need, at a cost the Clinton defense budget cannot afford. Equally disturbing, it may not insure us against the security challenges that we are most likely to face beyond the five-year coverage period.”[9]

Moreover, the current disconnect between ends and means in U.S. strategy is placing an undue strain on the U.S. armed forces, and when combined with the need to modernize, has produced the “train wreck” scenario of which so many in the defense community speak.[10] A force some 40 percent smaller than that in 1990 is expected to deter (and win if need be) two nearly simultaneous major-theater wars as well as undertake all manner of peacekeeping, humanitarian relief, and other crisis management operations. So far as I can see, it is not working, and the United States remains quite fortunate that no collision of events has called this bluff.[11] Current U.S. strategy violates two of Walter Lippmann’s famous axioms. The first is that America should keep her “means equal to her purposes and her purposes equal to her means.” The second axiom reflected prudence beyond that equilibrium: that the United States should have a surplus of means as a hedge against the unexpected.[12] To reach either of those stages, the United States must work to bring its means (What You’ve Got) and ends (Which to Do) back into balance. In this day and age, with budget considerations superseding any sort of strategic requirements, What You’ve Got remains at best a fixed constraint. The variables that can most readily be shifted, therefore, to demarcate an American role in global security, are those concerned with Which to Do. It is here that a strategist can truly operate, and it is here a strategist must appreciate that (given those fixed or declining resources) the essence of American statecraft in the post-Cold War world is discrimination about where, when, why, and how to use American power. This is especially so with military power.


The denouement of Kissinger’s Diplomacy neatly sums up the key challenge to American policymakers in formulating a constructive and sustainable role for the United States in the global security arena: America’s dominant task is to strike a balance between the twin temptations inherent in its exceptionalism: the notion that America must remedy every wrong and stabilize every dislocation, and the latent instinct to withdraw into itself. Indiscriminate involvement in all the ethnic turmoil and civil wars of the post-Cold War world would drain a crusading America. Yet an America that confines itself to the refinement of its domestic virtues would, in the end, abdicate America’s security and prosperity to decisions made by other societies in faraway places and over which America would progressively lose control. Not every evil can be combated by America, even less by America alone. But some monsters need to be, if not slain, at least resisted. What is most needed are criteria for selectivity.[13]

In lieu of providing criteria, an exercise that has been done by many elsewhere, this paper will offer some guiding principles for ensuring there is some selectivity in the use of American military power that ultimately will lead to the Mayo Clinic role.[14]

Separate the Wheat From the Chaff

The need to prioritize America’s national interests is exacerbated by the limited pool of military resources available to the United States. Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger recently testified before Congress that “the reality of the post-Cold War world is that the U.S. has limited political capital for foreign ventures....[T]he clear inference is that we should husband that political capital for those matters that are of vital interest to the United States.” As far as policymakers are concerned, “political capital” comes in both tangible forms (for example, number of troops, carrier battle groups, or fighter wings) and intangible forms (public and congressional support, willingness to sacrifice). Allocating this political capital would be impossible if all national interests were seen as equally important. This is a fiction that the platitude-ridden U.S. National Security Strategy seems to support. Instead, policymakers must discipline their thinking by discriminating among interests—using common methodologies like categorizing national interests as vital, important, and marginal.

Vital National Security Interests.

Vital interests that directly affect the national security of the United States or the lives and well-being of Americans abroad must carry immense weight in prioritizing military strategies. Any threat to vital national interests is a threat to the freedom and prosperity of the United States itself; America should always be willing to wage war to protect vital national interests and to consider all types of military intervention to defend them. Not all national interests are national security interests, and not all national security interests are created equal.

But, as the figure shows, vital national interests are always national security interests. America’s vital national interests include the following:

  • Defending American territory, borders, and airspace;
  • Preventing a major-power threat to Europe, East Asia, or the Persian Gulf;
  • Preventing hostile interference by an outside power in the Western Hemisphere;
  • Protecting the lives and well-being of Americans at home and abroad;
  • Ensuring continued access to foreign trade, global resources, and open seas.

Important National Interests. Interests that are less than vital but important enough to warrant major diplomatic, economic, or limited military intervention are known as important national interests. Important interests are not always national security interests (see Figure 1), and the level of interest will depend on the gravity of the threat, the national security implications inherent in the interest, and the suitability of a military response to the threat. Some important interests may be threatened by trade wars or humanitarian disasters but are not military challenges. As a rule, the use of military force to defend important national interests should be considered as a last resort. In many cases, diplomatic or economic efforts will be far more effective. Important national interests include the following:

  • Preserving general stability in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia;
  • Promoting free trade;
  • Encouraging democracy and economic reform abroad;
  • Combating terrorism or illegal drugs.

Marginal Interests.

National interests that rarely involve national security can be called marginal interests, and they should not be placed high on the list of priorities requiring a commitment of America’s military resources. Threats to marginal interests rarely threaten the United States as a nation, and therefore should be considered marginal from a military perspective. They tend to involve the kinds of problems that do not lend themselves to military solutions, especially if the solutions are imposed by an outside force. Marginal interests include the following:

  • Political stability and economic development in parts of the developing world;
  • Humanitarian concerns;
  • Environmental issues.

Economic and political development problems or humanitarian and environmental concerns are solved best by solutions that have been fostered locally and sustained by diplomatic or economic support. Marginal national interests often cry out for some sort of American military intervention and greatly appeal to the moral component of American foreign policy. While policymakers should always appreciate (even sometimes celebrate) this exceptional imperative that often influences U.S. strategy, they must also recognize that while there are many cars on the strategy train, national interest must be the locomotive.

A national interest-based strategy is critical for two reasons: (1) It helps the United States decide where limited resources will be applied most effectively; and (2) it helps policymakers form a reasonable calculation about the level of military sacrifice as well as the commitment the nation must sustain for each confrontation. Moral outrage and reactions to transgressions of international law can convince policymakers that “something must be done” immediately. However, only if national interests are clearly threatened and the sacrifices of the American people appear necessary to defend those interests can military action be sustained. As strategist Harry Summers recently observed, “it is the value of the objective that determines the sacrifices made in pursuit of it, in magnitude and duration.”[15]

If a policymaker miscalculates the value and threshold of sacrifice that the American people inherently attach to a military effort, a humiliating withdrawal can accompany small setbacks, as happened in Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1993. While other moral and legal elements must be factored into the equation, only calculations of national interest can measure accurately what the American people will sacrifice to see military action through to its conclusion. As Richard Haass writes, “the ability to sustain an intervention over time, and more importantly, despite human and financial costs, is linked directly to the perceived importance of the interests at stake.”[16]

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

Balancing the ends and means of a strategy is a complex exercise, one made more complicated by the uncertain nature of future threats and the necessity for broad and varied contingency planning. The prioritizing of national interests, the identification of national security interests, and an indication of how (and by whom) they are best defended helps to maintain this balance. Given the myriad threats to U.S. interests around the globe and the low degree of predictability about these threats, U.S. forces must be prepared for military operations ranging from full-scale war against another major power to conventional deterrence, punitive air strikes, humanitarian relief, shows of force, and support for some peace operations. However, U.S. forces also must have an overriding focus that provides purpose and direction, and that is in fact the primary mission of the U.S. armed forces: to fight and win America’s wars.

A recurring theme in American history is that, in the absence of conflict or the immediate threat of conflict, the military loses its focus and raison d’être. In times of relative peace, policymakers, unduly influenced by short-term political needs or media-generated urgency, tend to commit the military to every conceivable activity other than training for war. In the first battles of World War II and Korea, Americans paid in blood for this lack of wartime readiness. On the other hand, the many years of vigilant Cold War deterrence kept American forces honed for large-scale combat operations. This was seen most clearly in the extraordinary performance of the U.S. Army VII Corps in Operation Desert Storm. The long-range offensive undertaken by this unit was the centerpiece of the desert victory even though this unit had spent the previous 40 years training for a defensive mission against the armies of the Warsaw Pact in the hills and forests of central Germany. Despite the difference in the theater of operations and the mission, VII Corps adapted quickly because it was trained for warfighting and focused on combat when the unexpected happened in Southwest Asia.

Warfighting is a complicated business, made especially so in this day and age by the sophistication of the U.S. military’s joint warfighting doctrine. This doctrine requires that the operations of all four services be integrated and synchronized for a simultaneous and ultimately devastating assault on an enemy force. The warfighters of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps are trained to conduct this decisive assault throughout the 0breadth and depth of enemy defenses, ensuring an overwhelming victory for U.S. forces while minimizing their losses. To do this, the services are equipped with the most sophisticated and technologically advanced systems in the world—systems that require years of dedicated and concentrated training. The United States also is famous for conducting the most demanding and realistic battle training in the world, training that requires a sense of urgency and focus to be effective.

Unfortunately, in the absence of a clear and present danger that would require warfighting proficiency, policymakers tend to lose their focus on the need for wartime readiness. This is unacceptable. They must allow the military to focus on combat training and keep its powder dry for conflicts centered on threats to vital national interests. For instance, the primary mission of U.S. forces in Europe is to be the linchpin of NATO, a credible military alliance focused on the collective defense of Western Europe. NATO’s deterrence capability is rooted inextricably in the warfighting prowess of its core units: the American forces in Europe. That deterrence capability—which extends to areas outside Europe as well—would be eroded if the U.S. presence in Europe was focused on peacekeeping in southeastern Europe.

The same is true of U.S. forces dedicated to protecting national security interests in East Asia, in the Persian Gulf, in the Western Hemisphere, and on the high seas. In the absence of any immediate threat to these areas, policymakers are tempted either to cut these forces or to use them for more peripheral operations. However, history proves that a great power will always need its forces when conflict is least expected. In 1996, the need for a large show of conventional naval power in support of Taiwan was the latest manifestation of the recurring need for a global power with numerous national security interests and the ability to exercise its military power in ways that are persuasive in peace and decisive in war.

To maintain this focus on the most important and consequential security tasks, military missions must be prioritized. Lesser missions must never detract from the capability of a credible military response to the more important security commitments. As Colin Powell stated shortly before he retired: “We can modify our doctrine, we can modify our strategy, we can modify our structure, our equipment, our training, our leadership techniques, everything else to do these other [lesser] missions, but we never want to do it in such a way that we lose sight of the focus of why you have armed forces—to fight and win the nation’s wars.[17] As a rule, missions such as support for civilian projects, humanitarian relief operations, and peacekeeping should not be conducted by America’s warfighting forces. For some support units, a peacekeeping operation provides an opportunity to exercise their wartime tasks, albeit under far more benign conditions. For combat units, however, these sorts of operations consume time better spent on firing ranges and maneuver centers, decrease training time, dilute mission focus, and hurt

combat proficiency. As Representative Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) has noted, “peace-keeping commitments may so degrade the armed forces warfighting capability that it will be impossible to carry out the national military strategy.”[18] His findings are supported by reports from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) and elsewhere.[19]

America must act like a great power, but it is not the only power. It cannot chase every regional or local crisis to flex its military might. The United States must use its military forces wherever American interests are most at stake and where its military role is clear, unique, and decisive. Like its diplomatic and economic strategies, America’s military energies must be concentrated on core interests involving relations with other major powers and in key regions of the world. Preventing conflicts among these powers through a credible military presence and respected deterrence strategy is a role that no other nation can play. Many other nations, however, can provide competent military forces for the management of local or regional crises, humanitarian operations, or peacekeeping missions.

Recognize Who Is on the Team and Get the Most Out of Your Players

Since the end of the Cold War, America’s allies, especially in Europe, have talked about the need to develop capabilities for military operations independent of—or at least not so dependent on—the United States. In general, this movement toward a larger measure of military self-reliance has been welcomed by the United States, although the Bush administration initially sent conflicting signals to Europe about such European-only defense initiatives as the Franco-German Corps and the Western European Union (WEU). Nonetheless, the end of the Cold War marked a time when both the United States and its allies recognized the need for those allies to pick up a greater share of the security burden in their own regions. The enthusiasm for this was clearly reflected in 1991 when the European Union (EU) president at the time, Jacques Delor, triumphantly proclaimed that solving the Bosnian crisis would prove to be the “hour of Europe.”

Unfortunately, reality is not matching the formal rhetoric, especially when it comes to paying for and developing the military capabilities necessary to undertake an independent security policy. As Professor Eliot Cohen has noted, “two seemingly contradictory trends seem to be at work: a formal effort to develop more independent forces that can operate outside traditional frameworks and operational environments, on the one hand, and on the other increased dependence on the United States in key areas of military power.”[20]

Moreover, the core competencies of the U.S. military and the militaries of many of our allies are diverging. The U.S. is focused on deterrence and warfighting against aggressive states, while many allies are refocusing their military establishments on peacekeeping and operations other than war.

The divergence between U.S. and allied military capabilities since the end of the Cold War is becoming acute.[21] The United States still maintains an enormous quantitative advantage over its allies (in 1996, the entire Canadian Army was only slightly larger than one U.S. division); but it is the qualitative advantage that has exacerbated the trends creating different military competencies between the United States and its allies. For example, the United States is the only member in its many security alliances that has large aircraft carriers, long-range strike aircraft, stealth aircraft, a network of space-based C3I satellites and sensors, advanced aerial surveillance and reconnaissance systems, global lift capabilities, strategic logistics systems, and advanced weaponry based on information technology and the nascent “revolution in military affairs.” In Bosnia, 46 of the 48 satellites used by the intervention force for C3I functions belong to the United States. As Phil Gordon of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies has noted, however, “this dependence isn’t unpleasant enough to inspire the Europeans to do what they have to do to get around it.

As a result of this divergence in military competencies, many allies, principally European, are losing the ability to function as useful military partners in warfighting coalition operations such as the Persian Gulf War of 1991. This decline in the warfighting capabilities of many of America’s allies makes it clear that these countries will be less self-reliant and more dependent on the United States in future combat missions. Consequently, the United States will have to continue to fund, provide, and train large American military forces that can provide the sort of warfighting capabilities needed to protect America’s vital national interests with minimal military help from allies. However, the divergence of military capabilities does not mean that allies cannot help reduce the strain on U.S. forces. In missions such as regional peacekeeping, crisis management, and humanitarian relief, U.S. allies with lesser military capabilities still can be major military players. If some European allies choose to have a small military establishment focused on peacekeeping, then render unto the peacekeepers what is theirs.

Diverging military competencies make it all the more necessary to enforce a new security compact between the United States and its allies that recognizes the emerging global security system and matches its members’ interests and capabilities to roles and responsibilities. If the United States is the only allied power with a strategy that requires large forces capable of global power projection and large-scale, modern combat operations, it should focus 90 percent of its energies and resources on this set of tasks.

Conversely, regional allies who have smaller and less combat-oriented military establishments should bear the primary responsibility for local peacekeeping and crisis management. The United States can support these efforts with some unique and decisive capabilities, but providing the preponderance of forces in missions like Bosnia runs counter to these principles. Effective management takes advantage of diverging military capabilities and uses them to a maximum collective benefit.

For instance, the overwhelming threat posed by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War provided a centripetal force that held NATO together. In the absence of that unifying threat, the stakes in local crises such as the crisis in Bosnia are very different for the United States and Europe. As noted, it is axiomatic that European states should always be more concerned about the situation in the Balkans than the United States This is a reflection of national interest that, barring special circumstances, generally decreases with distance (geographic, cultural, or economic). Bosnia is the European security problem, and one that affects the vital national interests of the European powers. On the other hand, the United States, as a global military power, should be more concerned about its security relations with great military powers such as Russia and China. These are security challenges of the first order. The United States also should be concerned about security threats of a second order, such as deterring aggressive and well-armed rogue states like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. These are missions that only the United States can perform, in addition to being missions that involve vital U.S. interests. Bosnia, while a compelling issue, is an issue of a third order, on the strategic periphery of U.S. national security interests. Because of this variance in threats and the different ways they affect the interests of allies in U.S. alliances, the United States should press for a strategy of regional devolution; that is, allies that are closest to the problem and whose interests are the most affected should be the prime movers in taking steps to mitigate these smaller crises. An “all for one and one for all” approach to every security dilemma, large and small, does not make sense for U.S. alliances (especially when some of America’s allies are reluctant to give “all for one” when that “one” is the United States). A more flexible and sensible approach would “deputize” smaller allies or international organizations by matching their interests and capabilities to different roles and responsibilities.[22]

The Mayo Clinic role demands that the United States and its allies build on this philosophy. Every state in an alliance brings something different to the table, and smart alliance leadership takes advantage of those differences. Differences in the level of national interest should be used to the advantage of alliances, and not as indications of divisiveness or weakness. Those states most effected by a crisis must be able to act and not be emasculated by an overweening dependence on an ally who may have little interest in taking the lead role in addressing the problem. The international community will be left only to grieve for future Bosnias and Rwandas if their resolution ultimately depends on the United States leading-in a posse. Consequently, the United States must promote structures and procedures like NATO’s Combined Joint Task Force that allow allies to undertake military roles and responsibilities more in line with their interests and capabilities. This strategy bodes well for local crises because it empowers those regional allies who might have the greatest interest in tackling a regional affair like Bosnia. It also makes sense for the United States, which must use its finite military power judiciously to deal with many global security issues, not just regional crises that are of much greater concern to allies.

Getting the Job Done

The exercise of power, like most other enterprises, demands criteria by which to measure its success or failure in reaching the goal. So, too, with military operations. Ultimately, the objectives in military strategy resemble a series of building blocks. Military planners identify tactical military objectives that must be achieved for operational success, operational objectives that will lead to strategic success, and strategic objectives that will deliver the political goal. This coherent relationship between cause and effect enables policymakers to achieve their political goals through the use of military force.

For this to happen, however, the use of military force must be oriented around objectives that are clear, unambiguous, and capable of attainment by the forces at hand with minimum casualties. In addition, once attained, the objectives should make a difference in the conflict and contribute directly to an eventual goal. In Vietnam, the costly battlefield victories won by American forces often had little or no ultimate effect on the strategic or political outcome of the war. To ensure that this tragic formula is not repeated in the future, the measurable objectives should be not only decisive but also sustainable and not easily reversed or overturned.

The process of achieving a series of clearly defined, decisive, attainable, and sustainable military objectives is often referred to as an “exit strategy.” This term is somewhat redundant, as the word “strategy” (the use of military means to achieve political ends) itself implies an end to or exit from the operation. Good strategy provides an exit because its military and political objectives are linked toward a common purpose and pursued by military forces more than capable of achieving these objectives.

Identifying and working toward clearly defined goals may seem a rather obvious point, but it has been violated with great regularity over the past few years. This was especially evident in Bosnia, where the United States substituted time-driven objectives for event-driven objectives—the strategy of just “being there.” This strategy violates the profound military dictum of Clausewitz that “No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve and how he intends to conduct it.”[23] Hope is not a method in military operations, and it is a mark of poor planning if the strategy of a military operation is based on “establishing a presence” (as in the 1983 Marine mission in Beirut) and hoping that this presence will affect events in the way U.S. policymakers wish. A U.S. military force can deliver results; it does not hope for them to happen on their own. To deliver results, however, U.S. military forces must have a clear series of military objectives. The achievement of these objectives must be virtually guaranteed and attained through a process where success and failure can be measured unambiguously. Once achieved, the objectives should be sustainable and, most important, make a decisive difference in the outcome of the conflict.

When policymakers and military planners cannot find clearly defined, decisive, and attainable military objectives, as was the case in Vietnam, they often resort to incremental “may-work” options that are controllable instead of plans that will bring military and political success. This creates an intolerable situation in which the sacrifices made by U.S. military forces and the nation are in vain because policymakers did not lay out clearly why those sacrifices needed to be made, let alone how they were supposed to succeed. This type of military strategy should never again be tolerated in the United States.

Bring the Nation Along

The framers of the U.S. Constitution clearly intended that both Congress and the president should have a part in decisions about when to use military force. Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the power to raise military forces and the further power to declare war, while Article II, Section 2 gives the president the power to use those forces to wage war. This system was delineated to ensure that neither branch of government abused the country’s military powers.

Recognizing that a great amount of heated deliberation could mark the congressional debate over whether to declare war, James Madison also convinced the framers to give the president the power to repel sudden attacks. Madison and the other framers understood that the commander in chief might be required to act with expediency and even secrecy to ensure that national security is upheld.

Unfortunately, this profoundly important constitutional balance has become somewhat lopsided since World War II. Because modern convention dictates that nations resort to the force of arms without declaring war, the system of checks and balances envisaged by the framers has broken down. Congress no longer is accustomed to voting on the merits of military action; votes in fact are taken on whether to support American forces after they already have been deployed.

Even though none of America’s recent military actions have been national emergencies requiring the president to react with secrecy and speed, Congress still has not been included in the decision-making process. This pattern has skewed the nature of the congressional debate, reducing Congress to the status of rubber stamp and check writer for unilateral decisions made by the president concerning when, where, and how to use American military force. Clearly, when the United States engages its honor, prestige, and forces in significant military actions, congressional approval should be a prerequisite. In addition, the United States should not engage in significant military operations without a clear expression of support from the American public. While the decision to undertake military action cannot be made by polling, the president is responsible for building the case for public support before the decision is made. If the American public does not support a certain military action, the entire operation can collapse after minimum resistance and a few American casualties.

Contrary to the opinions of some contemporary strategists, the American public is not automatically intolerant of casualties incurred through U.S. military action. However, the American public will never tolerate losses in a military action that does not have clear goals and readily apparent benefits that are worth the investment of blood and treasure. As Harry Summers has written, “casualties per se are not the limiting factor. It is whether those casualties are disproportionate to the value of the mission.”[24]

The American public inherently will place a value on a U.S. military effort, and that value will be expressed in the national will to sacrifice and sustain the costs of military action. Yet that value does not exist in the abstract; it can be shaped and guided by presidential leadership. This leadership should appear in the form of a clear explanation of the threat to a national security interest, the rationale for why that interest must be protected, and the annunciation of a coherent military and political strategy designed to ensure success at a minimum cost in American lives. If this reasoning is sound, the public will support the mission.


To be the Mayo Clinic in the post-Cold War world, the United States must press forward its bargain for its partners in global security. The bargain, which works within the natural currents of interests and capabilities, should recognize that America will continue to perform larger global security tasks such as deterring or defeating major powers that threaten the United States or regions vital to U.S. interests, or that threaten global systems important to America (such as trade, financial markets, and supplies of energy). In the meantime, allies, like-minded states, and international organizations should attend to the more local dilemmas (such as peacekeeping) with a lessened reliance on the United States. Such a new compact will best serve long-term U.S. security interests by matching the interests and capabilities of every global player to appropriate roles and responsibilities. As Owen Harries has written, in deciding when to deploy [military force], Washington should practice the sound federal principle of subsidiarity—that is, allowing problems to be handled at the level closest to the problem. This way, a sense of responsibility can be developed throughout the international system and the United States can reserve its own intentions for the great issues involving its vital interests, acting as a balancer of last resort rather than a busybody and bully.[25]

In this way, the United States can be a good manager as well as a good leader. Successful managers are successful because they match the talents and ambitions of their employees to certain tasks and responsibilities. A global leader will do the same within a cooperative system to stretch limited resources while maintaining effectiveness. This is true leadership. Leadership is not just providing the most troops, hardware, and ordnance for every mission large and small. Leadership is getting the most out of an organization by measuring capabilities and requirements, and then tapping into the different resources and talents of the members. As management expert Peter Drucker has noted, “effective leaders delegate a good many things; they have to or they drown in trivia. But they do not delegate the one thing that only they can do with excellence, the one thing that will make a difference, the one thing that will set standards, the one thing they want to be remembered for. They do it.”[26]

The United States leads in the global security system because of the great power security guarantee that only America can deliver and the enormous power it can bring to bear should the need arise. This is not only the “one thing” that cannot be delegated but that also can be done with excellence, will make a difference, and will be remembered because failure carries with it the gravest consequences for international peace and security. Only America has the resources to perform such tasks, the condition from which American “leadership” derives. The United States should not feel trapped into “leading” ambiguous missions in areas of negligible security interest. If the United States attempted to lead everywhere and do everything, it could indeed “drown in trivia” to satisfy a narrow definition of leadership. America leads as the Mayo Clinic, not for leadership’s sake itself but because of the conditions that leadership engenders—conditions that favor both the United States and most of the world.

[1] For instance, Pat Buchanan and Dick Gephardt are in complete agreement on three major foreign policy issues (NATO expansion, NAFTA, and WTO/China MFN), Barney Frank and John Kasich are cosponsoring defense and foreign policy amendments, and some of the most interesting philosophical debates are occurring within political parties or political movements. See Kristol/Kagan/Holmes/Hillen in Foreign Affairs, July/August and September/October 1996.

[2] The total intellectual value of which may be very much less than the sum of its parts. See Jonathan Clarke, “The Conceptual Poverty of U.S. Foreign Policy,” Atlantic Monthly, Sept 1993.

[3] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).

[4] Although I highly recommend the masterful and engaging historical survey by Walter McDougall in his Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1997).

[5] Robert W. Tucker, “The Future of a Contradiction,” The National Interest, Spring 1996, p. 20.

[6] See “After SFOR: Planning for a European-led Force,” in Joint Forces Quarterly, Spring 1997.

[7] John Hillen, Blue Helmets: The Strategy of UN Military Operations (Brassey’s, 1997).

[8] Diplomacy, p. 809. See also Chapter 3, “The Gap Between Resources and Aspirations,” in Jonathan Clarke and James Clad, After the Crusade: American Foreign Policy for the Post-Cold War World (Madison Books, 1995). Unfortunately, the observers that recognize these changing parameters and offer action based on emerging realities are often labeled defeatists, declinists, or general malcontents.

[9] Andrew Krepinevich, “Assessing the Bottom-Up Review,” Joint Forces Quarterly (Winter 1993-94): 23.

[10] For instance, Don Snider, Dan Goure, and Steve Cambone, Defense in the Late 1990’s: Avoiding the Train Wreck, CSIS, 1995.

[11] I have written at length on this problem in “Superpowers Don’t Do Windows,” Orbis (Spring 1997): 241-57, and in “Military Might,” National Review, June 30, 1997, pp. 38-41.

[12] See Lippmann’s U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (New York: Little, Brown, 1943).

[13] Diplomacy, pp. 832-33.

[14] For my criteria, see “American Military Intervention: A User’s Guide,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1079, May 2, 1996. There is, of course, the entire debate surrounding the Weinberger criteria and the Powell doctrine, but the two best recent books on the subject are Richard Haass, Intervention: The Use of American Military Force in the Post-Cold War World (New York: Carnegie, 1994), and Harry Summers, The New World Strategy: A Military Policy for America’s Future (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).

[15] Harry Summers, “Achilles Heel of Keeping the Peace,” Washington Times, October 17, 1996, p. A20.

[16] Haass, Intervention, p. 71.

[17] General Colin Powell, in remarks to a defense writers’ group breakfast, September 23, 1993, quoted in Summers, New World Strategy (New York: Touchstone Books, 1995), p. 139.

[18] Representative Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), in a speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, October 4, 1993.

[19] U.S. General Accounting Office, Peace Operations: Effect of Training, Equipment, and Other Factors on Unit Capability, NSIAD-96-14, October 1995, pp. 28-39.

[20] Eliot Cohen, “The U.S. and Alliance Strategies,” paper presented to the 38th Annual International Institute for Strategic Studies conference, Dresden, Germany, September 1-4, 1996.

[21] See the 1996-97 Military Balance from IISS, which states that “without the US, European NATO members do not have the capability to mount a combined arms operation of more than 30,000 troops, with air and naval support, capable of engaging in a full-scale military conflict outside NATO borders.” p. 32. See also Michael O’Hanlon, “Transforming NATO: The Role of European Forces,” in Survival, Autumn 1997.

[22] This is a different concept than that of Richard Haass in his fine book The Reluctant Sheriff (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1997). In my formulation, the sheriff need not always be present or actively leading every collective task.

[23] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 579.

[24] Harry Summers, “After the Doubts, Salute and Obey,” Washington Times, December 11, 1995, p. A18. See also Eric Larson, Casualties and Consensus: The Historical Role of Casualties in Domestic Support for U.S. Military Operations (Santa Monica, Cal.: RAND, 1996).

[25] Owen Harries, “Dole’s Calculated Pragmatism,” New York Times Magazine, September 22, 1996, p. 71.

[26] Peter Drucker, “Not Enough Generals Were Killed,” Forbes, April 8, 1996.