Last Sunday Barack Obama’s national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, made the television morning talk show rounds. Perhaps the most provocative question fired at him was why he was playing a far less visible – and critics would add even an invisible – role than his more famous predecessors such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Jones’ answer was simple and direct as befitting a former commandant of the Marine Corps and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
“This is a different century,” Jones calmly replied, meaning that however tough and dangerous the major issues were in the past, in today’s more complex and complicated world, new ideas, tools, methods and organizational schemes were crucial both inside and out of government. That understanding is far more important than the visibility of the personalities who have sat in his White House office.
When Kissinger and Brzezinski served, the Soviet Union (and, of course, the triangular relationship with China), the Middle East, the economy and Vietnam loomed among the greatest challenges. Of course, those turbulent years were interrupted with other crises, from the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 to flare-ups on the Korean peninsula as well as the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Thermonuclear war and annihilation of much of Western society as we knew it were not unthinkable, so the ultimate stakes were life and death.
But after World War II and the settling in of the Cold War, the United States had time to cope with the major geopolitical threat of the day – the Soviet Union. The simplicity then was that discrete diplomatic, foreign policy, intelligence and military instruments could be brought to bear against like, or almost like, Soviet counter-parts. And even the economic issues, from ending fixed exchange rates to coping with massive inflation and hyper-interest levels, while painful and still rife with international consequences, did not have to compete with the full impact of globalization – still a distant reality of things to come.
Even politics was different. Vietnam and Watergate were hugely divisive and excruciating events. Yet there was a nice non-partisan notion that somehow politics ended at the nation’s water’s edge – not quite true, but a pleasant pretense nonetheless. And it was a Republican senator who asked of President Richard Nixon about Watergate, “What did he know and when did he know it?” The media was first and foremost television and newspapers followed by radio and magazines. Cable, the Internet and talk radio, let alone blogs and cell phones, were science fiction and not reality.
In a sense, those days are so distant that we could be discussing the Renaissance in terms of the changes that have manifested themselves in politics and in providing for the common defense. Consider a few: In the post-Sept. 11 environment, how do we deal with an enemy that does not need an army, navy or air force or indeed does not need to rely on military force? How do we respond to instantaneous communications and access on a worldwide basis when government is usually the last to know, and not only the enemy but a new spectrum of reporting is far more adept and quicker at recording events and often manipulating them than those in positions of responsibility? And, to end what could be an endless list, how do we organize a government to cope with a surfeit of issues and challenges, many of which have no good solution and cut across several if not many agencies of government?
One stunning example makes this point. Several years ago a group of very senior and distinguished retired flag and general officers issued a report that argued the No. 1 national security issue facing the nation was climate change. Their argument was that the consequences of climate change on the globe – irrespective of debate over the extent of global warming – would have the most profound impact on national security than any other issue.
Jones clearly understands the realities of this new world. As NATO commander, he brought this broader appreciation to bear in beginning the reorganization of those staffs to incorporate this newer meaning of national security. Clearly, the role of the National Security Council had been enhanced in the past and is undergoing further expansion to cover these “newer” issues including climate, environment and the economy as well as the changed geostrategic balances reflecting the growth of China and India, confounded by the dangers of jihadist extremism. But still and despite the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, much needs to be done to organize ourselves for the challenges of the new century.
Indeed, the organization most needing modernization is the U.S. Congress. But, for this national security adviser, one step at a time.
Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group (of which General Jones was previously chair) and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. The column was syndicated by UPI.