Beating Core of Bipartisanship Still Remains

By Hawk  Carlisle

In January 2018, the Pentagon released an unclassified summary of a new National Defense Strategy. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United States had articulated a clear-eyed analysis of the state of global security challenges and prescribed an actionable strategy to keep and prolong American advantages globally, extending the Pax Americana for years to come.

In declaring an era of great power competition, the NDS set out to unify and rationalize national efforts. Though the strategic environment is fundamentally unlike the Cold War and is more akin to the pre-war early 1900s, we need to regain something that held us together through and enabled us to prevail at the end of the Cold War — a bipartisan foreign and security policy consensus.

Many of us growing up and beginning our careers during the Cold War remember the phrase that “politics end at the water’s edge.” While this was never entirely true — with the Vietnam conflict serving as a reminder — there was a broad-based consensus regarding foreign and security policy. There was a general agreement that we were in an existential competition with an onerous and oppressive communist economic and political system bent on the destruction of our values and way of life.

There was also agreement that this competition was military, diplomatic, economic and informational all at the same time. Disagreements on how to carry out an overarching national strategy of containment happened at the margins while we invested in capabilities and capacity, people and technology. Along with our friends and allies, we built advantages over time. And, we maintained that strategic focus, and international leadership, for 45 years that ultimately left us with an America and world more free and secure.

Thirty years on, we confront a world that did not stand still after 1990. Instead, we have an international system that shows signs of fraying with China emerging as a peer competitor both militarily and economically, a resurgent Russia, revisionist powers Iran and North Korea, and violent extremists challenging state power and stability. And now, that’s coupled with a global pandemic. At no time since the end of World War II has the international security environment been more complex.

The road to that complexity has been characterized by a lack of strategic focus and the erosion of the consensus punctuated and exacerbated by 9/11, the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, gray zone operations by the Russians, and expansionist moves by China.

Enter the 2018 NDS that strove — like 1950’s National Security Council Paper 68 before — to get at the essence of the security challenge. Its declaration of an era of renewed great power competition as the organizing imperative of our foreign and security policy and posture provides the focus. Regaining the bipartisan consensus and reorienting our tools of national power are the harder but necessary efforts we still have ahead of us.

At both ends of the U.S. political spectrum reside neo-isolationists who are wary of the rules-based international post-war order America set up and has led for over seven decades. Some chafe at the limitations it puts on American actions while others disbelieve the benefits the system has accrued to the United States. They, at times rightly, decry the free riders in the system who take advantage of the security umbrella the United States has provided while not pulling their “fair share.” And still others decry a defense budget that should be radically cut to invest in domestic needs.

Though understandable, these arguments crash against the international reality described in the NDS. Competitor nations wish to supplant the United States and reorient the international order and the institutions put in place to manage that order in ways that accrue power and influence to them at our expense. It will take a long-term commitment and a renewed bipartisan consensus to rise to this challenge and keep the nation and our way of life secure.

Despite the hyper-partisanship that has been growing and on display on cable channels, in campaigns, and on social media, a beating core of bipartisanship remains that can regrow. We have seen this most recently in debates and votes on Capitol Hill.

The first is not just a realization but a reaffirmation that the great strategic advantage the United States has over its would-be competitors is our network of friends, allies and partners. Bipartisan concerns over the redistribution of American forces overseas have given some assurances that there remains a majority committed to our allies and partners and a realization that America has and will always seek a better peace by, with, and through those allies and partners.

The second is the overwhelming, veto-proof, bipartisan votes in the House and Senate for the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. The fact that there remains strong bipartisan support for a robust national defense, and that for the 60th year straight it appears we will have a NDAA enacted is a testament that consensus can be rebuilt.

In the face of the competition, to regain that bipartisan consensus, that enduring strategic focus is a necessity as it was through the long Cold War. As we go through and get to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, let it be a reminder that where we came together on things like the CARES Act, the Paycheck Protection Program and the NDAA, we have demonstrated that our system and its accounting for all perspectives that then culminate in unified actions are our enduring strength. 

Retired Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle is president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association.

Topics: Defense Department

Comments (2)

Re: Beating Core of Bipartisanship Still Remains

Achieving national security consensus should be considered an imperative for all Americans. U.S. and partner competition strategies are constrained by western legal and ethical frameworks which do not limit the actions of their competitors. Actors challenging western values and principles conduct operations designed to create ambiguity and confuse public opinion, paralyze political decision making, subvert legal frameworks, and avoid crossing the threshold of military response. Many U.S. competitors employ predatory economic and business practices, and exploit western free market economies and open societies to achieve national objectives through a combination of economic, legal, and social means as a means to undermine U.S. military strength. These adversary tactics lose their effectiveness when strong American consensus, at least in regard to our national security, removes the divisions that these tactics are designed to exploit..

Robert Elder at 2:07 PM
Re: Beating Core of Bipartisanship Still Remains

What timing. I needed to read this, and I'm certain I'm not alone. It is challenging to focus on national security during this unusual election cycle. I may tape this excerpt to my desk: "Despite the hyper-partisanship that has been growing and on display on cable channels, in campaigns, and on social media, a beating core of bipartisanship remains that can regrow."

Sue Tellier at 8:01 AM
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