Last week’s insurrection at the US Capitol was the greatest national security crisis our country has faced in many decades. This may surprise Americans who have long been taught that “national security” means combating foreign threats and projecting US influence abroad. No foreign power has attacked, and relatively few Americans died. Yet the American nation itself—its democratic core—was left destabilized and profoundly insecure. It should now be obvious that domestic dysfunction, not foreign hostility, is the real existential danger. This fact requires a wholesale rethinking of US military, intelligence, and diplomatic priorities. National security experts must finally reconsider what “the nation” really is and what “securing” it really means.
Since 1945, US national security strategy has undergone several distinct shifts: from the Cold War to the unipolar moment; from the war on terror to “great power competition.” I had a front row seat to the most recent shift as a former special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford. Yet despite their differences, all these strategies reflected the same basic bargain between US citizens and their government. Americans agreed to spend extraordinary amounts of money, human capital, and political attention on managing the world beyond their borders. In return, they hoped to expand and preserve their own prosperity and freedom.
This bargain has often paid off. Western victory over the Soviet Union eliminated a major threat to liberal democracy. And Pax Americana helped to underwrite periods of broad-based US economic growth. But in the last twenty years, something went awry. The conflicts after September 11 cost dearly in blood and treasure, yet US adversaries—Islamic extremists and states like China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran—now loom larger than before. Even more troubling, America’s own conditions have steadily deteriorated.
Politically, our system of government has reached a crisis point. Polarization, disinformation, and cynicism run rampant. More Americans are losing faith in government or the democratic process itself. This is partly understandable: politics have indeed become less responsive, with a broken Congress largely ignoring problems like opioid deaths and student debt for years on end.
Economically, the American dream has lost much of its luster. Rising costs of middle-class necessities like housing and healthcare outstrip wage growth, while social mobility has broadly declined. And people of color continue to fall behind, even as demographic and cultural changes fuel White grievance. These many problems feed into and fuse with one another, leading more and more Americans to reject the system as a whole.
It was these long-simmering, home-grown grievances—not China or the self-proclaimed Islamic State—that brought our country to the brink last week. A fracturing American system inspired an anti-system movement. With President Donald Trump as its avatar, this movement had managed to seize the reins of government, erode democracy from within, and violently resist the outcome of a free and fair election. Trump himself may fade from the scene, but our underlying sicknesses will remain. If we fail to address them, then Americans may well lose the very nation we hope to secure.
What, then, should the national security profession do about our fraying domestic order? Perhaps not much.
The main culprits are political and economic leaders, after all—not soldiers, intelligence officers, or diplomats. But the latter group isn’t altogether blameless. National security agencies suffer from the sins of gluttony (in devouring scarce resources) and pride (in making costly blunders). To help their country repair itself, these institutions need a little less swagger and a bit more candid reflection on the larger American project.
To begin with, we must acknowledge that many national security challenges are simply not as pressing as our dire need for domestic renewal. China will spend decades pursuing global parity with the United States, yet US democracy could plausibly collapse in one or two election cycles. National security institutions and their supporters have so far failed to make this comparison. Each year, congressional appropriators label much-needed infrastructure investments and social services as mere “non-defense” spending, which must compete dollar for dollar with military programs.
In other cases, national security policies have directly contributed to domestic dysfunction. The Iraq War, for example, laid the groundwork for a more toxic, polarized, and anti-intellectual political climate.
The war’s stink of failure helped to discredit the entire US political class, which Trump skillfully exploited in his 2016 presidential campaign.
I’m not alone in calling to realign US national security strategy with America’s needs at home. A growing number of figures on both the left and the right are proposing this. Trump’s America First doctrine, while disastrous, at least reflected an instinctual awareness of the problem. Joe Biden’s incoming administration, for its part, has promised a “foreign policy for the middle class” and intends to better integrate national security with domestic policy.
This is laudable, but it won’t be easy to accomplish. Entrenched bureaucratic systems, professional cultures, and political realities make it hard for any president to overhaul the national security enterprise (as Trump himself often found). Biden will face pushback from career professionals and political constituencies who adhere to traditional views of national security. To overcome these headwinds, he will need to deliver two firm messages to his administration and the public.
First, national security institutions must better understand our most serious domestic challenges and learn to place them at the center of their work. In particular, they must tackle our crisis of democracy and the underlying economic, racial, and cultural grievances that fuel it.
In some policy areas, there is a clear path forward. The Department of Justice must prosecute all violent insurrectionists, and the FBI should step up investigations of white nationalists and other violent groups.
Efforts to combat Russian and other foreign influence operations should be redoubled. And the US government should harness its many experts on global democracy promotion, de-radicalization, and economic development—redeploying a portion of them to the home front.
Other issues will require more debate. It is clear, for example, that US policy toward China should prioritize an economic relationship that brings hope to desperate American communities—even as we press Beijing on human rights, military matters, and other points of tension. But experts disagree about how exactly to do this. The important thing for now is to set the presidential objective, so that policy debates are about means rather than ends.
Importantly, a formal requirement to consider domestic impacts may dissuade national security officials from recommending counterproductive actions. Consider Trump’s crackdown on the Chinese app TikTok, which had substantial support in the national security community. Trump’s actions, whatever their benefits, nevertheless smacked of crony capitalism and risked anti-competitive effects—potentially worsening two specific challenges the United States faces at home. It is doubtful that Trump weighed these pros and cons; Biden will need to do so.
Refocusing national security agencies on domestic problems is the first step. But their tools can only do so much to address political and economic challenges. That is why Biden will need to deliver a second, more difficult message. He must ask national security institutions to yield center stage—ceding some money, talent, and attention to those who can directly help mend our nation.
Former defense secretary Jim Mattis once told Congress, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” His point was that national security as a whole suffers when just one element predominates; we must take a broader approach that accounts for interlinkages. Mattis was right, but he didn’t go far enough.
We need diplomats and soldiers, yes—but our greatest needs today are civics teachers, election officials, public broadcasters, and social workers. National security leaders should loudly promote government investments in these areas, even at some cost to their own budgets.
This shift will involve people as well as money. America’s premier national security organizations—for example, the CIA and the military service academies—leverage their prestige to attract highly promising young people. We need similar talent pipelines for community organizers, civil rights lawyers, and many others who can help bind the nation’s internal wounds. National security leaders should actively encourage ambitious young people to enter these fields, accepting that some talent would be diverted from their own organizations.
Finally, the US government must better allocate its attention. National security agencies have a unique hold on the president’s time and mental bandwidth, embodied in rituals like the President’s Daily Brief. Recent presidents have helpfully broadened the brief to cover more “economic intelligence.” But the overall balance of power in the White House remains quite uneven: the National Security Council is many times larger than the National Economic Council and the Domestic Policy Council combined. Biden will need new structures to ensure that key domestic issues—like the evolving media landscape, or the economic mobility of Black Americans—remain on the front burner amid inevitable foreign flare-ups.
These changes would come at a cost. A realignment toward domestic matters will inevitably take something away from the rest of US foreign policy. Many national security experts want even more US investment in its traditional global priorities, and they have legitimate concerns.
The US military really is falling behind its competitors. Islamic extremism really has metastasized. A rising China really will bully other nations, hollow out their industries, and export authoritarianism. Any reshuffling of priorities must still find some balance between the foreign and domestic. It will be crucial to consult with allies along the way.
But the status quo presents far greater risks. Last week’s coup attempt helps put everything into perspective. While international threats are growing, domestic crises have already spiraled out of control. If we look the other way as the US Constitution comes apart, then “national security” becomes all but meaningless.
Let’s hope that future presidents can deftly manage China, contain Iran’s nuclear program, and prevent major cyber attacks. But suppose the price of these successes is failure to reverse our democracy’s downward slide. What then would we be left with as Americans? After last week’s events, the question can no longer be avoided. If nothing changes, then the United States will eventually be unable to survive in its current form. Such an outcome, for any country, is the ultimate national security failure.