West Point 2014: What’s the “Theory of the Case”?

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    Jun 4, 2014

    The President’s West Point speech struck many observers, including me, as incomplete. His great strength is his capacity to be the “leveler-in-chief” — especially on issues of war and peace. He has a rare knack among politicians for outlining in plain English what the United States can and cannot hope to achieve with foreign policy activism, largely undeterred by the inevitable blowback that ensues. Critics sometimes find this approach uninspiring. I think it’s refreshing. However, the recent West Point speech was clearly not the best example in this regard.

    We are all sensitive to the complexity of national security decision making today, and the administration’s clinical, risk- and cost-conscious approach to it is likely appropriate for the times.  Further, one can quibble with specific policy initiatives, outcomes, and process fouls but this President’s philosophical predisposition toward informed calculation is exactly what is required for our current circumstances. Rushing into anything anywhere nowadays is a recipe for getting stuck or burned to such an extent that we may be unable or unwilling to respond to even greater foreign policy challenges in the future (see Iraq). 

    What was noticeably absent from West Point 2014 was some consumable and commonly understood description of the terrain against which the administration is applying President Obama’s deliberative, risk-informed approach. Individual foreign policy initiatives and challenges — the “pivot” to Asia; Syria, Iran and the greater Middle East; and Russia-Ukraine — are still outlined in isolation, as the administration has yet to advance an aggregated and universal “theory of the case” that would justify specific policy choices. 

    What makes this kind of description a tall order today is the fact that the United States faces important but also wildly dissimilar national security challenges. Contemporary security challenges span regions from the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific. They manifest simultaneously between states and peoples, in contested territory, seas, and airspace. And, they are complicated and intensified by new threats from cyberspace and prolific social networking and electronic connectivity. In every case, effective U.S. and allied responses would profit from the kind of careful cost-benefit calculation the “leveler-in-chief” favors. However, before setting off toward solutions, a clear understanding of how the administration defines the basic contours of its 21st century problem set would be useful. Unfortunately, that’s not what came out of last Wednesday’s remarks.  

    Without this basic understanding, we are driving in the dark at a time when variety, volatility, and uncertainty — not structure, institutions, or formal relationships — define international security. We shouldn’t be put off by the most common criticism of current U.S. policy — too reactive — as the sheer number of consequential challenges and the speed of change in current events outpaces bureaucracies that operate best on consensus. On the other hand, there are fundamental questions as to whether or not the administration’s framework or context for decision making is right. 

    The four principals outlined in West Point 2014 — the right of unilateral self-defense and a new higher bar for the use of force, terrorism as Job #1, underwriting order through multilateralism, and a renewed commitment to defend universal norms — are pretty standard (and uncontroversial) fare for presidential speeches. They do not, however, help the country understand how or why the administration makes fundamental national security choices. Only context does that. And, West Point 2014 fell well short of capitalizing on a golden opportunity to define that context. 

    There are bright lines that might have been drawn linking interests, threats and challenges, and proposed courses of action. Two major contextual trends come to mind— active resistance to U.S. leadership by a handful of regional powers and profound instability within important states and regions.  The former puts foundational U.S. security relationships at substantial risk and the latter promises to usher in universally unfavorable changes in political authority, occurring largely beyond any control of the United States. The first challenge requires bold, assertive American leadership. The second calls for active and deliberate U.S.-led hedging and risk management. 

    Neither of these challenges is monolithic and both have the potential to combine explosively. Within and between each, there are clear standouts — the emergence of an increasingly aggressive China and Russia and civil conflict across the greater Middle East come to mind. Yet, at their most basic level, they also have significant potential for regional portability. After all, there are and will always be those dissatisfied with the status quo. With a rapid diffusion of power, that prospect is likely accelerating.  And, actions on the part of some to redress that dissatisfaction will frequently present hazards to U.S. interests.

    In response, the United States and its partners need to craft nimble and adaptive strategies that can effectively respond to both evolutionary and revolutionary threats to our security.  While clearly more complex than the “terrorism as Job #1” perspective advanced in West Point 2014, the two distinct and dissimilar challenges outlined above in combination provide a unifying theory against which the administration might marshal U.S. and partner policy, resources, and action. 

    The American people are still haunted by suicide pilots, collapsing skyscrapers, and the gnawing residual fear of terrorists disrupting everyday life. But, that no longer passes muster as a unifying principal for American security strategy. However, resurgent state-based competition on the one hand and the erosion or dissolution of traditional authority on the other can be touchstones for the deliberate conduct of rational national security policy from this point forward. 

    To his great credit, the President’s “third way” of responding to 21st century challenges is the most reasonable and responsible course. It is appropriately discriminating, measured, risk-informed, and cost-conscious. And, given half a chance, it effectively navigates between the two extremes he ably described — near-mathematical realism on the one hand and excessive intervention on the other. Yet, the “third way” still needs context. And, the President would be well-advised to continue a national dialogue that helps us all see that context clearly. 

    It starts with identification of a hierarchy of American interests (naturally, with some built-in ambiguity). There are hazards to too much specificity; recall the need to be nimble and adaptive. Next there should be some clinical description of the totality of our contemporary challenge set and a deliberate calculation of the risks and hazards associated with it. This kind of comprehensive “theory of the case” enables rational decision making and leads naturally to setting real foreign policy priorities.  Frankly, done right, it can also skillfully lay bare our real limitations and, by doing so, help facilitate hard choices about where and how we will invest our resources and mitigate national security risk.

    This approach is profoundly apolitical, as it attempts, to replace emotion with deliberation. In the end, however, it will help Americans see that great power and great responsibility are at times unpleasant but that the alternatives are by and large unsatisfactory. It will also help all Americans gain a more finely-tuned appreciation for the three most important considerations in contemporary strategy: the art of the possible, timing, and the balance of costs and benefits. More importantly, it helps the administration rationalize individual policy choices within a larger guiding context. By definition, choice results in some vulnerability. But, choices born of an articulation and appreciation of a lucid “theory of the case” goes a long way to inoculate the President and his senior most decision makers against charges of American indifference or weakness. 

    Nathan Freier is an associate professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army War College, the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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