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Defense In Depth: Why U.S. Security Depends on Alliances—Now More Than Ever
By Kori Schake, Jim Mattis, Jim Ellis, and Joe Felter
November 23, 2020
The world is not getting safer, for the United States or for U.S. interests. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the 2017 National Defense Strategy described an international environment of increased global disorder, long-term strategic competition, rapid dispersion of technologies, and eroding U.S. military advantages. Protecting the United States requires a strategy of defense in depth—that is, of identifying and dealing with global problems where they occur rather than waiting for threats to reach American shores.
To achieve defense in depth, simply strengthening the U.S. military is not enough; nor the even more urgent task of strengthening U.S. diplomacy and other civilian elements of national power. Enhancing national security must start with the fundamental truth that the United States cannot protect itself or its interests without the help of others. International engagement allows the United States to see and act at a distance, as threats are gathering, rather than waiting for them to assume proportions that ultimately make them much costlier and more dangerous to defeat. Defeating emerging threats in particular puts a premium on having visibility far from the homeland to allow for early warning and rapid adaptation to unanticipated developments.
As capable as the U.S. military is, the United States’ principal adversaries are more constrained by its network of alliances than by its military might. But continued failure to adequately invest in relationships with allies and partners and to cooperate with them to shape the international environment risks the erosion of this network—allowing a long-tended garden to become choked with weeds. Even worse, it could result in the emergence of other, competing networks, presaging an international order from which the United States is excluded, unable to influence outcomes because it is simply not present.
The United States today is undermining the foundations of an international order manifestly advantageous to U.S. interests, reflecting a basic ignorance of the extent to which both robust alliances and international institutions provide vital strategic depth. In practice, “America first” has meant “America alone.” That has damaged the country’s ability to address problems before they reach U.S. territory and has thus compounded the danger emergent threats pose.
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