‘Free world defense’ strategy strikes balance between U.S. overextension, disengagement
Photo by Eric Lee

‘Free world defense’ strategy strikes balance between U.S. overextension, disengagement

The previous Landing Zone column discussed why, after decades marked by hyperactivity on the world stage, America drifted into a period of disengagement. This month’s column explores how policymakers might make a new and better case for engagement by embracing a national security strategy of “free world defense.”

More restrained A national security strategy of “free world defense” would be premised on restraint. It would focus on defending democracy, not planting democracy. In short, under a strategy of “free world defense,” the United States would neither fight for the liberation of all the world’s peoples, as President Woodrow Wilson declared in 1917, nor pursue “the goal of ending tyranny in our world,” as President George W. Bush declared in 2005. Those are worthy goals, but as discussed in the previous column, they simply don’t have broad public support today.

While a strategy of “free world defense” would avoid hyperactivity and hyperextension, it would require America to stand with established and emerging democracies. The policies of President Harry Truman and President Ronald Reagan serve as a helpful model here.

Truman didn’t try to plant democracy in East Germany. But he did support European democracies under assault from Moscow, launch NATO to defend the community of transatlantic democracies, and support fledgling democracies in Japan and West Germany. Likewise, Reagan didn’t dispatch the Marines to plant democracy in Warsaw or Kabul. But he did welcome a democratic Spain into NATO, supported South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines as they walked the path from dictatorship to democracy, and shored up what he called “the infrastructure of democracy” around the world.

Concluding that promoting the ideal of spreading democracy was too costly, the American people didn’t follow the Truman-Reagan model in Iraq and Afghanistan or perhaps more accurately, didn’t have the patience for an open-ended commitment to those broken lands. Yet what followed the Iraq and Afghanistan pullouts would highlight how America’s ideals and interests are linked: Backstopping Iraq’s democratic experiment -- even one marred by corruption and low-grade sectarian strife -- was far more manageable and far less dangerous than uprooting the Islamic State’s death-cult caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. And leaving Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy to the tender mercies of the Taliban sent a terrible signal to Xi and Putin.

More prepared Under a strategy of “free world defense,” America would not go “in search of monsters to destroy,” to borrow President John Quincy Adams’s famous phrase, but it would marshal and maintain the resources necessary to deter the monsters. Truman did exactly that, laying the groundwork for containment of the Soviet empire and deterrence of Moscow’s aggressive impulses. Reagan revived that proven peace-through-strength doctrine, rebuilt America’s deterrent capabilities and reinvested in the free world’s greatest defender: the U.S. military.

With an $886 billion defense budget planned for 2024, it might look like America is fully funding its military. But looks can be deceiving. Undersized and overstretched, the Army is trying to deter war in Europe with one-third the soldiers it deployed during the Cold War. Navy leaders report they need 500+ ships; they have 296. The Air Force is undermanned, undersized and old. The average age of the B-52 fleet is 60+. With only 20 stealth bombers in service, just 14% of the current bomber fleet would be able to penetrate and survive a peer adversary’s air defenses.

The cause of these self-inflicted wounds: For more than a decade, America has invested just over 3% of GDP in defense. The average during the Cold War was more than twice that. All the while, Beijing has been engaged in the largest peacetime buildup in history, and Moscow has been engaged in a crusade to reconstitute the Russian Empire.

As we enter what Henry Kissinger calls the “foothills” of a new Cold War, a strategy of “free world defense” would shift toward Cold War-levels of investment in the armed forces. The aim would be to deploy sufficient military capability to deter war, not wage war. As President Dwight Eisenhower explained, “Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk its own destruction.”

Shifting to a Cold War defense posture will demand bipartisan cooperation and fiscal discipline. Fueled by torrents of domestic spending, the annual deficit approaches $2 trillion; the national debt is a staggering $32 trillion. Defense spending is not to blame for these fiscal challenges. In fact, we could eliminate the entire defense budget and turn the Pentagon into a mega-mall, and we would still face a budget deficit – and wouldn’t even put a dent into the debt.

Some will argue that investing more in deterrence is costly. They’re right. But there’s something far more costly than deterring war – and that’s waging war.

More sustained A strategy of “free world defense” would deliver a sustained supply of defensive arms to at-risk democracies.

“Freedom must be armed better than tyranny,” as President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine observes. When it’s not, the result is Ukraine 2022, Georgia 2008, Korea 1950, Pearl Harbor 1941, Poland 1939, Czechoslovakia 1938. “Free world defense” would aim to ensure that Taiwan, the Philippines, the Baltics, Moldova and other free nations aren’t added to that list.

Russia’s rampage through Ukraine reminds us that helping free nations harden their territory against invasion – which sometimes means deploying U.S. forces as a deterrent – is wiser and less costly in the long term than scrambling to help them try to claw it back. As Reagan declared at Normandy, “It is better to be here, ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost.”

To prevent Taiwan from going the way of Hong Kong and Crimea, to keep the vital waterways of the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf and the Arctic open, to avoid a replay of 1938-1941, the free world must make sustained investments in deterrent military strength.

More partners A “free world defense” strategy would, by definition, enlist the entire free world to deter the axis of autocracy. America cannot bear this burden alone, and the American people have made it clear that there’s no longer any room in the free world for free-riders.

The free world is getting the message.

NATO held its largest-ever air exercises last June 2023 and will hold its largest war games since the end of the Cold War in February. Twenty-seven NATO allies have increased defense spending. Poland – the new center of gravity in Europe – is devoting 4% of GDP to defense. Germany is nearly doubling defense spending. Japan will soon boast the third largest defense budget in the world. South Korea’s defense budget has jumped 37% in recent years, Australia’s 47%.

More tools “Free world defense” means reinvigorating the free world’s industrial base.

The bad news is that America’s defense industrial base is a shell of what it was before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Where dozens of defense contractors once served as the arsenal of democracy, only a handful remain. For example, the United States has just seven Navy shipyards. As retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix reports, “One of China’s shipyards is so large that its capacity surpasses that of all U.S. shipbuilders combined.”

The good news is that the Pentagon is finalizing a new “national defense industrial strategy.” Congress is authorizing new munitions-acquisition funds, multiyear contracting to incentivize arms manufacturers to make long-term investments, fresh funding for munitions production, and new resources to replenish key weapons systems. U.S. and allied nations are collaborating on joint weapons production. NATO members are streamlining purchasing cooperation and mitigating supply-chain constraints; some European arms manufacturers are even merging to boost production.

The investments are starting to pay dividends: U.S. industry is increasing artillery shell production from 14,000 a month before Putin’s war to 70,000 per month by 2025 – and 85,000 per month by 2028. Germany has quadrupled tank-shell production to 240,000 rounds per year. Sweden is quadrupling production of NLAW anti-tank systems.

A policy of “free world defense” would harness far more than defense capabilities. Nineteen of the 20 largest tech companies are headquartered in the free world. Eight of the 10 largest 5G providers are headquartered in the free world. Without essential materials from Japan, South Korea, North America and Europe, China cannot produce scores of dual-use goods. The United States alone possesses more untapped oil than OPEC’s combined reserves, along with vast stores of natural gas. Leveraging these advantages to defend the free world and weaken the axis of autocrats is a matter of will.

More cooperation and more clarity A national security strategy of “free world defense” would engage our allies and draw clear lines for our adversaries.

Washington is starting to do the former, as highlighted by a growing list of new initiatives: the creation of AUKUS, the modernization of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the establishment of the U.S.-South Korea Nuclear Consultative Group, the development with Tokyo and Seoul of a “trilateral vision for addressing global and regional security challenges,” the move toward annual U.S.-Japan-ROK multidomain exercises and U.S.-Philippines joint patrols, the elevation of the Quad partnership, the reinvigoration of NATO and reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank, and the hardening of strategic nodes key to defending the free world in Guam and on East China Sea islands, along the Suwałki Gap and around the Baltic basin, in space and cyberspace.

Next, America and its free world allies must draw the line against authoritarian aggression. A strategy premised on “free world defense” would make clear by word and deed that Moscow won’t be permitted to resurrect a dead empire, that Beijing won’t be permitted to build a new empire, that this axis of autocracy won’t be permitted to roll back free government.

“Free world defense” is not perfect. But it represents a happy medium between “ending tyranny in our world” and “focusing on nation-building here at home” – and a framework for explaining and understanding national security in this dangerous new era.