National Security, Sustainability, and Citizenship

Joely Santiago/ U.S. Air Force
The U.S. Air Force has pledged to acquire 50 percent of its aviation fuel from alternative sources by 2016. With more than 30 U.S. military bases vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise, the military is taking climate change very seriously.

Within the U.S. military, there is no debate about the risks, threats, and challenges of climate change and energy dependency as they relate to our national security.1 Climate change and energy efficiency have become standing military planning considerations, as both will affect the twenty-first-century strategic landscape and operational environment to such a degree that to ignore them would be a gross dereliction of duty and an abrogation of responsibility.2

More than 30 U.S. military bases are vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise, according to the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.1 As such, plans are being developed and executed to address the risks of climate change to military installations and global military operations. Additionally, all the services within the Department of Defense have acknowledged and are addressing the necessity of developing alternative-energy technologies, such as algae-based fuels, deployable photovoltaic arrays, and small-scale (tactical) windmills. The goal is to achieve energy autonomy in the field as a means to reduce vulnerabilities associated with delivering traditional energy sources to the combat environment.

Simply stated, the U.S. military has considered and accepted the science of climate change as well as the risks associated with our dependence on traditional energy resources. As a result, the military is taking prudent action both at home and abroad to address these issues.

I hope highlighting the fact that the military takes climate change seriously helps with the national discourse amidst a great deal of craziness on the subject. But there is a more important issue underlying our national anxieties and fears. We have become too ready to cast off our responsibilities as citizens by outsourcing them to other segments of our society. Nowhere is this more prevalent than when it comes to “national security.” Whether it is the rise of China, Iranian saber rattling, global terrorism, the war on drugs, illegal immigration, hurricanes, earthquakes, nation building, or, now, climate change and renewable energy, our country has become too comfortable in looking to the military, in particular, to address every vexing issue that confronts us.

Here is the bottom line: National security is the responsibility of every American. Twenty-first-century security has just as much to do with the vibrancy and resiliency of the essential systems that operate within our borders as it does with perceived threats lurking outside our borders. Our national systems are intimately intertwined with the larger global system that constitutes human civilization as we understand it—food, water, energy, education, industry, mobility, information, the built environment, public health, and the global ecology.

Yet inaction continues as we argue over facts. Take climate change as a “small” example. A recent Yale/George Mason University poll found that only 64 percent of Americans believe that climate change is real, and only 46 percent of those believe that climate change is a result of human activity.3 As a result, there is no real public discourse, let alone action on this issue.

Still, the term “national security” gets plenty of attention, particularly in the political season that is currently (or, more accurately, constantly) upon us. But we mostly limit our definition of security to the “bad guys” that we can “find, track, fix, and finish.” Accordingly, our political discourse is predisposed to invoke the specters of our worst fears, anxieties, and angst—Al Qaeda, China, Iran—all threats that we need to defend against. In the process, we effectively undermine our national security in the name of defense by ignoring the unsustainable nature of our entire national system. Yes, we do need a strong military, but we must strike the proper balance between defense and the full spectrum of what constitutes our national security in the twenty-first century.

In 1961, President Eisenhower presciently implored our nation to consider this balance when he warned of an expanding “military-industrial complex” and its inherent threat to our nation’s fiscal solvency.4 Today, we are seeing Eisenhower’s warning come to fruition. We expend enormous amounts of national resources on mechanisms and institutions whose original purpose, national defense, has been eclipsed by the need for the machine to feed itself even at the expense of the security of our nation. We pour more and more resources into calcified organizations, inflexible institutions, irrelevant processes, and paradigmatic weapon systems in a vain attempt to control the uncontrollable without ever challenging the logic or efficacy of our actions.

All the while we refuse to address an exorbitant national debt and the real possibility of fiscal insolvency; waning global influence and credibility as a result of our perceived national hubris; suburban sprawl incoherently designed to accommodate cars rather than people; a gluttonous national lifestyle that creates systemic, preventable health problems that cost our nation billions of dollars each year (the current U.S. obesity rate is 33.8 percent);5 a food production and distribution system dependent on subsidies, petroleum, and farming techniques that degrade our soil and damage our national health; unsustainable energy policies and infrastructures that disregard the limits of the earth’s energy resources; a general disregard for the environment and an overt rejection of our responsibility to bequeath to our children a world worth living in; and a lackluster education system that has resulted in a general decline in our national capacity to innovate and compete on a global scale.

These are but a few of the products of an outdated model for civil society that is wholly dependent on a never-ending petroleum supply and the hope that we can control global dynamics to such an extent that the status quo will continue ad infinitum. Unfortunately, neither oil nor control will make this model work, for the model ignores the interconnectedness, the interdependencies, and, most importantly, the emerging (perhaps unseen) challenges and opportunities of our modern world.

True security, twenty-first-century style, requires that we shift beyond a system that leverages defense alone to one that builds our national strength at home so that we can have the credible influence abroad needed to effectively compete in a hyperconnected, interdependent world. That means citizens have to pony up and contribute to their own security and not just leave it in the hands of our military.

This is the conclusion that Captain Wayne Porter, of the U.S. Navy, and I came to while serving as special strategic assistants for Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is why we wrote our independent and unsanctioned paper, A National Strategic Narrative.6 We wanted to express a new way forward for our nation—a way forward that does not shy away from the enormous challenges we face going into the twenty-first century but that is wedded to a positive, opportunities-based view toward our future and not to some masochistically nostalgic, risk-averse view toward our past. We wanted to declare that we do not have to shed our well-earned moniker as “the Land of Opportunity” and acquiesce to a default label of “the Land of Threat and Risk” just because the world has changed and no longer subscribes to the rule sets we have grown comfortable with. We wanted to tell a story about what America is for and not what it is against and, in so doing, articulate a philosophy for a new national design that could start a new conversation about what a twenty-first-century American grand strategy could look like.

Substantively, the National Strategic Narrative argues for a grand strategy that focuses foreign and domestic policies toward the common goal of building our national strength and credible influence so that we can prepare and shape our future over the long term—a strategy to create a national system that allows us to adapt, compete, grow, and evolve in a manner commensurate with our values as a people and that is sustainable over time. Specifically, the National Strategic Narrative offers the concept of sustainability as our national strategic imperative for the twenty-first century.

Why should sustainability, essentially an ecological concept, serve as the centerpiece of a twenty-first-century American grand strategy? Sustainability is not an end state in itself. It is a strategic mindset and philosophy that can carry us forward in time, just as diplomat and historian George Kennan’s concept of containment carried our nation through the Cold War years. In this sense, sustainability, as a central, coalescing grand strategic concept, would serve to inform our national policy decisions regarding investments, security, economic development, energy, the environment, and engagement well into this century so that successive administrations can look beyond current risks and threats with a more positive focus on converging interests and opportunities as they relate to emerging global conditions.


ATIS547 (via Flickr)
Our current urban landscape—with its sprawling suburbs (as seen here, in Los Angeles)—is unsustainable.

This is what our nation needs right now—a mindset and philosophy that acknowledges and actually addresses in efficacious terms the very real challenges as well as the very real opportunities facing our nation, both at home and abroad. But it must be an approach that sets a positive and, dare I say, hopeful trajectory for our future growth as a people. We need to start looking beyond threat and risk toward the capabilities and capacities we need to develop if we are to remain vibrant and healthy as a nation. By leveraging sustainability as a strategic framework, we can begin the hard work of converging foreign and domestic policies to foster and support the defining American characteristics of boldness, innovation, and entrepreneurialism that will sustain our growth as a nation and reaffirm our position as a global leader well into the twenty-first century.

So what does this all mean? What is the “ask” of all of us, as citizens? Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, first written in 1972, frames it quite nicely. In this fictional story, an aging Kublai Khan sits in a garden with Marco Polo, lamenting the demise of his empire. In the course of their conversation, Marco Polo makes an astute observation: “Yes, the empire is sick, and, what is worse, it is trying to become accustomed to its sores.”7 Clearly, such a comment does not assuage the anguish of Kublai Khan. But it does establish what is wrong. In the end, Marco Polo offers a way out:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.7

Taking Marco Polo’s perspective to heart, we as citizens cannot afford to become accustomed to our national sores, nor can we afford to accept the inferno. We need to be clear-eyed about what is facing us and just as clear-eyed about what it will take to move forward into the uncertainty and volatility that certainly awaits us in the coming century.

At the very core, we need to fundamentally shift how we view foreign policy, domestic policy, national growth, and national security. This is no small matter. In fact, it seems overwhelming. But all is not lost. We should not forget that, in his Farewell Address, Eisenhower, beyond just warning the nation about the military-industrial complex, also proposed a solution to overcome what he considered a burgeoning storm: “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”4 Today, we as citizens must become “alert and knowledgeable.” We must recognize that the way we are living our lives at home, in our communities, and as a nation is unsustainable. Moreover, we must realize that the challenges to our national security are not limited to foreign threats: they reside right here at home as well.

To become alert and knowledgeable, three key shifts need to occur among our citizenry.

We must confront honestly the challenges ahead. Let’s recognize that we have bought our future with our behavior over the past 100 years or so. There is no way around it. False expectations and promises of protection that allow us to continue our current course of consumption (whether it’s Cash for Clunkers or promises of $2 per gallon gas), while we ignore what is happening at a global scale, are not going to prepare us for the future.

But this does not mean we need to hunker down. Defense alone will not get us anywhere, and we cannot build high enough walls to protect ourselves. We have to come to grips with the “paradox of resilience”: that it is through deeper and more meaningful local, regional, and global connections (even interdependencies) that we will be able to create the depth, redundancy, and elasticity needed to face the unknown and prepare our responses to the perturbations we have injected into the global system. We need an appropriate focus on resilience because resilience is what will enable us to take a gut punch in the future (or, as environmental and political thinker David Orr of Oberlin College so eloquently puts it, to “withstand intermittent disruptions”). As such, resilience is a critical attribute that we must develop across all the systems on which we depend.

We must reject the false faith of ideology and start contributing real ideas and real action. Clearly our basic political institutions, the two-party system that dominates them, and the constituencies that support them are in crisis. In the vain hope of proving their ideologies right, members of both parties have not only kicked facts, reason, and the efficacy of our Constitution to the curb, they have blocked our capacity to use our collective wits and resources to prepare for a rapidly approaching future.

At the end of the day, citizens need to view the world through an apolitical lens. Because of our ideological extremes, the good ideas we do have are stymied because we lead our discourse (which now takes the form of yelling) with labels of “liberal Democrat” or “conservative Republican.” This immediately derails the logic of the argument, cutting it off from half the intended audience. This is not only ineffective, it is downright silly. As a career Marine Corps officer, I was not only proud but relieved to be blissfully apolitical by profession (and conviction). In maintaining my political balance, it helped to remember veteran journalist Eric Sevareid’s description of liberals and conservatives: “The labels conservative and liberal go ‘way back, of course. … Somebody unknown defined a liberal as a person who has both feet firmly planted in the air; Elbert Hubbard said a conservative was a man too cowardly to fight and too fat to run.”8 Labels associated with ideologies will not get us anywhere. Ideas associated with action will.

We have to shed a resident’s sense of entitlement and rediscover a citizen’s sense of destiny and responsibility. A resident does not contribute to the whole; he merely pays rent and considers his commitment complete. Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned of this condition more than 200 years ago in his Social Contract: “As soon as public service ceases to be the main concern of the citizens and they come to prefer to serve the state with their purse rather than their person, the state is already close to ruin.”9

Similarly, too many in our nation look to the individual articles and amendments of the Constitution to pursue a “what’s in it for me” agenda, as if the ideas that this nation is built upon are nothing more than a smorgasbord laid in front of the masses to appease any given taste or appetite, with no requirement to pay the bill when closing time comes.

A true citizen understands that the world is immensely complex and uncertain and that it is through purposeful participation, not through divisive ultimatums, that our collective interests can best be served.

It is with a spirit of hope, opportunity, and innovation that many in our nation, and around the world, have taken a look in the mirror and determined that the design of our daily lives must change. And change is tough. I know. We are having hard conversations in my own home because we live in too big of a house, we have a boat to sell, and my wife loves her SUV. But at least we have started the conversation and we are starting to do the right thing. We are taking to heart what architect and business consultant Bill McDonough so often reminds us, that “being less bad isn’t being good.”

At the end of the day, we, all of us, must recognize that our national security depends on change. It depends on our individual choices. If we can get this mindset and philosophy implanted in some key players (policymakers, private industry, think tanks, etc.), as well as in the American citizenry writ large, then policies, institutional reforms, and, most importantly, local action will follow.

We can take some solace in what President Kennedy said in his 1961 State of the Union address. JFK told us that our nation was “in an hour of peril and national opportunity.”10 He then laid out how our nation needed to address both the peril and the opportunity, articulating a holistic strategic mindset that was based on a positive and confident belief that we would endure. We urgently need to do the same.

It is through a grand strategy of sustainability that we can fulfill the promise of and our obligation to the preamble of our Constitution, particularly the part about “secur[ing] the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Such an endeavor is truly worthy of our commitment as a nation and fully in keeping with the purpose and values so masterfully articulated in the Constitution. The concept of sustainability as a national strategic imperative for the twenty-first century can create a new path forward so that we, as a nation of citizens, can endure and thrive in our own “hour of peril and national opportunity.”