November 2008: A Tobin Project Conference on "America & the World: National Security in the New Era"

Two generations ago, American policymakers and scholars developed a U.S. national security strategy that offered a lasting and coherent response to the threats that emerged after World War II. In the late 1940s George F. Kennan, then a diplomat serving in Moscow, developed the strategy of containment. This strategy became the cornerstone of America’s successful effort to address the threat of Soviet expansion.

At the same time Bernard Brodie, along with colleagues at Yale University, framed the underpinnings of a strategy of deterrence that helped prevent the Cold War from ending in nuclear war. Together, these contributions by policymakers and scholars laid the foundations for the national security strategy that kept America safe for half a century.

Today there is no consensus on what national security strategy will best address the threats that now confront the United States.

The strategic landscape has changed completely over the last twenty years. The Soviet Union has vanished. China is rising. Terror groups that aspire to commit mass killing have appeared for the first time. The security of nuclear weapons and barriers against nuclear proliferation have eroded, raising the danger that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists. Failed states where terror groups may incubate have multiplied in number.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 caused scholars and policymakers to reassess our understanding of the threats and challenges to United States national security, exposing large gaps in our knowledge on a range of issues critical to strategy-making. To take one example, a survey of America’s four leading international relations journals showed only a half dozen articles from 1980-1999 featuring religion as an influence in global politics. America now must craft a successful strategy to counter religious extremism and its terrorist offspring. But America’s stock of relevant ideas is thin.

A sustained effort is needed to define the questions and offer the answers that can help provide the basis for a new U.S. national security strategy. To that end, the Tobin Project is launching a multi-year effort with two primary goals:

  • Foster new academic research on key issues and trends that are relevant to making national security strategy for the new era;
  • Build a society of scholars and policymakers who know each others’ skills and concerns and so can better cooperate in the years ahead to address questions of national security.

Key Themes

A list of themes taken up at the inaugural conference is outlined below. Identifying which research questions need answering to further develop policy-relevant knowledge was made integral to the discussions structured around these themes. Where disputes on policy arose, participants were asked to determine what underlying research could help lead to greater consensus.

Grand Strategy
A consensus U.S. grand strategy to address the threats of the post-9/11 era has yet to emerge. What should be American grand strategy for the new era? What should be American strategy against al-Qaeda? How is U.S. national security affected by U.S. dependence on imported oil? Why has there been a failure to achieve broad consensus around a U.S. grand strategy for today? What questions need answering before Americans can choose an effective national security strategy?

Identity Politics
Nationalist and religious identity politics have grown more important in domestic and international political conflict since the end of the Cold War. How strong are nationalist and religious identities today, in comparison to one another and to ideological, class and clan loyalties, and civic loyalties to the state? What are the implications of powerful religious and national identities abroad for U.S. foreign policy?

Weapons of Mass Destruction
The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — nuclear and biological — and the threat of their falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue states poses a grave threat to U.S. national security. How large is the threat of a broader spread of nuclear and biological weapons in years ahead? What U.S. policies can best limit or roll back that spread?

Wars of Ideas
The U.S. invests little in shaping opinion abroad. At the same time al-Qaeda and other terrorists make effective use of cheap, rapid global communication to propagate their message. What could the U.S. accomplish if it tried to shape global opinion? When and how have the U.S. and others successfully waged wars of ideas in the past? What tactics work and which do not work?

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