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Defense, in the social sciences, traditionally focuses on how states jockey for premier position in the global system. Periodically, it also examines preparations by different societies for countering internal and external threats.
Self-defense, in the dominant realist school of international relations, stands alone as the raison d’être of the state. Other functions proposed by liberal philosophers, including providing the laws and infrastructure for commerce or protecting individual freedom of citizens, presumptively come second to survival. This does not mean, however, that the demands of defense, even for the realist, are met at any price. In fact, defense policy may be understood as the art of balancing the combined risks of destruction from war or dissolution from rebellion against the benefits of preserving cherished principles of the state.
Origins of Defense
These founding principles reside in the provisions of a socalled social contract between citizens and their governing institutions. Beyond the explicit articles of written constitutions, the social contract as a concept captures the pattern of expectations concerning rights and obligations for individuals living under protection of the state. When states are under extreme circumstances, when internal or external disintegrating forces are high, Thomas Hobbes in his classic work Leviathan ( 1985) argued people would and should accept sharp curtailment of their liberty to fortify the state.
As a counterweight to this prescription for centralization of power in the state, most Enlightenment liberals stressed the importance of preserving individual freedoms and maintaining ultimate accountability of the government to its people, even in the face of grave security threats. Historically, through the evolution of the international system of states during the nineteenth century, the advent of nuclear weapons in the twentieth century, and the rise of nonstate security actors in the twenty-first century, states have had to reconcile the imperatives of selfpreservation with the implicit call of their social contract to provide for a better life at home.
Defense Policy Process
The responsibility for striking this balance lies primarily with the executive and legislative powers of the state, though in cases where there is an independent judiciary defense decisions may be countermanded according to legal codes. In keeping with Hobbes’s line of argument, the more defense measures hinge on emergency maneuvers and closely held intelligence, the more power tends to be concentrated in the executive, even in otherwise liberal societies. Defense, however, involves a mixture of longterm reflective planning and time-critical choices. In practice, there is often feedback between various stages of defense policy, but as a point of departure Peter L. Hays, Brenda J. Vallance, and Alan R. Van Tassel (1997) provide a linear guide to the process as follows.
Responsible officials assess the threat environment. Of common concern to all states are challenges to territorial integrity. Assessing these challenges involves geopolitical calculations based on resource capacity and the geographical position of potential rivals. In addition, national defense must account for intentions, essentially the risk that foreign capability will actually be organized and directed against the state. For most states in the international system, high-probability threats to existence are rare. Consequently, political leaders usually have the luxury of determining many of their defense priorities not just according to the necessity for survival but also through the lens of national values. The ethnic composition of a foreign state, its respect for human rights, or the quality of its democracy may affect the level of cooperation it enjoys from external actors in its own defense.
Grand strategy is the art of matching finite national capabilities against interests so as to reduce vulnerabilities and maximize opportunities in the international environment. The means for grand strategy are conventionally categorized according to economic, military, and diplomatic instruments of power. While national security depends on all the available instruments, defense analysis normally focuses on the role of the military instrument in the development and implementation of grand strategy.
States trade off between expanding their total resources for defense through alliances and increasing their autonomy through arms buildup. During the cold war, U.S. diplomatic efforts to nurture the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were part of a grand strategy of containment, which relied on external balancing to prevent a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The U.S.Soviet rivalry also featured internal balancing as both sides spent vast sums to greatly expand the number and variety of nuclear weapons under their control.
Both external and internal balancing during the cold war supported containment, largely based on deterrence, or defense through the credible threat of imposing unacceptable costs on an enemy to dissuade it from attack. Still, even in the era of the superpower nuclear standoff, defense strategists in some cases lowered the threshold for taking the military offensive. Israel famously ordered a preemptive strike on massed Egyptian air power to clear the way to victory in the Six-Day War of 1967. Both the United States and the Soviet Union employed preventive uses of force in buffer zones such as Eastern Europe and the Caribbean to cover vulnerabilities in their respective spheres of influence. With the relaxation of tensions between the largest nuclear powers and the rise of terrorist organizations demonstrating their potential to make strategic use of weapons of mass destruction, the defense pendulum swung farther from deterrence toward preemptive and preventive grand strategies.
In Taming the Sovereigns: Institutional Change in International Politics (2004), Kalevi J. Holsti marks a turning point as well in the relationship between defense policy and the normal workings of the international system. Through the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, states—as opposed to feudal structures, tribal groups, or warlords—reigned as the supreme institutions for harnessing people and technology in defense of their interests. Especially after the Industrial Revolution and the rise of nationalism, highly capitalized technology came to dominate the equation for national capability. So much so, that during the nuclear arms race there arose the question of whether or not the most powerful states, with no recourse to international governing authority, possessed the political acumen to save themselves from arsenals that promised “mutual assured destruction.”
While the likelihood of a great power launching thousands of nuclear warheads in the name of defense declined after the end of the cold war, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks demonstrated in dramatic fashion a shift in the nature of the deadliest challenges confronting civilization among nations. Though military technologies for both mass destruction and precision strike continue to evolve, the greater danger may now lie with the rise of new types of organizations that defy the state monopoly on force.
Above the state, international organizations such as the United Nations confer legitimacy and broker burdensharing agreements as modern great powers wheel about to secure globalized interests. With the value of their security functions rising, international organizations gain voice and impose new constraints on defense calculations for even the most powerful sovereigns.
Constrained states, as John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt discuss in In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age (1997), also perceive growing threats from below. Ethnic paramilitaries, warlords, criminal gangs, and Al-Qaeda–inspired terrorist cells, all draw sustenance from hard-to-kill transnational networks and exploit vulnerabilities in economically developed, highly interdependent societies. In the post–September 11 environment, violent nonstate actors challenge weak or failing states for control of territory and population seemingly without need of supplies from governments bound by an ultimate interest in continuation of the interstate system. Faced with a millennial challenge not simply against particular regimes but also to the primacy of the nation-state in international governance, both developed and developing countries have adapted by delegating more of their core function—providing national defense—to intergovernmental organizations such as NATO or to substate actors such as private security companies.
- Arquilla, John, and David Ronfeldt. 1997. In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.
- Hays, Peter L., Brenda J. Vallance, and Alan R. Van Tassel. What Is American Defense Policy? In American Defense Policy, 7th ed. Ed. Peter L. Hays, Brenda J. Vallance, and Alan R. Van Tassel. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Hobbes, Thomas. 1651 . Leviathan. Ed. with an introduction by C. B. Macpherson. London: Penguin.
- Holsti, Kalevi J. 2004. Taming the Sovereigns: Institutional Change in International Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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