After more than a decade of wars triggered by the attacks of September 11th, 2001, it is time for a new conversation—one that asks serious questions and welcomes a wide array of serious opinions—on how the United States formulates and executes its national security strategy. Indeed, one may consider it surprising that a concentrated effort to engender such a dialogue has not yet appeared, given the myriad changes that have taken place in the American approach to national security. Such changes include, but are in no way limited to: the establishment of a massive new federal bureaucracy to protect the American homeland; the introduction of “drone warfare” to the security lexicon; and the creation of a detention facility for the holding of enemy combatants on an overseas military installation.

To address the implications of these and countless other issues, the Armed Forces Committee at the Harvard Kennedy School has established the Values and National Security Project. Specifically, the Project seeks to promote a sustained dialogue on how the early 21st century security paradigm both impacts shared American values and is shaped by those values, to include, in no small measure, whether this new security paradigm has fractured any shared values or created divisions in fundamental beliefs about the meaning of American values. A major part of this effort is to publish articles, by Americans and non-Americans alike, that forward diverse perspectives and cogent arguments on the topic. The Values and National Security Project is pleased to partner with the Diplomatic Courier in publishing these articles and beginning this very important conversation.

There is little doubt the last decade of war has had a tangible effect on American society, particularly between civil society and our military forces. Examples of this include those that bemoan the militarization of foreign policy through the growing power of the defense establishment’s ability to influence the direction of our nation, as well as the increase in military service members’ expectations for special treatment that stems from the immense amount of sacrifice they have endured for so long.

While these dynamics are certainly worrisome and symptoms of how our military forces have been used over the last eleven years, what is even more concerning is the lack of shared understanding and values as to what we want from our military forces—namely, why do they exist and how should they be used to further our national interests.

Case in point is our recent discussions on the “pivot to Asia” as we wrap up our military commitments in the Middle East and South Asia. Many citizens that follow the defense industry and foreign policy have seen that we are repositioning naval forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific, rotating Marines into Darwin, Australia for training, and working on an operational concept called Air-Sea Battle to support this “pivot.” The question that few citizens are asking, however, is why? What is the purpose? What is the political effect that we are trying to achieve in Asia that requires the increased use of military forces?

No doubt there are sound strategic and political reasons that are enumerated by our executive branch in policy and planning documents. The real issue is not that our government is not thinking hard about these issues, but that our society as a whole does not have the knowledge, education, or interest to think about them. There is a dearth of education on history, policy, and strategy in our body politic.

Children grow up in America without knowing the states that make up their own country, let alone what nations around the world are infringing our national interests or which countries are our natural allies. How can we, as a nation, come together around shared values and interests—the building blocks for how we conduct ourselves at home and around the world—if we do not even understand our own historical context and how to incorporate our diplomatic and military power to lobby for them around the world?

As a nation, we no longer value the education and thinking required as a great power in the world. We focus our children on technology, innovation, and the next “big thing” while overlooking the basics like history and government that allow them to integrate that innovation into their own society and the improvement of the international system as a whole. What we are missing in our society is a focused education and understanding of power.

Power is not merely the ability of a nation to project force through its military; it is not simply coercive force to make others do our bidding. Power is the purpose of the human experience—personal relationships are inherently about power dynamics, governments are created to aggregate power and focus it where its citizens desire, and the international system is an interconnected web of power relationships between nations. Power is used through influence (such as Dr. Joseph Nye’s soft power concept), through coercion (military and other forms of hard power), and more likely, through a fusion of the two (smart power).

There is nothing nefarious about this concept and it should be taught to our children as a part of the typical American public education. Their courses in history and government would be vastly more interesting when they realize these subjects are not about dates and names, but who has power, who wants power, and how power is used to shape communities, states, nations and the world. Even more important than making these subjects interesting, our students must come to understand that these subjects—and the historical narratives they tell—are crucial to success in this world. If they want a good job, a successful relationship, a promising political career, or a chance to improve our world, they must first understand the dynamics of the world around them.

Once our students understand the foundation of power dynamics that studying history and government provide, they can develop an understanding of how to create a goal, determine the resources available, and develop ways to achieve it. In short, they will begin to understand strategy. Once our children have an understanding of national interests, shared national values, desired political effect, the means available to achieve those effects, and ways to accomplish them, then we will have a solid foundation for a civic society; a solid foundation that the military can build on together with their civilian counterparts, and a foundation our society can support together. This shared understanding begins with power.

Nathan K. Finney is a United States Army Strategist currently attending the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Kansas and a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. More about Nathan here.

Photo: Richard Lee (cc).

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.