Much ado was made recently when U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, during his hearing on confirmation as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, labeled Russia the number one threat to the United States. While public attention focused mostly on the White House’s mild pushback at Dunford’s remarks, Paul Shinkman’s story last week in U.S. News & World Report homed in on the disagreement from the other incoming members of the Joint Chiefs. Shinkman’s piece suggests that the disagreement reflects confusion at the highest levels of national-security policymaking in the face of an increasing complex array of threats. Instead, these disparate perspectives should be viewed as an asset.
Shinkman outlines the myriad viewpoints of the incoming chiefs that emerged from their confirmation hearings. Joining Dunford in naming Russia the top threat were the incoming vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, and Gen. Mark Milley, the next Army chief of staff. Differences emerged from the maritime services. Adm. John Richardson, the next chief of naval operations (CNO), argued that the “Indo-Asia-Pacific” region should take precedence. However, Dunford’s replacement as commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, said that while he agreed Russia was a leading threat, violent extremist groups should not be forgotten. “Right now, I don’t think [the Russians] want to kill Americans,” he said, according to Shinkman, “I think violent extremists want to kill us. And their capability is not great but their intent is high.”
These differences are to be expected. The services filter their perceptions of threats through their own cultures, capabilities, and interests. All are working toward the national interest, but they define it differently based on their own unique attributes. The incoming Army chief of staff is right to view the land-based Russian threat as the highest priority, just as the new CNO—whose service is charged with protecting sea-lanes and facilitating seaborne commerce—is right to argue that the region with the majority of economic activity and a rising maritime power should take precedence. Moreover, it should be expected that the commandant of the Marines Corps—a service whose modern incarnation cut its teeth in “small wars”—would highlight the importance of nonstate actors.
Several experts said that ranking the various threats cited by the incoming chiefs is impossible. Shinkman quotes former Clinton administration national-security adviser Sandy Berger referring to the Cold War as “an easy framework to think about.” While that statement dangerously simplifies and downplays the more-than-four decades of “twilight struggle,” today’s challenges, which include Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State, are indeed complex.
The best way to deal with complexity and unpredictability is to foster diverse perspectives. Competition among the services provides those perspectives. Let the Army argue that Russia is the most important threat; the Navy, that strategic planning should privilege the Indo-Pacific region; and the Marine Corps, that that extremist organizations remain a problem. Moreover, let them prepare plans to deal with these threats. They will then have to “sell” these plans. Civilian policymakers will need to make choices, based on these arguments, about where to allocate resources, so inevitably one will win out. However, as a result, the choices will be more informed and some redundant capabilities will be preserved to deal with the other challenges. Moreover, even a “loss” in this competition provides useful information. As Shinkman suggests, it is unclear NATO militaries originally conceived to stop Red Army tanks are prepared to deter Russian hybrid warfare. If the Army remains wedded to its traditional concepts, it is liable to lose out on both mission and resources. Innovation in response to the new challenge, however, would likely secure the service prestige and budgetary largesse.
Unfortunately, the post-Goldwater-Nichols advisory system militates against diverse perspectives. Goldwater-Nichols made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the principal military adviser to the president. As such, the chairman can consult the other chiefs but is not required to do so. Therefore, if a chairman—whether it were Gen. Dunford or anyone else—wishes to keep a perspective from getting to the White House, he can. The chiefs can officially register dissenting opinions, but given the chairman’s power, that is not likely to be a politically viable tactic. If a matter were of vital importance, a single chief may consider bypassing the chairman. But given that most of the day-to-day details of policymaking, even in the military sphere, do not rise to that level, the other chiefs are more likely to go along to get along, expecting to live to fight another day. As Marine Corps’ Major Christopher Bourne has argued, any chief who stepped out of line to offer advice that conflicted with the chairman’s would likely see whatever influence he had evaporate.
A variety of threats demand a variety of perspectives. The incoming chiefs implicitly acknowledged this in their confirmation hearings. A single perspective means that any single failure is magnified across the entire spectrum of threats. Unfortunately, the military’s advisory system privileges unity over that type of diversity.