Comments on Vulnerability and Security and The National Security Strategy of the United States

[1] I have two sets of disparate comments on the two documents we are considering, which I will try in some way to relate to each other.

[2] The question I want to raise about Vulnerability and Security is this: By placing the question about the proper use of political force within the larger framework of vulnerability, has not the document framed the moral issue fundamentally in terms of self-interest? Clearly, of course, that’s not the intention. Vulnerability and Security sets forth a vision of international politics in which actors are open to cooperation with others, where disputes are approached within a spirit of reconciliation, and where “self-interest cannot have the last word.” Even if not the last word, however, self-interest does seem to have the first word. This is because, within the terms of the document, we arrive at concern for the other by way of recognizing our own vulnerability. “The vulnerability … of humankind,” says the document, is “the precondition for its capacity for openness and solidarity…. Recognition of vulnerability as something fundamentally human leads to the recognition of the security of others, of strangers, as my-our joint-responsibility.” By coming to recognize our own vulnerability and weaknesses, the argument appears to run, we will come to appreciate our own vested interest in security, and, more importantly, we will come to see that the surest strategy for achieving security is to recognize the value of the other and our mutual interests.

[3] This argument from the self to the other strikes me as decidedly un-Lutheran. For example, Luther tells us in his Treatise on Temporal Authority that, as concerns the self, the Christian is guided by the nonviolent, non-resisting commands of the Sermon on the Mount. Self-interest has little to no moral status for Luther, and thus he does not conceive the exercise of political power in self-referential terms. Rather Luther understands government’s use of force to be an expression of neighbor-love, a necessary means for protecting others, not ourselves, from those seeking to do harm. Vulnerability and Security, by contrast, tells us that “In the Judeo-Christian and humanist tradition the right to defense against attacks on one’s own life and property … [is a] necessary … [part] of ethics.” Having thus ceded the ground floor to self-interest, the document then conceives the ethical challenge as striking the right balance between “altruism and self-preservation.”

[4] But why does any of this matter, since the end point for the document as for Luther is concern for the other? It matters, first, because the security strategy in the Norwegian document only gains force by drawing upon the rosy assumption that the interests of the self and the interests of the other always coincide. Unless it’s really true that my interests are best served by serving your interests, I will have no good reason to pursue those strategies. If and when our interests conflict, my vulnerability will most likely trump yours. Second, Vulnerability and Security makes the individual and his or her vulnerability the centerpiece of any security strategy. This may seem a good thing-it looks more democratic and humanistic-but it might also be considered a weakness. The weakness lies in the document’s failure to analyze the phenomenology of political power as such, and its failure to put forth any sustained Christian interpretation of government. Many passing comments in the document, particularly about the moral and political authority of the United Nations, strike me as offered without argumentative support. Had the document relied more squarely on Luther, it might have been able to say more about the nature and function of political authority in our age. In any case, because questions of security are fundamentally questions of international politics, and because international politics is shaped by power wielding states, harnessing political power and ordering it to the international common good is an essential part of any effort to build a more secure world. I’m not sure we can learn how to harness political power simply by reflecting on individuals and their mutual vulnerability.

[5] Let me turn now to The National Security Strategy, about which I have another set of observations, essentially unrelated to my first set of observations, although I have promised to try to suggest a relationship between the two.

[6] I want to focus on the argument for preemption found in The National Security Strategy. That argument rests largely on the claim that the United States is exposed to a new kind of vulnerability, one that may require preemptive action. The origins of the new vulnerability have to do with weapons of mass destruction. These weapons themselves are not new, so the mere fact of their existence cannot represent the new threat. Rather the international political order has changed in a way to make the presence of these weapons more dangerous. Today terrorist organizations or rogue states can acquire weapons of mass destruction, and these entities, unlike those in the past, are more likely to use them. Because the damage caused by these weapons would be so great, the United States must act preemptively to prevent them from being used.

[7] Thus essential to the argument for preemption as we find it in The National Security Strategy is not the reality of WMDs, but rather the claim that deterrence doesn’t work. According to the document, “deterrence based only upon the threat of retaliation is less likely to work against leaders of rogue states more willing to take risks, gambling with the lives of their people, and the wealth of their nations.” Clearly this is an assertion that needs to be reexamined in light of what we now know about Iraq. And in general, one wishes the document had distinguished more clearly between states and terrorist organizations. States will always have national interests, which suggests the possibility that they can be influenced by deterrence strategies. Terrorist organizations, by contrast, lack national interests; and often they lack clearly identifiable political objectives. This suggests the argument against deterrence is more plausible when applied to terrorist organizations than when applied to states. The argument for preemption, although too loosely formulated in the document, should not be ruled out completely. Weapons of mass destruction, in the hands of persons ready and able to use them, would represent a serious threat needing to be dealt with.

[8] However, even if one allows for the limited possibility of preemption, The National Security Strategy is troubling in its failure to consider the risks attendant upon a general policy of prevention. The document announces a bold vision for foreign policy, one in which the United States advances world-wide democracy, but it is silent and seems unaware of the danger of overreaching, the problems that come with excessive foreign entanglements, and the strain such a policy must inevitably place on the military. This large lacuna arises from the way the document conceives U.S. foreign policy exclusively in terms of self-defense, without also considering the broader problem of international political order.

[9] The National Security Strategy grounds its expansive doctrine of preemption squarely in the right of national self-defense; “the United States … will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense, by acting preemptively against … terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.” Now I certainly do not wish to deny the right and responsibility of the U.S. government to act on behalf of the defense of the American people. My point, however, is that preemptive wars to capture or neutralize terrorists, even if beginning from self-defense, necessarily move beyond self-defense to refashioning the political order. Rendering a country inhospitable to terrorists requires refashioning it; it requires nation-building. Successful nation-building depends upon friendly relations with regional powers, and it would also seem to require broad international support. Absent international support, the expansive exercise of American power, even if well intended, is likely to be perceived as an abuse of American power. That perception cannot help but to reconfigure the international political order in ways that isolate the United States.

[10] Allow me to provide an illustration of what I mean. One striking feature of the prelude to the war in Iraq was the tension between the United States and its traditional European allies, particularly France and Germany. In America much was made about the irresponsible character of French and German opposition to the war, but little attention was given to the way these nations, like all nations, were acting from legitimate national interest. France and Germany, although they are large states in Europe, are small states in the international community, unable by themselves to influence the shape of international politics. Thus they both have national interests in a healthy U.N. and a strongly internationalist political order. France, in particular, through its permanent seat on the Security Council, is able exert influence on international affairs to an extent that it could not by relying on economic and military strength alone. Thus American willingness to circumvent the U.N., irrespective of the problems with Iraq, could not help but be perceived by the French, and also by the Germans, as a threat to their national interests. The way the United States pursued its policy of preemption in Iraq caused a shift in the international political order, one in which traditional American allies, including stable free market democracies in Europe, began to perceive their national interests in competition with those of the United States. This sort of shift, if unaddressed, may in the long run hinder rather than promote American interests worldwide.

[11] In any case, my point with this brief political discussion was to illustrate the way the policy of preemption set forth in The National Security Strategy has had implications for the international political order of which the authors of the document seemed unaware. Their failure to attend to the relationship between U.S. power and larger dynamics of international politics, I am suggesting, may be rooted in their determination to formulate the problem of terrorism and WMDs exclusively in terms of American self-interest and the right to self-defense. What is needed is more stereoscopic vision, one that sees American political power as related both to narrow issues of self-defense and also broader issues of international order.

[12] The proclivity to perceive security issues fundamentally in terms of self-interest is not restricted to The National Security Strategy alone. It is also present, or so I have tried to suggest, in the Norwegian document Vulnerability and Security. The way forward, toward a more satisfying vision of international politics, may be through sustained reflection on the nature and purposes of political power. As regards this task, Christians, and especially Lutherans, should have a head start, since they have never conceived government and its use of force as ordered to self-interest.

H. David Baer

Helmut David Baer is an Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.