America's Role in the World (2013)

What Does National Security Mean in the 21st Century?

THE WORLD BEARS little resemblance to the way it was in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell and the Cold War ended. Where the world was once dominated by two “superpowers”—the Soviet Union and the United States— the end of the Cold War created what many observers called a “unipolar” world in which the United States was the clear leader, able to bend most events to its will. That moment has passed.

The US Director of National Intelligence issued a report in late 2012 that assessed where things stood and where they are likely to go over the next two decades. One conclusion of this comprehensive study is that the United States “will remain the ‘first among equals’ alongside the other great powers. . . . [But] the era of unrivaled American ascendancy . . . is fast winding down.”

Evidence of challenges to US dominance are everywhere. China has gone from being just a very large nation to becoming an economic powerhouse. India’s economy, as well as its influence on the world stage, has grown rapidly. Pakistan is now strategically vital.

Problems are becoming more global in nature, too. Climate change (global warming), pandemics, and resource depletion threaten countries without regard to superpower status or military strength. Many of these threats require response, but no one nation can effectively deal with them alone.

This issue guide presents the following three options for deliberation:

Option One: National Security Means Safeguarding the United States
As the war in Afghanistan winds down, we continue to face the threat of terrorism, as well as threats from Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan. At the same time, traditional adversaries like Russia and China are gaining power. Our most important goal must be to safeguard the people of the United States.

Option Two: National Security Depends on Putting Our Economic House in Order
The United States cannot long remain a superpower if it is the world's largest debtor nation and runs huge budget deficits. We need to focus on increasing employment, eliminating our staggering public indebtedness and improving the balance of trade. Whatever steps we take domestically to improve the economy, it will mean spending less on the military and reducing the amount of money that flows overseas.

Option Three: National Security Means Recognizing That Global Threats Are Our Greatest Challenge
Our most urgent challenge is to address the long-term threats that endanger humanity and that demand an international solution. In the 21st century, we need to rethink what "national security" means. The greatest threats facing the United States—the risk of nuclear war, environmental devastation and global warming, pandemics, and the depletion of natural resources—also endanger other countries.