Michael KreponArleigh Burke on National Security Strategy

Quote of the week:

“The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention.” — Sportswriter Red Smith, “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff”

Arleigh Burke was born in Boulder, Colorado, determined not to be land-locked. He took to the sea and was a legendary naval officer during World War II, so much so that a class of destroyers was named after him. He rose in the ranks to become the Chief of Naval Operations. After retiring from the Navy, he became the Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Georgetown University, later to become the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In 1964, Burke gave a talk at a workshop at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, from which the excerpt below is drawn. His and other presentations subsequently appeared in The Prospects of Arms Control (New York: MacFadden Books, 1965).

“I would suggest, as a starting point for a discussion of strategy, that we should formulate our national goal somewhat along the following lines:

“The United States is determined to remain a free, pluralistic society, to retain its system of representative government, and to achieve continued economic growth through the operations of responsible, creative private enterprise in a market economy. The United States regards the security of the countries in the NATO area as coterminous with its own and will defend them at the risk of heavy damage to itself. Within the limits of its resources, the United States will help defend governments in other regions of the world which are trying to be responsive to the aspirations of their peoples…”

Burke believed that strategic superiority was a prerequisite to accomplishing his national strategy, a requirement that would have subsequently foreclosed successful strategic arms control. He also believed that countering Communist subversion in far away lands was essential, which in 1964 equated to holding the line in South Vietnam to a good many U.S. national security strategists.

Some of the particulars of Burke’s belief system remain absolutely essential today. Where are we as a country if we do not have “a free, pluralistic society,” or retain a “system of representative government”? And yet today, vote suppression is deemed necessary for electoral victory and neither the Legislative nor Executive Branch works. As George Shultz told me in an interview for my book in progress, we no longer have a functioning federal government.

Burke’s dictum of the pursuit of “economic growth through the operations of responsible, creative private enterprise in a market economy” still applies. At present, however, definitions of corporate responsibility have been bent out of shape along with the distribution of wealth.

Some of the particulars of Burke’s belief system were misguided and quite costly. So why retrieve his remarks? Because there is a dire need to figure out and develop a working consensus on what U.S. national security strategy should be in the 2020s. If we don’t get the big picture right, we’re likely to get the particulars wrong.

Trump’s national security strategy, to the extent one can be extrapolated from individual cases, seems woefully misguided. So what’s the alternative? The project of promoting Democracy, epitomized in George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, has gone badly awry, as has the project of expanding NATO. America cannot lead effectively from offshore, and the War on Terror has been poorly conceived and executed.

What else have we got, besides platitudes? Who out there has  conceptualized a national security strategy that makes sense? Nominations are hereby solicited.

We have badly overplayed our hand, blinded by the hubris of our unilateral moment. We are not spending large sums for national defense wisely. We are spending too much on weapons we dare not use. Our Navy is too small, even if you think offshore balancing isn’t the right strategy. The Congress, as is its habit, reflexively protects yesterday’s force structure. Unlike the previous two generations, we are not supplementing military power with arms control, and multilateral arms control requires a new conception.

There is much work to be done. Trump and the regrettable cast of characters he recruits and attracts are not up to this challenge. If the 2020 election does not produce a new cast, America will fall deeper into distress and dysfunction. So what do think tanks, academics, and Trump’s opponents have to offer by way of a new U.S. national security strategy?


  1. Edward Yandek (History)

    Great perspective. The more I re-read the perspectives (and listen) to our experts of the past, the more it is obvious that most of the current generation of leaders, and leaders to be, are light weights. With all of the faults of those who preceded us, they were largely sound, strategic thinkers. Is the new cast of future leaders likely to come from this next election? Not likely so far, but I hope some appear. The other observation is that so many of our leaders in the past were not of the actual ‘politician caste’, but from the statemen and national service servants who populated our institutions and made them function at a high capacity. The very institutions that our current president is doing his best to dismantle, or weaken, and to populate by small thinkers and people who are fundamentally clueless but who are willing to support his ever increasing selfish efforts to augment power to the executive branch and enrich himself and his family in an unprecedented manner. Where are our Republican leaders who believe in the balance of power? Absent. Where are the Democratic leaders who are willing to put country above narrow interest jousting among the ’20’ or whatever the current number of candidates tallies today? Largely absent. We need to stop celebrating Brownian motion, sound bites, tweets, and social media posts as a substitute for clear thinking at the strategic level.

  2. Mitchel Wallerstein (History)

    I applaud your “call to action,” Michael. The National Security community cannot remain passive and reactive, especially given that (a) POTUS is essentially illiterate on global strategy, won’t read the briefs that are prepared for him, and thinks he can make all such decisions based on “gut instincts” (which are frequently and mostly wrong), and (b) those who DO have the expertise, and who understand the stakes, opportunities and risks have largely left the government, leaving the likes of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo as the only ones advising an uneducated, incurious client. These are VERY dangerous times and we must somehow find a way to persist and prevail.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thank you Mitch. Hope you are well–