Skip to main content

Mr. Y: Best Military Strategy Starts at Home

Prophets at the Pentagon say one of the best moves the United States can take to secure its strategic interests overseas is to get its own house in order.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Weak nation, strong military? Sounds like a description of a third-world country, not the United States of America. But that is what the current overheated debate in Washington amounts to, according to two of the Pentagon's top strategists.

"In July 2009, Admiral Mike Mullen asked me to look at grand strategy" in order to make sense of global trends, says Navy Capt. Wayne Porter. He is special assistant for strategy, working for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, the president's top military adviser.

Instead of focusing on weapons systems or how the military would fight the next war, the paper focused on fixing things at home, making investments in education, training, the environment, alternative energy, crumbling infrastructure. "We must recognize that security means more than defense," Porter wrote, "and sustaining security means adaptation and evolution. ... To grow we must accept that competitors are not necessarily adversaries, and that a winner does not demand a loser."

Mullen asked Porter to work on his ideas with Marine Col. Mark "Puck" Mykleby. At that time, Mykleby was having a similar strategy conversation with his boss, Adm. Eric T. Olson, who ran the Special Operations Command in Florida, which is responsible for the military's elite troops: Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Rangers, Delta Force operators, about 48,000 troops all told.

The final paper was produced in just three weeks. "What we realized as we began working was that the nation didn't need a grand strategy," Porter says. "What it needed was a strategic narrative, a story about where we were going in the 21st century."

The influential strategists produced a paper that called for a National Prosperity and Security Act, the modern-day equivalent of the National Security Act of 1947. The proposed act described America's role in the emerging global "ecosystem" of the 21st century. In many ways, it echoed President Obama's inaugural address: " the roads and bridges ... harness the sun and the winds and the soil [for] fuel ... transform our schools ..."

While the Pentagon liked themes that talked about leaving behind the Cold War policies of the 20th century in favor of a new 21st-century vision, it cringed at the narrative's progressive lingo: "strategic ecosystems," "credible influence," "sustainability." If anything, the paper advocated a broadly liberal agenda: "We must recognize that security means more than defense, and sustaining security requires adaptation and evolution ..."

Porter and Mykleby thought they had the road map to America's way forward and that it would go up the flagpole to the president. Instead, "A National Strategic Narrative" went underground for two full years, not rejected or banished, but rather patronized, treated as a harmless curiosity, the personal opinions of "two very smart guys."

Mullen's spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, says, "The Pentagon did not publish the document because it represented the personal views of its authors and not the Joint Chiefs." He added, "And it doesn't necessarily represent the views of the chairman, although there are parts of it he certainly found very intriguing."

Though it was not to be published, Mullen allowed the paper to be circulated "to the usual people in Washington," says Porter.

Congresswoman Jane Harman, a Democrat from Southern California, took a special interest in the paper, as did Anne-Marie Slaughter, then the State Department's director of policy planning.

About the time Slaughter left the State Department to take a teaching position at Princeton University, Harman retired from the House to become director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Together, Slaughter and Harman worked to publish the paper.

Part of their salesmanship for the piece was to make its authors anonymous and publish it under the pseudonym, "Mr. Y," a coy reference to State Department Kremlinologist George F. Kennan. He published an article in the periodical Foreign Affairs under the authorship of "X." The "X" paper led to America's Cold War strategy, which has been encapsulated in a single word, "containment," which meant walling in the worldwide threat of international Communism.

The Mr. Y idea resonated with the authors of the strategic narrative because, according to Porter, "We're at a similar inflection point in history as Kennan was, but we're faced with challenges and opportunities that have more to do with climate change, population, finite resources, an information revolution, and global economies."

Porter says he and Mykleby did not discount the threat of terrorism, and they rejected notions of America declinism. "For decades, the policy community has focused solely on risk and threat. As we saw it, by the time you recognize your threat, it's too late to change. The risk environment already exists. We elected to write a narrative that described the nation's direction, anticipating opportunities instead of focusing on threats."

The Wilson Center, a public-private creation of Congress administered by the Smithsonian Institution, hosted a series of programs called "A National Conversation," where the paper was presented and dignitaries commented. Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush gave urgency to the narrative. "I think we're facing a historical discontinuity," he said, "an uneasy transition [from] the world of the nation-state system to this globalized world where the nation-state system is no longer the organization that can deal successfully with crises and social change."

Porter says that he and Mikleby have received no criticism from anyone in the defense establishment. "My son's a first lieutenant in the Marines," Porter says, "and up the ranks he's only heard positive things." And the narrative has made its way into international circles. It has appeared in the Russian language version of Foreign Affairs (which published the original "X" article). It's been translated into Chinese, Spanish, and Romanian.

Across the pond, David Miliband, recently foreign secretary of the United Kingdom, blogged about Mr. Y. "Remember," he wrote as a minister of Parliament, "this [narrative] is written by loyal and serving U.S. military officers, a pretty good demonstration of the values of critical inquiry that should be hallmarks of a free society. I hope the British military would be as open minded about such a publication."

In the end, the paper leaves behind a question: In an economy spiraling downward, will our leaders take America into the 21st century through investment or savings?

Sign up for the free e-newsletter.

"Like" Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add news to your site.