A Talk with General James Jones

by Vrishti Mongia: Photo by Ian Wagreich/U.S. Chamber of Commerce

The Arab Spring, the turmoil in the European Union, and ongoing domestic economic troubles: the past year has been a difficult one for politicians all over the world to grapple with.  Never has the world been so connected – making cultural discourse and interaction infinitely easier than in the past, but also linking the fate of one country to happenings in another.

This “profound change” in global conditions was largely the topic of former National Security Advisor James Jones’ talk on Tuesday, October 11, entitled, “National Security in the 21st Century.”

Starting his career in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War and spending the last decade of his service as Commander for the United States European Command, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, he had the opportunity to see the flux of these conditions on the ground first hand before his appointment as National Security Advisor in 2009.

General Jones noted that the world is getting smaller, gaps of inequality are growing larger, and the speed with which governments and firms make decisions is increasingly important. This, combined with the fact that the main issue in US foreign policy is no longer the USSR, means that US national security policy has to change in order to keep up with its new surroundings.

While Jones was optimistic the United States can maintain its competitiveness in the 21st century, he emphasized the scope of the challenges facing its continued success. One of the “criticial shortfalls” of the US government today, he asserted, was the “continuing absence of an energy policy. The fact that the US has no energy strategy, he feels, is a failure in the leadership that we bring to the table.

Indeed, he generally feels that America is not keeping up, not only in energy tech, but in the sciences, technology, and building infrastructure. Although the absence of a bipolar balance of power has persisted for more than two decades now, he believes that policy makers haven’t yet grasped the difference between the two centuries and thus don’t know how to deal with the different atmosphere.

Understanding this difference, he adds, means understanding that unilateral action is no longer going to be the solution to every single global problem. He cited Egypt, where he feels there is no need for American troops. Rather, he underscores the importance of a diversified “portfolio of our response package” to crises. As he believes that economic development is the key issue in developing and developed countries today, America’s role in the world has to reflect that evolving need.

The problem, he notes, is that most financial resources are sunk in the Department of Defense. But while that may have been a necessary department to allocate money in the past, today it does not serve the same purpose. Part of that has to do with wasteful and unnecessary military spending; the larger cause is the diminished utility of military involvement. He emphasizes that “no one wants to be seen as buckling under” to the military pressures applied by the US – see Pakistan, where the more military pressure the US applies, the more Pakistan seems to turn against us.

Because of such action in the past, the US is often seen as an oppressor rather than an aid to the genuine development of nations and democracy. Now, General Jones says, the US should adopt a proactive rather than a reactive policy to problems arising abroad. He suggests that Nigeria, a country with high economic potential, could turn into an Afghanistan in the future if left alone. It has the world’s seventh largest oil reserves, but its own citizens wait in lines for gas. Jones believes there is a “huge consequence” if Nigeria does turn into another Iraq or Afghanistan: if it goes down, “ten countries” around it will go down with it as well. Rather, he believes it is better that we take non-military based measures now to aid its development and support its democracy – not only is it less violent, in the long run, it is much cheaper.

General Jones ended his talk with an exhortation to the college students in the audience. He explained that we must be “part of the solution” – “standing on the sidelines is not acceptable.”  Indeed, between “eliminating the layers of bureaucracy” that impede America’s economic dominance, encouraging partisan communication and cooperation, and ushering in a brighter future for developing countries – it hardly seems like standing on the sidelines is even an option.