Independence Day is usually more about celebration than reflection. Yet, while enjoying our fireworks and burgers, we should pause long enough to recall that merely declaring independence from Great Britain did not grant us independence nor establish government “by the people.”
Americans celebrate only because we persevered through years of bitter struggle. Can this victory in the era of musket and sail offer any lessons for the era of cyberattacks, rogue states with nuclear-tipped missiles, or Islamic State suicide bombers? In a word, yes. The seeds of that victory are as relevant to the protection of our national security in the 21st century as they were in the 18th.
Unity of purpose
Success in a conflict is difficult enough when the objectives are clear. The American rebels were a minority of the population. Had their camp remained divided between the reconciliation and separation parties, victory would have been unlikely. But this unity did not come about naturally. It was forged by leaders willing to compromise for the good of the cause.
Americans today are more divided about their role in the world than at any time since Pearl Harbor. Post-World War II controversies were more about ways and means than ends. The collapse of this consensus has been noticed by adversaries, rivals, and allies. Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea are exploiting it with aggressive moves in the grey zone between war and peace. Their tactics include leveraging nuclear and missile weapons programs, aggressive seizure of territory, systematic creation of military “facts on the ground,” and proxy warfare. Our uncertainty can be dangerously misread as a lack of resolve—a misreading by aggressors to which we have contributed several times in our history.
General George Washington was an average tactician but a brilliant strategist, who carefully aligned his bold goals with realistic plans that matched his resources. Today, Americans are conditioned to think of the U.S. as a superpower able to impose its will, while simultaneously weary of costly and seemingly unending international commitments. The contradiction creates a teachable moment to build a larger consensus about our role in international affairs. Although there is an ongoing debate in foreign policy circles, this does not carry over to the general public. The various reactions to the Trump slogan “America First” are a case in point: There seems to be no common understanding of what it means in practical terms on issues like trade, alliances, and international commitments.
Wise use of force
Washington’s bold vision to wear down the British, combined with hyper-awareness of his relative weakness in tactics, led to great intentionality in the use of his forces. As we undertake a badly needed modernization of our armed forces, Americans must understand that no matter how generous the Pentagon budget is, it will not resolve the mismatch in potential commitments and resources. The strategies for both force development and international commitments must be smarter, not merely bigger.
The presence of the French fleet was key to the victory at Yorktown during the Revolutionary War. Alliances can be vexing and hard to maintain, but they are as essential in 2017 as they were in 1776. We must redress our allies’ confusion over how much we value their commitments and whether we plan to live up to them.
We cannot address today’s security issues without national dialogue. While contemplating the future, former President John Adams noted: “I fear that in every assembly, members will obtain an influence by noise, not sense. By meanness, not greatness. By ignorance, not learning. By contracted hearts, not large souls … There is one thing, my dear sir, that must be attempted and most sacredly observed or we are all undone. There must be decency and respect, and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank, or we are undone. In a popular government, this is the only way.” Adams's worst fears seem to describe today's corrosive political environment.
Determining our role in the world is the responsibility of all American citizens—not just elected and appointed officials. The success of our “great experiment” in government hinges on it.
J. Paul Pope is a clinical professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a senior fellow in the Intelligence Studies Project at The University of Texas at Austin. He served in the U.S. Army and the Central Intelligence Agency for 45 years.