Back to the Future: The Project for the New American Century

Make America Great Again“, it was a call that resonated in the de-industrialised heartlands in America’s Rust Belt.

But it was also also a cry from sections of the US elites because they find themselves beset on all sides by challenges to the US’ global hegemony.

Rise of military and economic challengers

The rising global influence of China and Russia is threatening to upend, in the minds of US policy makers, the global order.

In the Middle East the US has lost its dominance and finds itself vying with Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Even in its own backyard the US finds itself insecure, with China especially making inroads.

Dusting off The Project for the New American Century

Rebuilding America’s defenses

Given this environment it’s perhaps not surprising to see the re-emergence of key foreign policy makers from the 1990s.

One of the think tanks they organised around was The Project for the New American Century (PNAC). PNAC had a profound influence on the Bush administrations that intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ten PNAC signatories served in the Bush governments.

One of PNAC’s works was a document written in 2000 titled, ‘REBUILDING AMERICA’S DEFENSES: Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century’. This articulated a strategy to maintain and strengthen the U.S. as the world’s sole super power and gained a following in the Bush administration and so called neo-Conservative circles.

Ridiculed as cold war warriors the influence of this group waned during the Obama years, though much of their thinking remained popular with officials.

PNAC enjoying a renaissance

Since Trump’s election members of PNAC are enjoying a renaissance. John R. Bolton, who served Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, is now National Security Adviser. Elliott Abrams has been appointed U.S. Envoy to Venezuela.

Both Bolton and Abrams are in key positions driving policy on Iran, Russia, Venezuela and other U.S. rivals.

PNAC – Relevance to today’s decision making

‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses’ concentrates mainly on the technical details of defence policy.

However the document reveals the driving philosophy behind the policy making. The following extracts illustrates how, where and why this philosophy is still relevant to today’s decision making.


‘blueprint for maintaining U.S. preeminence’

Page ii:

“In broad terms, we saw the project as building upon the defense strategy outlined by the Cheney Defense Department in the waning days of the Bush Administration.
The Defense Policy Guidance (DPG) drafted in the early months of 1992 provided a blueprint for maintaining U.S. preeminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.”

‘maintaining the preeminence of U.S. military forces’

Page iv:

“This report proceeds from the belief that America should seek to preserve and extend its position of global leadership by maintaining the preeminence of U.S. military forces. Today, the United States has an unprecedented strategic opportunity.
It faces no immediate great-power challenge; it is blessed with wealthy, powerful and democratic allies in every part of the world; it is in the midst of the longest economic expansion in its history; and its political and economic principles are almost universally embraced. At no time in history has the international security order been as conducive to American interests and ideals. The challenge for the coming century is to preserve and enhance this “American peace.””

‘win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars’

Page iv:

“ESTABLISH FOUR CORE MISSIONS for U.S. military forces:
• defend the American homeland;
fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars;
• perform the “constabulary” duties associated with shaping the security environment in critical regions;
• transform U.S. forces to exploit the “revolution in military affairs;””

‘These are bad choices’

Page v:

“At current levels of defense spending, the only option is to try ineffectually to “manage” increasingly large risks: paying for today’s needs by shortchanging tomorrow’s; withdrawing from constabulary missions to retain strength for large-scale wars; “choosing” between presence in Europe or presence in Asia; and so on. These are bad choices.”

‘Today its task is to secure..’

Page 2:

“Over the decade of the post-Cold-War period, however, almost everything has changed. The Cold War world was a bipolar world; the 21 st century world is – for the moment, at least – decidedly unipolar, with America as the world’s “sole superpower.” America’s strategic goal used to be containment of the Soviet Union; today the task is to preserve an international security environment conducive to American interests and ideals. The military’s job during the Cold War was to deter Soviet expansionism. Today its task is to secure and expand the “zones of democratic peace;” to deter the rise of a new great- power competitor; defend key regions of Europe, East Asia and the Middle East; and to preserve American preeminence through the coming transformation of war made possible by new technologies.”

‘U.S. nuclear superiority is nothing to be ashamed of..’

Page 8:

“In short, until the Department of Defense can better define future its nuclear requirements, significant reductions in U.S. nuclear forces might well have unforeseen consequences that lessen rather than enhance the security of the United States and its allies. Reductions, upon review, might be called for. But what should finally drive the size and character of our nuclear forces is not numerical parity with Russian capabilities but maintaining American strategic superiority – and, with that superiority, a capability to deter possible hostile coalitions of nuclear powers. U.S. nuclear superiority is nothing to be ashamed of; rather, it will be an essential element in preserving American leadership in a more complex and chaotic world.”

‘a “two-major-war” standard’

Page 9:

“A force sized and equipped for deterring and defeating aggression in more than one theater ensures that the United States will maintain the flexibility to cope with the unpredictable and unexpected. Such a capability is the sine qua non of a superpower and is essential to the credibility of our overall national security strategy.”

In short, anything less than a clear two-war capacity threatens to devolve into a no-war strategy.

‘global interests so wide’ that neutrality is not an option

Page 11:

“Nor can the United States assume a UN-like stance of neutrality; the preponderance of American power is so great and its global interests so wide that it cannot pretend to be indifferent to the political outcome in the Balkans, the Persian Gulf or even when it deploys forces in Africa.”

Missile programs of weak states risk deterring the U.S.

Page 12:

“…effective ballistic missile defenses will be the central element in the exercise of American power and the projection of U.S. military forces abroad. Without it, weak states operating small arsenals of crude ballistic missiles, armed with basic nuclear warheads or other weapons of mass destruction, will be a in a strong position to deter the United States from using conventional force, no matter the technological or other advantages we may enjoy.”

‘European moves toward an independent defense “identity”’

Page 16:

“Despite the shifting focus of conflict in Europe, a requirement to station U.S. forces in northern and central Europe remains. The region is stable, but a continued American presence helps to assure the major European powers, especially Germany, that the United States retains its longstanding security interest in the continent. This is especially important in light of the nascent European moves toward an independent defense “identity” and policy; it is important that NATO not be replaced by the European Union, leaving the United States without a voice in European security affairs.”

Managing the rise of China

Page 19:

“By guaranteeing the security of our current allies and newly democratic nations in East Asia, the United States can help ensure that the rise of China is a peaceful one. Indeed, in time, American and allied power in the region may provide a spur to the process of democratization inside China itself.”

“No U.S. strategy can constrain a Chinese challenge to American regional leadership if our security guarantees to Southeast Asia are intermittent and U.S. military presence a periodic affair. …For operational as well as political reasons, stationing rapidly mobile U.S. ground and air forces in the region will be required.”

More analysis to come…


Gary Hollands – February 2019