The Time for Honor: A National Security Strategy for 2020

“The honor of a nation is its life. Deliberately to abandon it is to commit an act of political suicide.”
—Alexander Hamilton, “The Warning No. III,” 21 February 1797

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull (Wikimedia)

Realists frequently cite Niccolò Machiavelli’s assertion that it is better to be feared than loved, but often omit his preference to be both feared and loved.[1] At the end of the Cold War, states feared and loved the United States, but a growing distrust gradually replaced that love. More people view U.S. power as a major threat, and allies are increasingly uncertain the U.S. will keep its commitments.[2] This is a trend going back three decades. As a result, regardless of who is President in January 2021, the central theme for the next National Security Strategy should focus on regaining U.S. honor.

Thucydides famously wrote that states go to war for reasons of fear, honor, and interest.[3] But that is not just an explanation for war; it accounts for most state behavior, including why they trade, form alliances, and join international organizations. The U.S.’s recent emphasis on interests generated higher levels of fear in the international community. The best way to reverse that trend is to focus more on honor, or to at least increase the degree to which honor is viewed as a vital national interest.  Unlike Thucydides, who criticized the Melians for acting out of honor rather than being rational when threatened with the overwhelming power of Athens, this article does not treat honor as a synonym for blind pride. Rather, it involves preserving and keeping commitments and generally emphasizing honorable behavior towards the international community.

At the most basic level, others need to believe the U.S. will keep its commitments, including both the promises it makes to its allies and partners, as well as the threats it makes against its rivals and adversaries. People do not have to think the U.S. will always do the “right thing”, whatever they may believe that to be. International politics is not a popularity contest, and being a leader means sometimes having to make unpopular choices. But if the U.S. hopes to retain its global leadership, it must rebuild its honor. Otherwise, it will find itself with few allies, facing an overwhelming coalition of rivals, and it could be forced to cede leadership of the international community. 

Losing Honor

Part of the problem of lost honor may be the U.S. population’s focus on domestic policies rather than national security. Even after 9/11, and while the U.S. was engaged in two wars, most Americans voted according to domestic issues such as the economy, healthcare, and jobs.[4] Since George H.W. Bush’s failed reelection campaign in 1992, U.S. voters elected four consecutive presidents with little national security experience prior to taking office: Bill Clinton, Governor of Arkansas; George W. Bush, businessperson and Governor of Texas; Barack Obama, law professor and U.S. Senator; and Donald Trump, businessperson and television personality.[5] Perhaps due to inexperience or the lack of a clear national security vision, each of these presidents made missteps that hurt U.S. honor.

President Clinton (Jeffrey Markowitz/Getty Images)

There were several ways Clinton strengthened U.S. honor as an ally and free trade advocate. Clinton committed to expanding NATO’s mission and membership, which influenced his willingness to use military force in Bosnia in support of NATO operations there.[6] On trade, he supported the World Trade Organization, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and other regional trade agreements, including the growth of the European Union. However, Clinton’s push for NATO expansion contributed to distrust between Russia and the West, especially after Russia received assurances from NATO leaders the organization would not expand eastward.[7] Withdrawal from the humanitarian mission in Somalia fed perceptions the U.S. is averse to casualties, and failure to intervene in Rwanda’s genocide weakened views of the U.S. as a protector of human rights.[8] Clinton’s policies towards North Korea, especially the 1994 Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, rather than the diplomatic victory it was considered at the time, now appears to be an appeasement failure that weakened enforcement of the non-proliferation regime and emboldened North Korea.[9] Clinton intended his 1994 National Security Strategy, entitled Engagement and Enlargement, to promote the spread of democracy and free market economies. But many perceived it as imperialism, especially where the U.S. used the military to promote democracy, like Haiti and Kosovo, or where memories of U.S. interventions continue to linger, like in Central and South America.[10]

Despite the overwhelming international support for the U.S. in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bush dragged several allies into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.[11] U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 increased U.S.-Russian tensions and perhaps pushed Russia to develop new weapon systems.[12] One example of this is the use of cyber warfare, which the Russians unleashed on Estonia in April 2007.[13] Difficulty with attribution can complicate responses to cyber-attacks, but there were early suspicions of Russian involvement, and the lack of U.S. and NATO action, even in defense of a NATO member, emboldened Russia. Towards the end of the Bush presidency, distracted by two wars and the broader war on terror, and less than three months away from the 2008 election, the U.S. again failed to respond when Russia intervened in South Ossetia. The U.S. did not have a formal commitment to defend Georgia, so one could argue this inaction should not hurt U.S. honor. However, the lack of a Western response further emboldened Russia to continue its aggressive policies.[14]

Although Obama was popular in the international community, even winning the Nobel Peace Prize less than a year after taking office as U.S. President, his policies drew less favor over time. Drone strikes grew in frequency and lethality under Obama, and stories about National Security Agency wiretaps of world leaders’ phones strained relations with several countries, including important allies.[15] The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq contributed to a power vacuum that at least helped facilitate the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).[16] Obama then failed to follow through on his August 2012 red line threatening military action against the Assad regime if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against the civilian population. Failure to stand by this pledge further weakened U.S. honor and emboldened Russia to intervene in Syria, upon which it emerged with a diplomatic win.[17] The now-defunct Rebalance to the Pacific, also known as the Pacific Pivot, also concerned European allies and perhaps emboldened Russia to intervene in Crimea in February 2014.[18] The relatively muted U.S. and NATO response, relying on economic sanctions and diplomacy, verified for Putin his belief that Russia had a relatively free hand to act.

President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama talk on the East front steps of the US Capitol after inauguration ceremonies on January 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Robyn Beck/AFP)

One can blame both Obama and Trump for inaction after The Hague Tribunal’s 2016 decision on China’s activities in the South China Sea. This lack of U.S. enforcement of international law, particularly from institutions it helped create, emboldens Chinese expansion. More recently, Trump made several statements about the lack of value in U.S. alliances, causing long-time partners to further question U.S. honor.[19] In May 2018, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe could no longer rely on U.S. protection.[20] South Korea grew concerned about repeated suspensions of military exercises with the U.S., intended to bolster deterrence and defense against North Korea.[21] Such behavior also weakens the ability of alliances to deter hostile action. Thus, China, Russia, and North Korea all received signals they may have a free hand to act aggressively in their respective regions without eliciting a U.S. response,  even to honor its formal alliance commitments. Finally, whether or not one agreed with Obama’s acceptance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the framework to address Iran’s nuclear program, Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from that deal and from other agreements—the Paris Climate Accord, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and threats to withdraw from NAFTA, not to mention ending negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership—suggest current U.S. policy is more whimsical than one expects to see from an honorable great power.[22]

To be sure, there were times during the last four administrations when the U.S. lived up to its word or engaged in positive actions. U.S. willingness to use its military capabilities to help with disaster relief after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, and to assist in fighting the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa, improved opinions of the U.S. in those states, but only temporarily.[23] The problem with honor is that it is relatively easy to lose, difficult to regain, and even harder to rebuild when it is not the priority. There are several ways the U.S. can begin to recover its honor, both as an ally and as a protector of the international system it built.  

Righting the Ship

The U.S. possesses the strongest military in the history of the world. While the past two decades strained readiness and illustrated its over reliance on technological solutions to problems, addressing lost honor does not require a larger, more powerful military. Increasing U.S. military capabilities, as current budgets attempt to do, might improve readiness but will not repair U.S. honor, because that is less about power than the loss of trust. Increasing U.S. capabilities also unnecessarily increases tension with states that feel threatened by U.S. power. That does not mean cutting national security spending is the answer. A powerful military is necessary for a number of reasons, such as responding to natural disasters, providing humanitarian relief, and for extended deterrence (preventing attacks against U.S. allies and overseas interests). But the U.S. needs to strike a smarter balance between military power, economic growth, and diplomatic influence. National security spending is not just about picking between guns or butter.[24] What the U.S. spends on the military not only takes away from other parts of the economy and other parts of the government like the Department of State, but also trades short-term military capabilities for long-term power. A smarter balance not only may help prevent wars, but also better prepares the U.S. for uncertainty. Therefore, the first step is to better balance the instruments of national power, especially the military, economic, and diplomatic.

The U.S. needs to strengthen its current commitments to its military alliances, trade agreements, and international institutions. This does not mean taking actions that threaten others. For example, the U.S. can strengthen its non-military ties to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, without threatening China, North Korea, or any other neighbors. Interdependence theory suggests the more mutually interdependent two states are, the less likely they are to go to war with one another.[25] Similarly, there is some evidence that the more two allies depend on each other, even in non-military ways, the more likely they are to support each other in military crises.[26] There are three obvious ways to enhance these non-military ties: 1) free trade agreements with U.S. allies to expand the economies of both states; 2) increased student and scientific exchanges, and perhaps military exchanges, to improve cultural awareness and appreciation; and 3) increasing the size of diplomatic missions in those countries to increase relations in non-military areas. These are relatively inexpensive, but highly visible signals of mutual interests and intentions, and they help reestablish U.S. honor without threatening other states in the region. If the U.S. is unwilling to expand these commitments to a state, then it should rethink its military obligations to that state, potentially withdrawing over time.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken with his counterparts from Japan, Shinsuki Sugiyama, and South Korea, Lim Sung-N.

For international institutions—international organizations, laws, and norms—it means increasing U.S. commitments to strengthen and preserve them. It also means signing onto some institutions to which the U.S. is not currently a member. Although the U.S. helped create the International Criminal Court and the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, it avoided joining both out of fear their activities may conflict with U.S. interests. But as long as an institution stands for principles the U.S. claims to defend—in these two cases, prosecuting war crimes and maintaining freedom of the seas—the U.S. undermines its status as a protector of those values by not being a member.

For potential rivals, it means issuing clear deterrence threats, but only in cases where the U.S. is willing and able to back them up. The U.S. does not need to have any enemies. Its actions over the last three decades increased distrust and insecurity among several states the U.S. now views as a threat, but none of them poses a direct challenge to U.S. security.[27] Many of them are building up their own military only because they view the U.S. as a threat to their security or their regional influence.[28] While they may be a threat to U.S. allies, U.S. power is enough to deter aggression, as long as both the ally and the rival believe the deterrence commitment is credible. Too often, the U.S. tries to enhance deterrence by building up its military capabilities.[29] A more effective and less threatening approach is to improve U.S. honor, and therefore the credibility of its deterrence threats. 


At a minimum, a strategy must identify an objective and the paths and resources one will use to reach that goal, as well as the risks (the likelihood of failing combined with the cost of failing). A proper goal for the next National Security Strategy is to regain U.S. honor. Regardless of which grand strategy the U.S. employs—primacy, selective engagement, cooperative security, or neo-isolationism are four common grand strategies discussed among academics—a national security objective of regaining honor is a valid means to achieve any broader grand strategic objective. Failure to rebuild U.S. honor will result in a continued decline in U.S. power, and consequently its leadership of the international community.

Some key steps to regaining U.S. honor are: 1) rebalancing the instruments of national power, so there is less emphasis on military solutions to the world’s problems; 2) strengthening U.S. alliance commitments by increasing non-military forms of interdependence with allies; 3) expanding support for international institutions that promote U.S. values; and 4) being more selective about issuing deterrence threats. If it takes these steps, and makes future national security decisions with a focus on gaining and preserving honor, others will once again fear and love the United States. Additional benefits will include less inclination to resort to costly military actions, more diplomacy to prevent war and promote cooperation, and a stronger U.S. economy. Each of these benefits will further contribute to global U.S. leadership, not just from a position of power but of honorable leadership.

Gregory D. Miller is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies at the Air Command and Staff College. He previously taught at the Joint Advanced Warfighting School, serving as Chair of the Strategy Department during his final two years. The opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the Air Command and Staff College, Air University, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Niccolò Machiavelli (


[1] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Peter Bondanella, ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 56.

[2] In a Pew survey of population in 22 countries, 18 states saw statistically significant growth between 2013 and 2018, in people who see American power and influence as a major threat. The highest percentages were in South Korea (67%), Japan (66%), and Mexico (64%). John Gramlich and Kat Devlin, “More People Around the World See U.S. Power and Influence as a ‘Major Threat” to Their Country,” Pew Research Center, 14 February 2019, On allied uncertainty, see Nicole Gaouette and Phil Mattingly, “Obama Faces Asia Allies Uncertain of U.S. Commitment,” Bloomberg, 21 April 2014,; Emily Schultheis and Uri Friedman, “Germany Preps a Plan B for Trump’s Foreign Policy ‘Zigzag’,” The Atlantic, 14 February 2019,

[3] In Book 1, the Athenian envoys state: “fear of Persia was our chief motive, though afterwards we thought, too, of our own honour and our own interest.” Robert Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996), 1.75 (emphases added).

[4] “With Voters Focused on Economy, Obama Lead Narrows,” Pew Research Center, 17 April 2012, 11,

[5] Obama did serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, though he was criticized during the campaign for having no foreign policy experience. Jay Newton-Small, “Obama’s Foreign Policy Problem,” Time, 18 December 2007,,8599,1695803,00.html. During his 33 months in the Senate, he missed 24.2% of the roll call votes because he was campaigning for President for much of that time (compared with a 2.2% median missed vote for members of the Senate at that time), This is not a criticism of Obama, merely a counter to the argument that his time in the Senate gave him national security experience.

[6] Zbigniew Brzezinski, “A Plan for Europe: How to Expand NATO,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 1995,

[7] National Security Archive, “NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard,” Briefing Book #613, 12 December 2017,

[8] In March 1997, Osama bin Laden told Robert Fisk, a reporter for the Independent, “…some of our mujahideen who fought here in Afghanistan also participated in operations against the Americans in Somalia – and they were surprised at the collapse of American morale. This convinced us that the Americans are a paper tiger.” Yossef Bodansky, Bin Laden: The Man who Declared War on America (New York, NY: Random House, 1999), 89. The lack of a forceful U.S. response to the Khobar Towers bombing (25 June 1996) and the USS Cole attack (12 October 2000) further emboldened bin Laden and al-Qa’ida to attack the U.S. homeland. Even the response to the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania (7 August 1998) – cruise missiles attacks into Sudan and Afghanistan – illustrated an unwillingness to risk American lives. Saddam Hussein believed the U.S. would not invade Iraq in 2003 for the same reason. Donna Miles, “New Report Provides Insights into Saddam Hussein Regime,” DoD News, 24 March 2006, On Rwanda, see Colum Lynch, “Genocide Panel Faults U.N for Rwanda Tragedy: Paralysis of Major Powers Also Blamed,” Washington Post, 17 December 1999, A29,

[9] Christopher Lawrence, “The United States has Learned the Wrong Lessons from Previous Diplomacy with North Korea,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 25 May 2018,

[10] William Clinton, A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement, July 1994, Clinton’s 1995 and 1996 National Security Strategies have the same title and were identical.

[11] I make no judgment about either action, other than to suggest several states only participated because of their alliance with the U.S. While they did so of their own choosing, to get something from the U.S. or to strengthen their reputation as an ally, U.S. honor suffered, especially as the duration of the wars grew beyond most expectations.

[12] Dave Majumdar, “Russia’s Nuclear Weapons Buildup is Aimed at Beating U.S. Missile Defenses,” The National Interest, 1 March 2018,

[13] Ian Traynor, “Russia Accused of Unleashing Cyberwar to Disable Estonia,” The Guardian, 16 May 2007,

[14] Charles King, “The Five-Day War: Managing Moscow after the Georgia Crisis,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008,

[15] Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Former Obama advisor: Drone use hurting U.S. reputation,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 21 March 2013, Alison Smale, “Anger Growing among Allies on U.S. Spying,” The New York Times, 23 October 2013,

[16] “Obama: All US Troops out of Iraq by end of Year,”, 21 October 2011,

[17] Fiona Hill, “Putin Scores on Syria: How He Got the Upper Hand – And How He Will Use It,” Foreign Affairs, 11 September 2013,; Natasha Bertrand, “Kerry: Not Enforcing Obama’s Red Line in Syria ‘Cost’ the US Considerably in the Middle East,” Business Insider, 5 December 2016,

[18] This rebalance was first announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and made official in the Defense Strategic Guidance. “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” January 2012, 2-3; Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, 11 October 2011,

[19] Zachary Cohen, Michelle Kosinski, and Barbara Starr, “Trump’s Barrage of Attacks ‘Beyond Belief,’ Reeling NATO Diplomats Say,”, 12 July 2018,

[20] Damien Sharkov, “Angela Merkel: Europe Can No Longer Rely on U.S. Protection,” Newsweek, 10 May 2018,

[21] Youkyung Lee, “U.S.-South Korea alliance strained as Trump keeps suspending ‘war games’,” Japan Times, 31 October 2018,

[22] Michael Shear, “Trump Will Withdraw U.S. From Paris Climate Agreement,” The New York Times, 1 June 2017,; Glenn Thrush, “Trump Says he Plans to Withdraw from NAFTA,” The New York Times, 12 February 2018,; Julian Borger, “Donald Trump Confirms US Withdrawal from INF Nuclear Treaty,” The Guardian, 1 February 2019,; Peter Pham, “Why Did Donald Trump Kill This Big Free Trade Deal?” Forbes, 29 December 2017,

[23] “Tsunami Aid: Who’s Giving What,” BBC, 27 January 2005,; Eric Talmadge, “Disaster Aid Puts New Face on US Military in Japan,” Associated Press, 27 March 2011,; Russell Berman, “The U.S. Military’s War on Ebola,” The Atlantic, 7 October 2014,

[24] The “guns or butter” phrase is often attributed to William Jennigs Bryan, President Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State, to represent the trade-off a state must make between spending for war versus for social consumption.

[25] On economic interdependence reducing the likelihood of war, see John Oneal, Frances Oneal, Zeev Maoz, and Bruce Russett, “The Liberal peace: Interdependence, Democracy, and International Conflict, 1950-85,” Journal of Peace Research 33, no.1 (February 1996), 11-28,  Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye make a broader statement about the pacific effects of what they call “complex interdependence”. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, Power and Interdependence, 2nd edition (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1989). Not all scholars agree with this theory. For example, Katherine Barbieri finds that higher levels of economic linkages between states increase, rather than decrease, the likelihood of military disputes. Katherine Barbieri, “Economic Interdependence: A Path to Peace or a Source of Interstate Conflict?” Journal of Peace Research 33, no. 1 (February 1996), 29-49,

[26] Aysegul Aydin, “Choosing Sides: Economic Interdependence and Interstate Disputes,” Journal of Politics 70, no. 4 (October 2008), 1098-1108,

[27] Ben Piven, “Map: US Bases Encircle Iran,” Al Jazeera, 1 May 2012,; Greg Grandin, “Is Venezuela Really an ‘Extraordinary Threat’ to the United States?” The Nation, 10 March 2015,

[28] Trita Parsi and Tyler Cullis, “The Myth of the Iranian Military Giant,” Foreign Policy, 10 July 2015,; J. Michael Cole, “The Third Taiwan Straits Crisis: The Forgotten Showdown Between China and America,” The National Interest, 10 March 2017,

[29] Joe Gould, “Top US General in Europe Seeks More Troops, Warships to Counter Russia,” DefenseNews, 5 March 2019,