Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Geography, Bureaucracy, and National Security: The New Map
Geography, Bureaucracy, and National Security: The New Map

Geography, Bureaucracy, and National Security: The New Map

Bottom Line

  • Translating broad strategic guidance into workable strategies and sustainable policies requires both an assessment of the international security environment as well as an analysis of what the domestic political system will permit. National interests are not enough to guide foreign policy.
  • The current bureaucratic/geographic organization of the US national security apparatus is not going to be torn down and replaced with a fresh blueprint. Instead, US national security must be executed through existing authorities and structures, but Americans should reconceptualize how they perceive geography, bureaucracy, and national security.
  • Reducing conceptual national security boundaries from eleven combatant commands and eight Department of State regional bureaus to three yields: trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific, and trans-Indian regions. Without creating new organizations, this oceanic lens can harmonize existing authorities and organizations since most international trade moves by sea, the global Internet is connected by undersea cables, and Chinese expansionism is through the seas.

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series on America’s national security system. The first article considers whether or not the legacy national security system of the United States organized around geographic regions is well-suited for strategic competition.

In concluding part I of this study, we quoted then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, who observed that the setup of the US national security system made sense “when most conflicts were regional” in scope and nature. But as we move into the mid-twenty-first century, the United States faces the global challenge of the People’s Republic of China, whose ability to contest America and its allies are not confined to a single geographic region. China has the capability to operate outside of its region and can contest freedom in global domains such as space and cyberspace. In spite of this, the United States still sees national security problems in disaggregated ways that are addressed through a distinctly geographic lens—Russia as a European problem or China as an Indo-Pacific issue through existing Department of Defense combatant commands and Department of State regional bureaus. This is conceptually limiting. 

And as much as the United States might prefer that a country stay in its appropriate bureaucratic-geographic lane, as the then-US Central Command commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie noted in May 2019, China and Russia are seeking “to dominate and influence not only their own geographic regions” but to extend and expand their influence further afield. This is why Adm. William E. Gortney, then serving as US Northern Command commander, told the House Armed Services Committee that “the enemy lives in the seams” between geographic and functional lines. With about three million people working in the US national security system, the seams are real and undoubtedly inspired Berger to reflect: “There comes a point where there’s [sic] so many combatant commanders and so many service chiefs that I wonder at what point does the secretary of defense have a span of control [problem] where… getting to a decision and getting the right perspectives on the table becomes really difficult.” 

These realizations about the existing US national security system come at a time when China, in entente with powers like Russia and Iran, has been working, as Naazneen Barma, Ely Ratner, and Steven Weber have charted, to develop a secondary hub for international affairs that routes around the United States. China presents a challenge not only in military affairs, but in terms of diplomacy, economics, finance, and information as well. In particular, the Chinese-led “Belt and Road Initiative”—with multiple land and maritime transport/supply chain routes—seeks to promote Beijing as an alternate “hub” of the global system. In so doing, reroutes and connects regions of the world in new ways designed to enhance Beijing’s power at the expense of Washington’s maintenance of the existing international system.

The simple response to a new global challenge would be to go back to the Cold War template when the United States was able to organize for a global struggle and to attempt to contain and isolate the Soviet bloc along a series of geographic points from Europe through the Middle East to East Asia. What makes a cut-and-paste of the twentieth-century US-Soviet Union Cold War model much more difficult to apply to the current US-China strategic competition is precisely this degree of economic and financial interdependence between the two states—and between China and almost all of America’s partners and allies around the world. For instance, during the Cold War, the United States did not export integrated circuits to Soviet industry and did not import a whole range of finished goods from Soviet factories—as is the case today between the United States and China with annual trade valued close to $700 billion in 2022.

In 1948, the United States had no dependency on the Soviet Union for vital resources or critical components. In contrast, in 2023, China controls 41 percent of cobalt mining, 73 percent of cobalt refining, 77 percent of cathode production, 92 percent of the production of anodes, 66 percent of electric battery cell assembly, and 54 percent of electric car assembly. China became the world’s indispensable producer through a formula of cheap labor and minimal environmental regulations at the same time corporations embraced global supply chains. This reality makes decoupling or de-risking Chinese exports from the American economy impossible as American consumers would be devastated.


In addition to economic connectivity, the global system has also become much more interconnected. It has become much harder to isolate a problem within a discrete, defined geographic region. A series of pandemics—starting with bird flu and culminating in COVID-19—demonstrated how economic interconnections that allow for the flow of goods and services along elongated, interconnected supply chains can also serve as vectors for disease. Indeed, in contrast to earlier outbreaks like the 2002–2004 SARS epidemic, which were largely confined to a single region of the world, the Munich Security Conference noted, “The Covid-19 pandemic is a global and multifaceted crisis. No region of the world has been spared its dire toll on lives and well-being. And no part of the globe has remained unaffected by the socio-economic shock produced by Covid-19 and its grim effects on human livelihoods.” 

Robert Kaplan has written, “There is a connectedness about the modern world right now, as attrition of ‘the same’ eventually adds up to big change. There is no world governance but there is a world system where a crisis in Asia can interact with a crisis in Africa and South America to multiply to a point that was impossible decades ago. In geopolitical terms, the more connected we are, the more factors and elements there are that can interact and cause crises.” In other words, we live in an anarchic international system with no overarching public authority and sovereignty is divided among some 200 territorially-defined nation-states. States have created international organizations like the United Nations to foster cooperative activities or NATO to enhance collective security. In some cases, states voluntarily transferred some aspects of their sovereignty to an organization (as happens, for instance, in the European Union). However, using the Montevideo criteria for sovereignty, a state is recognized as such if it has a defined population and territory and demonstrates it can exercise control over both, and therefore has the capacity to function as a state with other states in the system. This is a feature of the international system that relies on diplomacy to promote cooperation.

In assessing the situation, Sophie Eisentraut, Luca Miehe, and Juliane Kabus conclude, “In this new era, characterized by health shocks and climate crises, by economic warfare and cyberattacks, a nation’s security is inseparably tied to its ability to resist and recover” and that these challenges cannot be contained within defined geographic borders or adequately addressed at the nation-state level. Moreover, the prevailing US national security “mental map” in terms of envisioning regions does not overlay with the changes that have been occurring. Instead, the current model is the Cold War model with decades of modifications required to address specific foreign policy concerns. 

When one compares the traditional US national security map of the world (especially the geographic combatant commands) with the maps utilized, for example, by futurist and business consultant Parag Khanna, a very different picture of the international system emerges. Khanna’s “connectography”—taking into account resource and supply chains, infrastructure linkages and population movements—argues:

The best maps juxtapose physical geography with man-made connectivity. They are constantly updated snapshots reflecting ground realities and virtual gravities. Each time we “refresh,” they should depict new natural resource discoveries, infrastructures, demographic movements, and other shifts.

The national security apparatus should likewise engage in this process of a cognitive refresh—to refocus resources to national priorities and, as necessary, reconceptualize how and where the United States is postured throughout the world. The tendency, however, is to create new organizations on top of existing ones with all the friction and resource competition that could be expected.

Redefining the National Interest

In 2023, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued their “Joint Concept for Competing.” This concept is grounded in the assessment that the post-Cold War period—defined by US predominance at the global level and an American ability to help set the agenda in every region of the world—is over. This new era—that of strategic competition—is defined by “complex interactions over cultural, economic, geographic, and political ideology rivalries, often played out over decades. Winning battles, or even wars, may not be decisive. This indefinite nature of strategic competition contrasts sharply with the more finite nature of armed conflict.” This conclusion is undoubtedly informed by US outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Saudi outcomes in Yemen, and Russian outcomes in Ukraine. Historian Cathal Nolan’s work is insightful, “victory goes more often to those who resist the allure of battle, which blinds us to the deeper reality of great power strategic balance, and hence to the far greater likelihood of bogging down in long wars of attrition.”

Nolan’s advice is important to secure the ultimate goals of America’s National Security Strategy—to protect the security of the American people, to expand economic opportunity, and to realize and defend the democratic values at the heart of the American way of life. Knowing when not to act is just as important as knowing when to act since the United States does occupy a predominant role in the world and is concerned it might be losing its edge. This is captured in the 2022 National Security Strategy where the United States faces “unfavorable regional balances of power and, more importantly, the loss or diminishing of United States leadership in the international system” is possible.

But translating broad strategic guidance into workable strategies and sustainable policies requires both an assessment of the international security environment as well as an analysis of what the domestic political system will permit. In maintaining an overall balance of power that favors its interests and values, the United States must assess both its own capabilities but also factors beyond its control that may impact how and where the United States chooses to engage. For instance, the task of preventing an “unfavorable” balance of power in the Black Sea basin is complicated by Russia’s home court advantage, especially in terms of a robust anti-access/area-denial capability that can hold back the deployment of American power; by an international legal regime that strictly limits the maritime forces non-Black Sea littoral countries can send into the region; and by the political choices of other states, notably Turkey’s decision at times to prioritize a bilateral relationship with Russia, even at the expense of other NATO allies.

Moreover, not all regions of the world and not all issues matter equally for US national security. Translating the general principles elucidated in the National Security Strategy into more concrete objectives leads to a focus on energy, resource, and food security; maintaining uninterrupted supply chains for key goods and services; protecting the homeland from conventional and unconventional attacks, especially with weapons of mass destruction or mass disruption; and ensuring that US engagement abroad buttresses the health, economic, environmental, and technological security of American citizens.

Thus, these interests generate specific regional imperatives for the US national security apparatus: securing the southern border and finding ways to stem the flow of migrants from the Western Hemisphere; protecting access to critical sources of energy and resources from the Middle East and West Africa; preventing extremist groups from finding safe havens from which to plan and execute attacks against the United States; maintaining strategic stability with Russia and China to prevent any nuclear mishaps while retaining alliances along the First Island Chain (in the Pacific) and in Europe to serve as bulwarks against their expansionism; safeguarding a technological supply chain that encompasses much of South and East Asia, especially running through Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea; and protecting the trans-Atlantic basin (where the United States has the densest networks of financial, trade, industrial, and technological ties) from disruption.

At the same time, the United States is not going to have a bottoms-up, blank-page approach to regional or international security. Instead, American national security must be executed through existing authorities and structures, and modifications or alterations must be passed through the domestic political system—national interests are merely a starting point for policy. Indeed, as David Brooks argued, one of the persistent myths about US foreign policy is that “we can begin the world anew. In fact, all problems and policies have already been worked by a thousand hands and the clay is mostly dry. Presidents are compelled to work with the material they have before them.”

What this means is that the current bureaucratic/geographic organization of the United States national security apparatus is not going to be torn down and replaced with a fresh blueprint. Combatant commands get maligned in Washington but working with country teams in United States embassies around the world, they are an important link between the United States and almost every country in the world that looks to Washington for some form of security and development assistance.

The creation of a “Department of the Arctic” or a “Lithium Supply Agency” as massive bureaucratic solutions to new and emerging challenges is unlikely. At the same time, there will be no wholesale dismantling of commands and bureaus or the elimination or reconstruction of entire departments and agencies—if for no other reason than a whole host of “iron triangles” (connecting interest groups and constituencies with relevant Congressional committees to executive branch departments) which will maintain much of the existing structures.

Moreover, there is much continuity in US foreign policy as core interests have been defined over time. President James Monroe instituted Washington as the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere; Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt laid the basis for the projection of US power across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; President Franklin Roosevelt, followed by President Harry Truman, defined American security in terms of holding the rimlands of East Asia and Europe to contain the Soviet threat through forward deployed forces; President Jimmy Carter defined US vital interests in the Middle East; President Bill Clinton sought to push the zone of democratic capitalism further east across Eurasia, while President George W. Bush, in combating international terrorism, increased the importance of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, calls for the United States to “come home” from the world or reduce its international engagement have not materialized, because of the importance of a globalized economic system to the prosperity of the United States, requiring continued investment in the maintenance of the existing international order, from which Americans derive so many benefits. These realities also mitigate against significant alterations to the existing imperfect national security system. Yet, one can re-conceptualize how the United States government approaches ways to advance and defend national interests albeit through existing organizations.

What the Joint Concept for Competing, recognizing this reality, calls for is the development of new “capabilities to help align competitive activities across geographic, organizational and functional seams.” With a persistent global role for the United States, a new approach is needed that transcends contemporary bureaucratic boundaries. Increasingly, that requires an approach that sees the interconnection between geographic regions and issues that are divided and siloed into separate organizations. For instance, the Indian Ocean basin is currently split up by the US system into distinct South and Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, and African segments (with the added problem that the dividing lines used by the Department of Defense do not align with those of the Department of State). This prevents an appreciation of the continuum of economic, security, and environmental issues that define and bind the region. Similarly, the interconnections between Latin America, West Africa, Europe, and North America are underappreciated and under-focused. The Arctic—emerging as the newest zone of strategic competition—is also subdivided between a “domestic” lens (for North America) and viewing it primarily as a European question (with Russia as the main challenger)—with greater difficulties in addressing the efforts, particularly of Asian states, to become near-Arctic players. These are conceptual constructs.

The Newport School of National Security

We can use insights generated from the “Newport School”—what has emerged from the fusion of the practitioner experiences and academic theorizing that occurs in the context of educating senior national security professionals at the US Naval War College. We examine international affairs and national security through a deep dive into critical issues, including economics, nuclear deterrence, transnational challenges, and the realities of strategic competition. Then we look at how the United States develops strategy and use it to develop more detailed concepts (of how to achieve those objectives) and think about the capabilities needed to implement the strategy. All of this occurs within the context of a large domestic policy system with competing organizations and influences. A fusion of understanding how the US government makes foreign policy decisions with an understanding of America’s role in the world establishes a foundation in strategic thinking.

Working from the North American base, the United States engages the international system as a continent-spanning superpower that removed great power rivals in its immediate neighborhood, where the two immediate oceanic basins—the Atlantic and the Pacific—provide a degree of security but also, in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s formulation, act as bridges for the extension of American commercial power and political influence to the rest of the world. From North America, the United States engages other regions of the world and connects the world back to our national security core through people, trade, security, and values.

The United States seeks markets abroad for exports and ways to obtain necessary and needed inputs for its economy at home through trade and immigration. A great source of US influence in the world has come from the economic and technological dynamism that attracts allies and partners (who want to take part in the US market and benefit from our technological advances). This approach has been to knit together coalitions on easy terms of partnership and to connect these coalitions to each other. In turn, the United States expects that these coalitions can pool together resources and common efforts to deal with problems that are too great for any single nation to tackle on its own, such as climate and environmental challenges. 

At the global level and through different regions of the world, the United States since World War II has worked to create sustainable coalitions that are designed to promote collective security and contain and/or balance challengers and competitors. It is not accidental that, with the exception of China, most of America’s leading trading partners are also its treaty allies or strategic partners. The United States seeks to embed its actions in the world within a larger theoretical and aspirational understanding of power wielded to achieve specific purposes and ends. This is reflected in a series of national security strategies as well as the development of regional and theater strategies that lay out desired end states for US power. As we move into the mid-twenty-first-century, America’s challenge is to knit together, as Michael Reynolds argues, an “alliance that ties the European and East Asian rimlands together with the North American continent.” This security arrangement can then foster the economic and technological partnerships across this belt of states that Ash Jain and Matthew Kroenig describe within the context of their proposal for a Democratic Trade and Economic Partnership. 

Yet, to take this notion of a set of trans-oceanic, cross-regional relationships and transform this into reality, it is necessary not to simply make a compelling strategic argument but to recognize political and bureaucratic realities. To further this understanding, the Newport School relies on two perspectives—that of “palace politics” and “sub-bureaucratic politics.” They point to ways in which a more responsive national security system can emerge in the absence of major organizational surgery by rethinking our thinking. Palace politics highlights how a president can apply counter-bureaucratic solutions by having trusted associates (members of his staff, special envoys, family members, etc.) be empowered to coordinate policy and set agendas that transcend existing bureaucratic stovepipes. Sub-bureaucratic politics track how issue-coalitions emerge that cross-cut across organizational lines and allow for coordination and pooling of authorities and resources. Given, as Evan Munsing and Christopher J. Lamb have pointed out, national security challenges are increasingly “whole of government” problems that require coordination across geographic, functional, and organizational lines, these two perspectives offer a way forward that could allow for the emergence of trans-oceanic regional teams that pool together relevant components from across the US government: with national leadership providing the necessary empowerment for the creation of such coalitions, and facilitating the emergence of the sub-bureaucratic, cross-organizational coalitions to create the necessary smorgasbord of authorities, capacities, capabilities, and funding.

We are all creatures of bureaucracies where law and culture underlie our organizational behavior. But as the United States sets out in a new national security era defined by strategic competition, we are mindful of power, geography, and bureaucratic authorities. Neither centralizing control in Washington nor decentralizing control through regionally-based viceroys is plausible. Instead, harmonizing existing organizations through a trans-regional lens is a way to reconcile global challenges and geographically situated countries. This means viewing connections created through oceans since most international trade moves by sea, the global Internet is connected by undersea cables, and Chinese expansionism is through the seas. Most human activity takes place in close proximity to maritime regions and the major ocean basins define critical economic and security linkages.

To wit, we can conceptualize national security along three lines: trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific, and trans-Indian regions. All are defined by oceans, but recognize that all of the oceans are connected. For those with a military orientation, trans-Atlantic encompasses US Northern Command, Southern Command, European Command, and West US Africa Command. The trans-Pacific is largely US Indo-Pacific Command, but includes West US Northern Command and West United States Southern Command. A trans-Indian Ocean lens encompasses West US Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command, and East US Africa Command. Those with a Department of State orientation could find similar pairings with a trans-Indian lens including the Bureaus of South and Central Asian Affairs and East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Reducing the number of conceptual boundaries to just three from the existing eleven combatant commands in the Defense Department or eight bureaus in the State Department will surely generate new maps and new seams, but this ocean view should reduce the temptation for rigid boundaries and serve as a reminder that great powers become great through the seas that connect us.

The new map for United States national security thus moves us away from rigid, separated geographic boxes in favor of trans-oceanic patchworks that more accurately reflect current realities.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

Image: Defense Department (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Natasha Chevalier Losada)