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Category: Politics, International

National Security: Women Must Define the Priorities Debate

| October 23, 2008

The ‘guns versus butter’ debate is on the way out. Even the U.S. military has realized the importance of providing the latter. For this election and beyond, women leaders are learning how to recast the conversation and set new priorities to measure the nation’s security.

Throughout 2008, I’ve traveled the country helping women leaders understand and communicate today’s greatest nationalsecurity challenges. The world has changed significantly, and America must make different choices about how to secure our future. For example, in today’s world, the safety of people across borders is as important as the safety of people within them. Threats like global warming, genocide, pandemic disease and economic calamity cannot be prevented by one country acting alone.

Given that we need all the nation’s leadership talent to move on these urgent topics, the most consistent gasp line in my training is when the audience learns that the United States ranks 69th in the world in Congressional female representation. That’s below both Afghanistan and Iraq—countries where the United States exerted influence to make sure that quotas exist for female leadership. Number one in the world is Rwanda, where women filled positions after hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens were murdered in 1994. Preliminary research on Rwanda has demonstrated that this critical mass of women in power promotes fundamental democratic values—like public consultation and participation, and that corruption has diminished.

What were once considered women’s issues are now squarely in the middle of domestic and international debates on security. The old ‘guns versus butter’ line is obsolete. In fact, our own military finds itself providing both. The U.S. Army considers girls’ education a vital link to achieving long-term stability. Military officers testifying in front of Congress have, for years, been pointing out the need for strong democratic institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Theirs is a broad concept of security. It includes courts, police, banks, hospitals, schools and other providers of positive social stability. Yet we fund the military at a level at least 30 times higher than our diplomatic, economic and other ‘civilian’ programs. Correcting this mismatch will be the most important silver-lining lesson of the Iraq war. Our top warfighters understand better than anyone that most security problems they have faced have no military solution.

A global legacy of women's priorities already informs policy debates about a new strategy for U.S. security. For decades, women the world over have championed the safety of people through positive social change. Women rally support for such community needs as health care, clean water, economic justice, safe streets and education. Yet in these tough economic times, our leaders running for office and those who are elected in November need to hear an ongoing public conversation to know that the American people have high expectations for change. Without it, there will be little incentive to make the difficult budgetary tradeoffs and to reformulate a long-term strategy. Because elected leaders have not realigned priorities, we’re still spending billions of dollars for weapons programs built during the Cold War era to contain the Soviet Union—an enemy that disappeared 17 years ago. The recently released Unified Security Budget, developed by a nonpartisan task force, enumerates this problem.

When I ask my audience of women leaders to name an issue close to home that relates to national security, the most common answer is Hurricane Katrina. Yet in 2008, the defense budget consumed 54 percent of discretionary taxpayer dollars. Our government’s inability to either prevent or respond to the humanitarian needs of that natural disaster shocked many into realizing the depth of the leadership failure on keeping Americans safe.

Because voters have been receptive to a message of change during this election, it’s an opportune moment to reframe the issue about national priorities. Always start this conversation by saying that we need national security reform across the board and that this will require a revised grand strategy. This is policy-speak for saying that our nation needs a new mission statement. While putting forth new ideas, however, it remains important to acknowledge peoples’ legitimate fears. The military will remain important. There are real threats. The problem is that we’re not addressing them effectively. It’s useful to avoid such obsolete binary language as ‘hawks versus doves’ or ‘guns versus butter.’

National security is a much broader concept than it was even two decades ago. During the Cold War, it was easy to focus the discussion on arms control treaties and national borders. Today's threats are widely distributed, from criminal networks with nukes to lack of public education. Here at home, threats may come from diseases spread by temperature changes or from the collapse of an infirm bridge on your evening commute.

When women fully enter this debate, such issues as community infrastructure and public health—including bioterrorism defense—are much more likely to rise up and become priorities. Whether the field of action is within our borders or abroad, national security today demands a broad understanding of what constitutes making and defending the peace.

For more on effective debate about national security, see “A Woman’s Guide to Talking About War and Peace,” which the author wrote with Dana Eyre, USAR.