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  National Security
    Central Issues
      Defense Spending
      Government Surveillance
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    Candidates' Positions on National Security

In discussing national security, the first challenge is to define the term. People broaching the subject today may feel quite confident that they know what it means, but they are not likely to meditate on the fact that it has carried very different priorities and implications throughout American history. As the exact definition has evolved over the years (and very much continues to do so to this day), there has persisted but one common thread: National security is primarily affected and necessitated by the actions of people outside of the nation. This makes it inextricably tied to its sister issue, foreign policy.

During and shortly following the birth of the United States, the country's key national security concern was the behavior of European powers. This was an understandable priority to set. The US had begun as a series of English colonies, conflicts with Spanish, Dutch, and other settlements in the New World had been common over the centuries, and during the Revolutionary War, most historians agree that the military and economic aid of France probably made the difference in allowing for a rebel victory. In short, Europe had already had a profound impact on the United States before the fledgling nation was even a year old, and Americans feared it could and (correctly) guessed it would continue to do so.

Attack by hostile Native American tribes was another national security threat of the time, though this danger has been somewhat overstated in the modern mass consciousness. In fact, many Native Americans were peaceful, and of those who did choose to make war, some were in fact allies of the US – such as the Oneida and Tuscarora nations of the Iroquois, who fought for the American side against the British during the Revolution. US expansion, however, and later, adherence to the ideology of “Manifest Destiny”, meant that United States Americans would often come into conflict with natives, usually to the detriment of the latter. National security was frequently cited as a compelling reason for “relocating” these indigenous people's settlements.

The American Civil War marks perhaps the only exception in American history to the rule that national security is tied to foreign threats, particularly if one chooses to interpret it in the manner preferred by Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer (and, of course, president during the war) who considered that the secession of the South had never been legal nor legitimate, and in fact the Confederacy had not existed as a proper state. Because all casualties in the Civil War were therefore American, the conflict continues to hold the dubious honor of being the bloodiest war (in terms of Americans killed) in US history, with all casualties being Americans slain by other Americans.

In the 20th century, in addition to the obvious national security implications of World War II, the fallout from that war was largely responsible for solidifying a global political structure that in many ways persists until today. Joined by their mutual animosity for Nazi Germany, the United States found itself during World War II in the unfamiliar (and awkward even then) position of being on the same side with the Soviet Union. This would be very different after the war, when the US and USSR emerged as the two dominant superpowers of the world, and engaged in a long Cold War with one another in which both sides readied themselves for armed conflict. That conflict never came (and, fortunately, neither did the mutual nuclear annihilation it threatened), but the danger of it shaped national security of the era, and the American military is still essentially structured around the expectation of a large, technologically-involved battle with a major rival power possessing roughly equal capabilities.

The paradigm shifted once again, and most recently, when the events of September 11, 2001 caused the United States to make global terrorism its chief national security concern. As a result of this new reality, law enforcement and espionage have become at least as important as military might in securing the safety of the nation. Beyond terrorism, emerging technologies scarcely imaginable a relatively short time ago have introduced new potential avenues of vulnerability.

Central Issues
Virtually all political parties agree on the importance of national security, and the need for keeping the US safe. Where they differ is in their preferred methods of accomplishing this, and in some cases, on the particular issues which they consider to be matters of national security.

Defense Spending
The United States spends more money on its military than any other country in the world. In fact, at approximately $610 billion per year, the US has a larger annual defense budget than its next seven competitors combined. Even China, the world's second biggest defense spender, has a military budget well under one-third that of the United States, despite having between 3 and 4 times the population of the US. The US Navy in particular is massive compared to other powers: It boasts 10 aircraft carriers, more than are sailed by all other navies combined, with each one larger and containing more hangar space than comparable vessels from other countries. Because of this capability, the Navy also flies the world's second largest fleet of warplanes – outnumbered only by the US Air Force.

People on the political right typically champion high defense spending and even advocate increasing it. They argue that a strong military, superior to that of all other nations, is essential for the United States to ensure its national security – particularly, they say, in an age of global terrorism and aggressive behavior from countries such as Russia. Such people are also most likely to express deep affection for the American military and to emotionally charge the issue of the defense budget, saying that to reduce it is to deny brave and heroic soldiers the resources they need to defend freedom.

Those on the political left, meanwhile, sometimes question the size of the military's budget. They often claim that a large combat force is no longer necessary with the fall of the Soviet Union. For reasons discussed above, the US Navy is particularly likely to come under fire due to its size. Critics of United States defense spending deny the need for so large an expenditure, arguing that the nation could be kept safe by armed forces of a much smaller size, and pointing out that the money saved could be spent on other priorities – especially, liberals will say, social programs to assist the poor or strengthen access to education.

Government Surveillance
On October 26, 2001, in the direct aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, or U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act. Among other changes to existing law, this bill gave law enforcement agencies new sweeping authority to search the telephone, financial, library, and other records of individuals without the need for a warrant, and to search a person's home or business without that person's consent – or even knowledge, if the search occurred while the owner was away. Later, in 2013, National Security Administration contractor Edward Snowden shared secret documents with journalists proving that the government was conducting warrantless surveillance of private American citizens on a scale never before realized, including of e-mails (both aggregate records and individual correspondence), phone calls, and Internet activities. Because the information he leaked was of a highly confidential nature, he was immediately accused of espionage and treason, and remains a fugitive to this day. At last report, he was residing in Russia, unable to return to the United States for fear of arrest and prosecution.

Supporters of this level of government surveillance argue that it is necessary to ensure national security. They say that in a world plagued by global terrorism, the threat of which was made starkly obvious by 9/11, it is dangerous to hamstring law enforcement by requiring it to follow traditional, time-consuming protocols, such as obtaining warrants, when terrorists can do and operate quickly. These people also point out that while the government technically can observe people's private communications, it realistically does not do so to the vast majority of average Americans, nor would it have the resources to undertake such a feat. They claim that those who have nothing to hide, therefore, have nothing to fear.

Opponents of the surveillance programs decry them as an invasion of privacy forbidden by the constitution. They maintain that terrorists can be adequately located and foiled using standard law enforcement techniques, and that any additional efficiency bestowed by warrantless spying is not worth the price paid. They also worry that these efforts represent a power grab by the government, and that once such techniques are accepted as commonplace, it will be very difficult to have them discontinued. Such people seem particularly fond of quoting Benjamin Franklin, who once famously wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Illegal Immigration
The United States has a notoriously porous southern border with the republic of Mexico. A border patrol and official checkpoints do exist, ostensibly to prevent people from crossing illegally, but entering the United States by simply crossing the Mexican border – without first going through legitimate immigration channels - is a relatively simple affair. Smugglers in Mexico make a lucrative business of gathering people from that country and across Central and South America and collecting a fee for clandestinely transporting them onto US soil. There are estimated to be over 11 million people currently living in the United States illegally, with hundreds of thousands more coming in each year. This is a national security concern because the illegitimate nature of these people's entry makes it impossible to screen them for criminal backgrounds, affiliation with hostile international groups, and ultimately, intentions once inside the country.

Those with the strictest stance on illegal immigration have little sympathy for the immigrants themselves. In addition to raising the above-discussed threat to national security, they point out that the United States is a sovereign nation and that its borders are being routinely violated by vast swarms of people, in a manner akin to an invasion. They typically advocate aggressive enforcement of immigration law, with some even going so far as to support apprehension and deportation of existing illegal immigrants within the nation's borders – a logistical challenge, as again, that number is placed at over 11 million people. They also call for securing the border, often with the construction of a vast fence or wall to prevent new illegals from crossing over.

Others take a softer stand on illegal immigration. They appeal to compassion for the people entering the country illegally, pointing out that such people are often fleeing violence in their home nations or were unable to find work there. They typically support “immigration reform” initiatives that would expand legitimate immigration and strengthen oversight of those entering the country, without blocking them entirely in a manner these people would view as heartless. Some immigration reform packages include a “path to citizenship” for existing illegals, or a process for those already in the country to eventually become full American citizens. This is an extremely controversial provision in itself, with vehement opponents as well as supporters.

Candidates' Positions on National Security

Hillary Clinton
Gary Johnson
Jill Stein
Donald Trump


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