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Obama's NSS: Promise and Pitfalls

Authors: Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, CFR Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies and Director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations
May 28, 2010

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On May 27, President Barack Obama released his first National Security Strategy (NSS), which outlines how the administration will deal with concerns ranging from counterterrorism to foreign aid. Seven CFR experts who reviewed the NSS found both overlap and sharp differences with Bush administration strategy. Defense expert Stephen Biddle welcomes the move away from "war on terrorism" language to a more nuanced treatment of terrorist threats posed by al-Qaeda and other groups. But he also warns against an "implied boundlessness" in the effort to hunt al-Qaeda. Health expert Laurie Garrett sees an attempt to tackle global health challenges on both moral and strategic grounds but cites a focus on epidemics that could confuse priorities.

Director of Studies James Lindsay and global governance specialist Stewart Patrick both find fault with the NSS' assumption that newly emerging powers share enough of the same priorities and sense of obligation to align with Washington. Paul Stares, director of the Center for Preventive Action, adds: "The NSS is largely silent on how the United States will manage the various dilemmas and tradeoffs that come with working through an increasingly complex and fragmented international system." Cybersecurity expert Adam Segal notes the absence of any reference to conducting offensive cyberoperations, and homeland security expert Steven Simon raises questions about how the strategy can fulfill its aims of empowering U.S. communities to immunize them against radicalization. --Robert McMahon, Editor, CFR.org

Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy

There are some very positive elements in the National Security Strategy's treatment of terrorism and al-Qaeda. The document, for example, rejects the broad, vague 2001 formulation of a "war on terrorism." The 2001 approach committed the United States to wage war on a tactic; worse, it drove together fractious terrorist factions with otherwise local interests into a common cause against an America that had declared war on them all and recognized no differences between them. The 2010 strategy, by contrast, makes clear that the real enemy is al-Qaeda and those who affiliate with it, encouraging other terrorists to steer clear of them and facilitating wedge strategies designed to divide, rather than unite, potential enemies.

The 2010 strategy also keeps the terrorist threat in context: Rather than identifying it as the defining challenge of our time, the strategy sees it as but "one of many threats," and one which "cannot define America's engagement with the world." In fact, most terrorism--even by al-Qaeda--is not an existential threat to the United States. Nuclear terrorism is an important exception and warrants special efforts in Afghanistan, where a major al-Qaeda presence across an unstable border combines with a threatened Pakistani nuclear arsenal to convey a unique peril. But elsewhere, restraint is often the best policy in the face of a tactic designed to spur excess by its targets, and the new strategy wisely cautions against fear and overreaction in responding to terrorism.

The Obama strategy's assessment of the terror threat is less apocalyptic, yet its rhetoric retains some of the same implied boundlessness [as the Bush strategy].

The document falls short, however, of a consistent or complete strategy for dealing with al-Qaeda. What, for example, would constitute success in this war that would enable the United States to stand down from today's exertions? Bush administration strategy often implied that nothing short of an unrealistically complete eradication of global terrorism would suffice, and post-2001 U.S. pronouncements often seemed to imply a near-endless war of generations. The Obama strategy's assessment of the terror threat is less apocalyptic, yet its rhetoric retains some of the same implied boundlessness: "al-Qaeda and its allies must not be permitted to gain or retain any capacity to plan and launch international terrorist attacks. . . . We must deny these groups the ability to conduct operational plotting from any locale." [Emphasis added.]

Sometimes inexpensive aid or assistance to threatened governments will prevent al-Qaeda penetration, but surely not always or everywhere. Is the post-Afghanistan future to be a series of exhausting exercises in nation-building or counterinsurgency in any place where cheaper means fail and al-Qaeda establishes a presence? Or must we eventually come to grips with a world in which some degree of conventional-weapon terrorism, by al-Qaeda or others, is the only alternative to permanent warfare into the indefinite future?

Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health

The 2010 National Security Strategy makes many references to concern about pandemics and infectious diseases, but does little to address the larger health and development needs of non-Americans, within a national security framework. This is not to say that the administration is abandoning foreign assistance. On the contrary, encouraging sustainable global economic and social development is a lynchpin of the Obama strategy. But the overall approach to global health appears focused on tackling existential threats posed by infectious diseases and pandemics.

A paragraph in the Obama NSS titled "Pursuing a Comprehensive Global Health Strategy" merits comparison with a paragraph in George W. Bush's 2002 NSS titled, "Secure Public Health." In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration foreshadowed what would become a $20 billion effort to limit the global impacts of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria by stipulating that, "In countries afflicted by epidemics and pandemics like HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, growth and development will be threatened until these scourges can be contained." With that, the Bush administration put a vague price tag on health security and promised to give generously. However, there was no explicit explanation in the 2002 NSS regarding how or why the health needs of poor people halfway around the world represented a national security interest for U.S. taxpayers.

[T]he Obama administration mentions maternal and child survival, and strengthening health systems in this crucial national security framework, but the overriding security context of "health" is epidemics.

In contrast, the Obama administration's 2010 NSS insists that the United States, "has a moral and strategic interest in global health. When a child dies of preventable disease, it offends our conscience; when a disease goes unchecked, it can endanger our own health; when children are sick, development is stalled. That is why we are continuing to invest in the fight against HIV/AIDS." While the Bush administration justified large expenditures to counter disease-inspired instability, Obama's NSS emphasizes morality.

While the NSS 2010 lacks language hinting at grand financial support for global health programs, as existed in NSS 2002, it frames health and development as part of larger efforts that aim to, "help prevent conflict, spur economic growth, strengthen weak and failing states, lift people out of poverty, combat climate changes and epidemic disease, and strengthen institutions of democratic governance."

But overall, global health advocates are likely to be confused by the 2010 NSS. The Obama administration does mention maternal and child survival, and strengthening health systems in this crucial national security framework, but the overriding security context of "health" is epidemics, leaving open questions regarding prioritization of spending between acute disease threats and longer-term improvements in health.

James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, CFR

At first blush, President Obama's new National Security Strategy reads as a repudiation of George W. Bush's foreign policy. It warns against over-relying on military might, insists that counterterrorism "cannot define America's engagement with the world," condemns "torture without exception or equivocation," and ignores the topic of preventive war.

Obama instead offers a strategy of "comprehensive engagement" with friends and foes alike. The aim is to strengthen international institutions, facilitate cooperation, and build a just and sustainable international order. Nuclear proliferation, al-Qaeda, instability in the Middle East, and global prosperity top the list of national security priorities.

Obama's conviction that "the United States will continue to underwrite global security" echoes Bush's worldview, even as many Americans--and particularly many Democrats--grumble about the costs of foreign entanglements.

Despite implicitly chastising Bush, the NSS contains important continuities. Obama's conviction that "the United States will continue to underwrite global security" echoes Bush's worldview even as many Americans--and particularly many Democrats--grumble about the costs of foreign entanglements. The NSS similarly affirms that the United States must maintain military superiority and reserve the right to use force unilaterally if necessary to defend American interests. And while Obama has shied away from democracy promotion at times during his first fifteen months in office, the NSS endorses it as a goal of American foreign policy.

Like any document that tries to reduce the complexities of American foreign policy to simple policy statements, the NSS is open to criticism. One problem is that it disregards its own advice to see the world as it is. What should Washington do when China, Russia, Brazil, and "other twenty-first century centers of influence" disagree on which problems to solve or how to solve them, as has happened recently on issues ranging from Iran to climate change? Do our potential partners share our view of what constitutes a just and sustainable international order? When should the United States ignore international opinion and go its own way, as some future circumstances almost certainly will require it to do?

The NSS skirts these questions, for understandable reasons. They are hard questions, and the answers can be politically explosive at home and abroad. But Obama's ability to answer them will go a long way toward determining whether his foreign policy succeeds.

Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The most novel element of the National Security Strategy is its call to update the architecture of international cooperation to confront emerging threats and accommodate rising powers. It may also be the most daunting objective outlined in that document.

The administration's premises are clear: Globalization has transformed the world. The age of great power rivalry has ceded to an era of security interdependence, focused on the collective management of global risks, from climate change to nuclear proliferation to cybercrime to pandemic disease. In such a world, multilateralism is not a choice but a necessity. The United States needs new and updated international institutions to pursue its interests, share its burdens, and legitimate its purposes.

The Obama administration's apparent hope is that it can gradually socialize rising powers to assume a greater share of international obligations, including for the provision of global public goods.

The NSS commits the United States to help consolidate an "international order based upon [the] rights and responsibilities" of all states. This new multilateral order will be a messier, more heterogeneous one than has existed in the past. While it will seek reform of the United Nations and other universal bodies, the United States will also seek "to spur and harness a new diversity of instruments, alliances, and institutions," including consultative mechanisms like the recently created G20, standing alliances like NATO, and regional organizations like the African Union. In other words, the United States will supplement its "prix fixe" menu of formal organizations with an "a la carte" set of flexible frameworks.

The administration's biggest challenge will be to integrate the world's rising nations into this global system of cooperation. In the absence of a catastrophic war that wipes the slate clean, current power wielders typically resist ceding influence to newcomers. And the latter tend to prefer the privileges of enhanced status to the responsibilities of power. It is telling, in this regard, that the NSS barely mentions reform of the UN Security Council, the world's most important and most outdated institution.

The Obama administration's apparent hope is that it can gradually socialize rising powers to assume a greater share of international obligations, including for the provision of global public goods. But the available evidence suggests that China, India, and Brazil--to pick the three most important--are deeply ambivalent about their global roles, fearful that external demands may detract from the imperatives of their own internal development. They want a seat at the head table, but they resist picking up the check.

Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies and Director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

Sometimes the most interesting thing in a policy document is what has been left out. In addressing the issue of cyberspace, the 2010 National Security Strategy covers a lot of old ground. The threat to national security, public safety, and economic competitiveness, it says, is serious and comes from multiple sources--nation states, terrorist networks, organized criminal groups and individual hackers.

The challenge will be met through a combination of new technology, public-private partnerships, and international cooperation. Much of this has been said before in the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative (which emerged from President Bush's National Security Presidential Directive 54/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 23) and the Cyberspace Policy Review (PDF).

Missing from the strategy . . . is any acknowledgement that the United States might actually conduct its own offensive cyberoperations, a noticeable omission given that U.S. Cyber Command was officially activated on May 21, 2010.

Missing from the strategy, however, is any acknowledgement that the United States might actually conduct its own offensive cyberoperations, a noticeable omission given that U.S. Cyber Command was officially activated on May 21, 2010 (ArmyTimes). In his confirmation hearing, head of the command General Keith Alexander tried to dampen concerns about the role of the command, saying it was about safeguarding the military's critical information systems, not the "militarization of cyberspace." Still, as a Defense Department fact sheet (PDF) explains, one of the missions of Cyber Command is to "prepare to, and when directed, conduct full-spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure U.S./Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries."

The lack of any discussion of offensive operations is perhaps understandable given how much uncertainty exists within the Defense Department about the legalities of cyberwar. As James Miller, undersecretary of Defense for policy, said at a conference in Washington on May 12, "There are certainly a lot of grey areas in this field." Still, the absence is unfortunate, especially given the National Security Strategy's emphasis on the need for international engagement to address global security threats.

Other countries--China and Russia most importantly--already suspect that the United States is developing advanced capabilities to penetrate and degrade their computer networks. The document's inability to admit to the possibility of offensive operations will only increase potential adversaries' suspicion, make cooperation more difficult, and increase the likelihood of an arms race.

Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

There is clearly a problem with radicalization in the United States, although no one knows just how pervasive it is. Radical movements here, however, have generally not fared well, either because their ideology led nowhere, as was the case of the anarchists; or they were co-opted, as the socialist left was in the interwar years; or were infiltrated and incapacitated, as were the Weather Underground, Black Panthers, or Christian Patriots and their offshoots. Presumably, a similar pattern of force and cooptation will characterize the way in which government at the local, state, and federal levels manage violent expressions of radicalism that might emanate from within Muslim communities in the United States today.

The 2010 National Security Strategy sensibly endorses a balance that leans toward cooptation rather than force by emphasizing the need to engage communities and foster a sense of inclusion. By offering an aggrieved community a channel for self-expression, radicalism that could lead to violence might be nipped in the bud. This is a sound approach because, if we know anything, it is that aggressive and indiscriminate policing can fuel violent radicalism.

The NSS goal of empowering communities to immunize them against radicalization can prove elusive, if only because the U.S. government is not organized for this purpose.

This said, the NSS goal of empowering communities to immunize them against radicalization may prove difficult to carry out, if only because the U.S. government is not organized for this purpose. The only federal agency with a relevant presence throughout the country is the FBI, which naturally, if sometimes inadvertently, conveys the wrong signals to the communities it is supposed to "empower." Yet, who else is there? We have nothing like Britain's system, which seeks to knit together police and community leaders. There are ways to mobilize moderates and remove law enforcement as the face of the state in this effort but no agency to take the lead. There's an analogous challenge in intelligence gathering, which the NSS rightly makes a priority. The United States has no domestic intelligence agency; the FBI is trying to develop this capacity, but it will always privilege its law enforcement mission. The Obama administration inherited these organizational legacies and must work around them to implement the NSS.

The one thing that the NSS discussion of resilience omits, but which Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan has emphasized, is that despite all the homeland security precautions, there is likely to be a successful attack. When that happens, real resilience will entail a calm, deliberate response and confidence in the durability of the country's institutions.

Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations

Sprinkled throughout the National Security Strategy are declarations of intent to prevent the emergence of new threats, including dangerous instability and violent conflict in "At-Risk States." The imperatives of preventing such threats from becoming the source of costly new military commitments hardly need to be stated with U.S. forces already overstretched around the world. The question now is whether such declarations will be translated into more timely and effective action. The NSS offers a compelling vision of how this will be accomplished, but doubts remain about its practical implementation.

[T]he NSS is largely silent on how the United States will manage the various dilemmas and tradeoffs that come with working through an increasingly complex and fragmented international system.

Aside from restoring America's economic vitality and maintaining a strong defense, the principal pillars of the new strategy are, on the one hand, a commitment to improve how the U.S. government harnesses national power through what is called a "whole of government" approach and, on the other, a commitment to work with an array of international actors in what could be termed a "whole of world" approach.

With regard to the former, welcome initiatives are already underway to overhaul how the United States dispenses foreign aid and to enhance the capacity of the State Department through the new Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review. It remains to be seen, however, whether such changes will really change the way the U.S. government does business--from largely reacting to emerging threats to treating them more proactively--especially when the underlying organizational structures and cultures remain fundamentally unreformed since the Cold War.

The pledge to work more closely with the international community to deal with common threats rests on the impeccable logic that the world is too interconnected and the challenges too big for any one country to manage. Yet the NSS is largely silent on how the United States will manage the various dilemmas and tradeoffs that come with working through an increasingly complex and fragmented international system.

Will the use of less formal groupings like the G20 undermine the more established organizations like the UN? And will the United States be comfortable helping to reform many of the world's leading bodies to make them reflective of current international realities when it is likely to dilute its own influence? If past experience is any guide, the press of events will drive how many of these issues are resolved. We will see then how much of a gap there is between rhetorical intent and practical impact.

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