from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Obama’s National Security Strategy: New Framework, Same Policies

U.S. President Barack Obama walks toward the Oval Office after stepping off Marine One at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 22, 2015.

February 6, 2015

U.S. President Barack Obama walks toward the Oval Office after stepping off Marine One at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 22, 2015.
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The new U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS), released today, contains few surprises. After six years in office, the Obama administration will not change its basic course. Still, the document represents an important intellectual departure from past iterations—notably in its focus on “strategic patience,” its expansive definition of U.S. national security, and its explicit emphasis on the institutional foundations of world order.

The drafting of a National Security Strategy, which is mandated by Congress, is an inherently awkward enterprise. The document must simultaneously lay out a compelling vision of the world the United States seeks, instill confidence that the administration knows how to get there, and satisfy the bureaucratic interests of countless departments, agencies, and bureaus in the sprawling U.S. national security apparatus. The inevitable result is a document combining grand aspirations and intentions with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink list of U.S. interests and initiatives.

At twenty-nine pages, the NSS is about half as long as the administration’s previous installment, released in 2010. Besides its welcome brevity, the new version is less starry-eyed than its predecessor. It concedes, at least implicitly, how hard it can be to translate internationalist visions into reality.

With only two years left, the administration unsurprisingly treats the new document as a vehicle to justify past choices and advocate for policy continuity. The NSS echoes well-worn themes: global integration is generating unprecedented threats as well as opportunities. Advancing peace, prosperity, and freedom requires the United States to lead by action and example, cooperating with partners to reinforce a rules-based international order. The country should leverage every instrument of national influence, including economic growth, and stay true to its values at home even as it advances universal principles abroad.

Those reading the document will search in vain for a pithy “Obama Doctrine.” Nevertheless, the NSS breaks new ground in its emphasis on strategic patience, its broad view of national security, and its preoccupation with world order.

A Plea for Strategic Patience

Back in 2010, the previous NSS declared that for the first time in history international affairs were dominated less by geopolitical competition than the need to manage common challenges. It also suggested that the global terrorist threat had crested. Both contentions proved premature. After six turbulent years in office, the administration is on the defensive on both counts. Resurgent great power rivalry and metastasizing jihadist terrorism have created a widespread impression that the world is spinning out of control (or “unraveling”)—which critics attribute to weakness in the White House.

The NSS acknowledges this new age of upheaval, but defends its policy choices under a guiding principle of “strategic patience.” Though the administration has increasingly used this term in reference to specific regions or crises, the NSS elevates it to a more general organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy.

After outlining the primary national security challenges, the president proclaims that “we must resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear.” This appears to be another response to the blistering criticism his administration has received regarding its policies in Syria and Iraq. “The challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence,” he continues, rather than short-term reactions to crises of the day. As the document reminds readers, the United States does not have the luxury of “orienting our entire foreign policy around a single threat or region.” Given its diverse interests and responsibilities, the country must be able to play on multiple chessboards at once, mobilizing a shifting constellation of partners depending on the task. The need to be able to pivot, in other words, extends far beyond Asia.

National Security, Redefined

The document marks the latest expansion of the national security lens well beyond a traditional focus on great power confrontation, regional instability, nuclear weapons, and (more recently) terrorism. The introduction produces quite a list of “top strategic risks,” which the document enumerates in no particular order of importance:

  • Catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland or critical infrastructure;

  • Threats or attacks against U.S. citizens abroad and our allies;

  • Global economic crisis or widespread economic slowdown;

  • Proliferation and/or use of weapons of mass destruction;

  • Severe global infectious disease outbreaks;

  • Climate change;

  • Major energy market disruptions; and

  • Significant security consequences associated with weak or failing states (including mass atrocities, regional spillover, and transnational organized crime

This broadened conception of security pervades the NSS. Alongside the imperatives of “strengthen[ing] our national defense,” “reinforce[ing] homeland security,” and “combat[ting] the persistent threat of terrorism” is the need to “confront climate change” (“an urgent and growing threat to our national security”) and to “increase global health security” in the face of epidemics like Ebola. The United States must also “assure access to shared spaces…that enable the free flow of people, goods, services and ideas,” by maintaining the stability and openness of the world’s maritime and air space, as well as outer space and cyberspace.

Where the NSS falls short is in its failure to rank these very diverse concerns. The president writes of the need “to make hard choices among competing priorities.” But the document provides little guidance about the relative importance of the multiple interests it identifies. This is unfortunate, since the ostensible purpose of the NSS is to inform departments drafting their own strategy documents, including as the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Strategy (QDDR). There is also little discussion about how the strategy has shaped the national security components of the budget that President Obama submitted to Congress last month.

Bolstering World Order

The administration also includes a closing section devoted to the big-picture theme of “international order.”

Consistent with previous NSS documents, the 2015 version starts with separate chapters explaining how the United States will advance its “security” goals, its “economic” objectives, and its “values” (particularly by promoting democracy and human rights). But the final chapter, explaining how the United States will deter and respond to instability resulting from the misbehavior of influential states and the actions of malevolent nonstate actors, is novel. This compelling segment calls on the United States to “fortify” the institutional foundations of a rules-based order, while “help[ing] it evolve to meet the wide range of challenges described throughout this strategy.”

The thesis advanced here is both persuasive and optimistic. The global order, whose broad contours were defined in the aftermath of World War II, remains resilient. “Despite undeniable strains,” the strategy notes, “the vast majority of states do not want to replace the system we have.” Rather, what other countries are looking for is firm U.S. leadership, including a willingness to “exact an appropriate cost on transgressors” who violate international rules of the road.

The document explains how the United States should advance world order in specific regions, including the Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. The instincts here are sound: the United States “welcomes the rise of stable, peaceful, and prosperous China,” and will continue to cooperate with that country on multiple fronts. At the same time, ongoing U.S. “rebalancing” will reassure U.S. partners in Asia and offer a hedge against possible Chinese aggression. The United States will also deepen its engagement with India, a partnership of unrealized but immense potential. In Europe, the United States reaffirms the importance of NATO as “the hub of a global security network,” and pledges to deepen its cooperation with the EU in countering Russian aggression in Ukraine, which has violated longstanding “international rules and norms.” The United States will “continue to impose significant costs” on Russia, but it will avoid a Cold War, keeping the “door open” to greater collaboration “in areas of common interests, should it choose a different path.”

In the enflamed Middle East, where the Obama administration’s policies have been least successful, the NSS seeks to make the best of a bad hand, while skirting the trickiest issues. The document concedes the uncertain outcome of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program but defends its pursuit of a peaceful resolution to this crisis, without taking any options off the table. Meanwhile, the administration does little more than repeat its past pledges to “degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL,” to support an inclusive and effective government in Iraq, and to equip moderate forces in Syria as a plausible alternative to the Assad regime and jihadi extremists. In notable omissions, the NSS devotes only a single sentence apiece to the fraught U.S. relationships with Turkey and Egypt, and the deteriorating situation in Libya—the latter held up, just a few years ago, as a triumph of multilateral cooperation.

What’s the Takeaway?

The ultimate question, as with all NSS documents, is how seriously one should take them as a guide to policy. The 2015 edition breaks new ground by elevating strategic patience to a guiding principle for U.S. national security policy and drawing attention to the institutional foundations of world order. On the other hand, the long-delayed document devotes nearly as much space to defending the administration’s record—whether ushering in “a new era of unparalleled global prosperity,” withdrawing major military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, or negotiating a “landmark agreement” with China on climate change—as it does outlining future plans. This gives the NSS a distinct valedictory feel, part of a legacy-building project. The perceived validity of these claims, of course, will depend heavily on partisan leanings.

Follow me on Twitter: @StewartMPatrick

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