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U.S. National Security Strategy: Rhetoric and Reality

August 15, 2011

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The seal of the President of the United States is seen on the wall of one of the rooms of the newly renovated White House Situation Room complex during a tour given to news photographers in Washington (Yuri Gripas/Courtesy Reuters).

Incoming presidential administrations attempt to put their stamp on U.S. foreign policy through policy reviews and new national strategies. Done correctly, they provide strategic guidance to policymakers and bureaucrats by articulating America’s national interests and prioritizing an achievable number of objectives. The goal of policymakers, therefore, is to develop the best means based on the available resources to implement the new national strategy. The alternative to this structured approach is policy development by reacting to events that rise to the attention of political leaders.

Of course, this description is not how U.S. foreign policy is made or implemented in the real world. National strategies and policy reviews are often developed over months of intensive inter-agency meetings, assisted by focus groups of outside experts, released with speeches and supporting fact sheets, and soon thereafter forgotten. Perhaps the only such review that people can recall is President George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS), which declared that “To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.” Years later, I discussed the intent of that controversial statement with somebody who was a senior Pentagon official in 2002. While he generally defended the concept of preemption, he also admitted that “actually, we never saw the Strategy before it was published.”

With policymakers and scholars increasingly calling for “whole-of-government” or “whole-of-society” approaches to many problems facing America, Washington is in an era of national strategy proliferation. Under President Barack Obama, there have been at least twenty-three major strategy or policy reviews of foreign policy and national security issues, which are listed below. These do not include non-foreign policy reviews, such as the National Prevention Strategy (think health care, not conflict), or the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship. Nor does this list include congressionally-mandated reviews or reviews, such as the Quadrennial Defense Review’s Independent Panel (co-chaired by Stephen Hadley and William Perry), The QDR in Perspective: Meeting America’s National Security Needs In the 21st Century.

I invite readers to skim through the list and read some of the Obama administration’s strategies or policy reviews. Several issues will become apparent. First, while the NSS is supposed to serve as the framework for strategy documents produced by various government agencies, it was actually released after several of the other documents were published. Second, as political and military officials repeat the mantra that “strategy should precede budget cuts,” you will notice that there is rarely any discussion about how national security spending is supposed to align with the strategic imperatives presented. Third, a constant message that runs through all of these documents is the necessity for either “building partner capacity” or “engaging with other key centers of influence” to have other countries deal with problems facing the United States. This approach assumes that the targeted country interests—as detailed in their own national strategies and policy reviews—are aligned with the United States. As America’s power wanes, this will be increasingly unlikely.

Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, The National Counterintelligence Strategy of the United States, 2009.

White House, Cyberspace Policy Review, May 2009.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, The National Intelligence Strategy of the United States of America, August 2009.

National Security Strategy, National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats, November 2009.

Department of Homeland Security, Quadrennial Homeland Security Review Report: A Strategic Framework for a Secure Homeland, February 2010.

Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review, February 2010.

Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review, April 2010.

White House, National Security Strategy, May 2010.

White House, National Drug Control Strategy, May 2010.

White House, National Space Policy, June 2010.

White House, U.S. Global Development Policy, September 2010.

Department of State, Leading Through Civilian Power: The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, December 2010.

Department of Defense/Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Security Space Strategy, January 2011.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Guidance for 2011, January 2011.

Department of Defense, National Military Strategy, February 2011.

White House, National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, April 2011.

White House, International Strategy for Cyberspace, May 2011.

White House, National Strategy for Counterterrorism, June 2011.

White House, Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, July 2011.

White House, National Drug Control Strategy, July 2011.

White House, Cyberspace Policy Review, July 2011.

Department of Defense, Strategy for Operating in Cyberspace, July 2011.

White House, Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism, August 2011.

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