Shadow Government

Holding out for the National Security Strategy

I am looking forward to reading President Obama’s National Security Strategy (NSS), which should be released early this year. The NSS is the authoritative account of the president’s grand strategy — how he sees the challenges and opportunities confronting the United States in the world today and what he intends to do about it. It is ...

Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

I am looking forward to reading President Obama’s National Security Strategy (NSS), which should be released early this year. The NSS is the authoritative account of the president’s grand strategy — how he sees the challenges and opportunities confronting the United States in the world today and what he intends to do about it.

It is important in ways that my FP colleague, Steve Walt, seems not to understand. The NSS is an invaluable window into the thinking of the president; even if early drafts are developed by lower-ranking staff, the president and senior-most presidential aides will scrub it closely, more closely than any other governmental white paper. Because it is not a speech, it can cover terrain and develop the "theory of the case" that no one would inflict upon a listening audience. Precisely because it is a public document, it must authentically reflect the administration’s world-view; it is not a fortune cookie prediction of what the administration will do in any particular setting, but it is an authoritative statement of the principles that guide the president.

The NSS is one of the most important communications tools the president has and, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most important audiences for it is the rest of government. The NSS will tell the vast governmental establishment responsible for implementing the president’s vision just exactly what the president’s vision is. 

The NSS is also a good window into the evolution in thinking of the administration. By the time an NSS is released, the team usually has learned a thing or two that it did not fully appreciate when it was campaigning. President Clinton’s campaign rhetoric was contravened by real-world events, especially the Black Hawk down episode in Somalia and the unraveling of the situation in Haiti and Bosnia. President Bush’s first NSS reflected a similar evolution, with 9/11 thoroughly refocusing the national security lens and putting in disrepute the Bush campaign’s prediction of a "strategic pause" and even more the campaign’s dismissal of "nation building."

The NSS is a gauge of the intellectual maturing of an administration. While the early years of both the Clinton and Bush terms were afflicted with an ABB/ABC (anything but Bush/anything but Clinton) mentality that pretended their predecessors had been unmitigated idiots, there was comparatively little of that poison spoiling the National Security Strategies they wrote. President Obama has suffered from an acute case of ABB, at least rhetorically, so it will be interesting to see if his NSS has the same intellectual spoil, or whether he finds himself tacking back to the national security center.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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