Stephen M. Walt

Why we don’t need another “National Strategy” document

According to Section 603 of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act, the president must submit an annual report to Congress outlining U.S. national security strategy. This requirement has produced a number of timeless literary classics, such as the Clinton administration’s 1995 “National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement” (a glowing paean to democracy, institutions, ...

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According to Section 603 of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act, the president must submit an annual report to Congress outlining U.S. national security strategy. This requirement has produced a number of timeless literary classics, such as the Clinton administration’s 1995 “National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement” (a glowing paean to democracy, institutions, human rights, and other liberal ideals), or the Bush administration’s 2002 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” (a portentous bit of bombast mostly remembered for its justification of preventive war).

Academics like me normally love such exercises, in part because it conforms to an idealized view of what the policy process should be. First, the administration identifies vital U.S. interests, and then sketches the various intermediate objectives that must be met in order to advance or protect them. Then it lays out the specific policies it intends to follow to achieve these goals, and then (supposedly) goes ahead and implements them. The whole exercise is also consistent with the appealing notion of democratic accountability, because Congress can ponder the administration’s priorities and plans and decide not to fund policies it doesn’t like. Grand strategic pronouncements of this sort are also an obvious opportunity to communicate intentions and priorities to the outside world.

We scholars also like these documents because they give us a chance to aim our intellectual firepower at a fixed target. Dissecting written arguments is something we’ve been trained to do since graduate school, and giving an academic an official statement of “national security strategy” is like putting a seven-course meal in front of a gluttonous gourmet. We can dissect the underlying assumptions, identify the theoretical underpinnings that are supposedly shaping policy, compare and contrast this year’s version with earlier reports, and look for contradictions, gaps in logic, or other shortcomings. Plus, these reports make a great teaching tool; they are the bureaucratese that has launched a thousand class discussions. If your job involves teaching and writing about U.S. foreign policy, in short, you should be grateful that Goldwater-Nichols forces every administration to produce something new to feed on each year.

Of course, you shouldn’t assume these reports actually tell you what the administration is going to do. They are often drafted by committee, or by some hired pen, and the president may not play much (any?) role in the process. More importantly, foreign policy always involves adapting to actions or events that one doesn’t anticipate, and no government can ever stick to its strategic vision with complete fidelity. Even so, these statements are usually worth reading, if only to get an idea of an administration’s basic inclinations, or at least what it thinks it is trying to accomplish.

The Obama administration hasn’t offered us its version of our “national security strategy” yet, and despite everything I just said, I’m beginning to wish they weren’t compelled to do so by law. For one thing, I suspect it will look a lot like the Clinton administration’s versions, and consist of a long “to-do” list drawn from familiar liberal interventionist dogma. But more importantly, this is one of those periods where the main features of U.S. grand strategy may not be easy to talk about openly and honestly.

In simple terms, what Obama seems to be attempting is a wide-ranging process of selective retrenchment. This is hardly surprising, because the Bush administration got us badly overcommitted and refused to raise taxes to pay for it. So Obama is getting us out of Iraq, and appears to be rethinking his approach to Afghanistan. He’s making constructive concessions to a number of potential adversaries (such as Russia), in order to gain their support on more pressing issues (such as Iran)  He’s telling his Secretary of Defense to rein in defense costs, emphasizing diplomacy at every turn, and letting everyone know that Uncle Sam isn’t going to solve all the world’s problems all by itself. He’s not retreating to Fortress America, of course, but he and his team aren’t swaggering around saying that America is the “indispensable nation” either.

Given the mess he inherited from Bush and the need to repair America’s public finances, this approach makes eminently good sense.  But when you’re s great power engaged in a process of retrenchment, you probably don’t want advertise that fact in your official statement of “national security strategy.”  If you do, you’ll just get a lot of flak from hardliners, who still haven’t figured out that the previous eight years was mostly a disaster and that U.S. resources aren’t infinite. And a few minor adversaries may decide to test your limits, and you’d rather not have to waste time responding. Spelling things out explicitly might also make some Americans nervous, because they’ve gotten used to America being #1 and they’ve forgotten that the best way to stay there is to get others to do the heavy lifting instead of trying to do it all ourselves.

Obama should stick to his present course — as subtly and quietly as possible — and when it’s time to fulfill that Section 603 requirement, he should ask his advisors to write up a strategy statement that does not spell out what is really going on. And if they can make it sufficiently boring so that nobody pays much attention, so much the better.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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