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Daniel W. Drezner

So how’s the National Security Strategy going?

The Obama administration has been trying to road-test the National Security Strategy.  Last month is was NSC Advisor James Jones’ address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — which is now remembered more for a politically incorrect joke than anything else.  This weekend it was the president’s turn in his commencement address at ...

The Obama administration has been trying to road-test the National Security Strategy.  Last month is was NSC Advisor James Jones’ address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — which is now remembered more for a politically incorrect joke than anything else. 

This weekend it was the president’s turn in his commencement address at West Point.  Is there anythng of interest to note?  Some are focusing on what he said about Iraq (victory + withdrawal of combat troops this year).  Let’s focus on Obama’s bigthink, which I’d label realist internationalism. 

Here’s the realist sections:

[W]e must first recognize that our strength and influence abroad begins with steps we take at home. We must educate our children to compete in an age where knowledge is capital, and the marketplace is global. We must develop clean energy that can power new industry and unbound us from foreign oil and preserve our planet. We have to pursue science and research that unlocks wonders as unforeseen to us today as the microchip and the surface of the moon were a century ago.

Simply put, American innovation must be the foundation of American power – because at no time in human history has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy. And so that means that the civilians among us, as parents and community leaders, elected officials, business leaders, we have a role to play. We cannot leave it to those in uniform to defend this country – we have to make sure that America is building on its strengths….

And so a fundamental part of our strategy for our security has to be America’s support for those universal rights that formed the creed of our founding. And we will promote these values above all by living them – through our fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution, even when it’s hard; even when we’re being attacked; even when we’re in the midst of war.

Seriously, that last paragraph could have been the mash-up version of John Quincy Adams’ 1821 July 4th speech

Here’s the internationalist part:

Yes, we are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system. But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation – we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don’t.

So we have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation. We will be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well, including those who will serve by your side in Afghanistan and around the globe. As influence extends to more countries and capitals, we also have to build new partnerships, and shape stronger international standards and institutions.

Now, realism and multilateralism don’t go hand in hand terribly well — here’s the key paragraph where Obama tries to link them:

The burdens of this century cannot fall on our soldiers alone. It also cannot fall on American shoulders alone. Our adversaries would like to see America sap its strength by overextending our power. And in the past, we’ve always had the foresight to avoid acting alone. We were part of the most powerful wartime coalition in human history through World War II. We stitched together a community of free nations and institutions to endure and ultimately prevail during a Cold War.

Essentially, the administration will try to argue that multilateralism serves as a force multiplier, allowing America to extend its reach while burden-sharing with supporters who benefot from an American-led international order.

Does this formulation work?  I like the emphasis on internal renewal, and I tend to think that the United States does retrenchment strategies better than most countries.  That said, one problem with multilateralism is that burden-sharing often turns into free-riding. 

Another p;roblem is that without an animating idea, it’s difficult to retain multilateral solidarity.  "Multilateralism for multilateralism’s sake" doesn’t work unless you live in Brussels — and even then it’s a bit dodgy.  "All for one, and one for keeping order" has its virtues, but emotionsal resonance isn’t one of them.  

There has to be a purpose beyond order to rally allies to a cause.  We’ll see if the Obama team has one when the NSS rolls out. 

Developing….

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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