Shadow Government

Obama’s National Security Strategy leaves an empty feeling

It is a hard task to produce a National Security Strategy. The challenges are manifest, including: addressing multiple audiences (international, domestic, the U.S. government’s national security agencies, Congress, the media, scholars, pundits — and yes, even erstwhile policy-makers-turned-bloggers), balancing precise policy guidance with lofty principles, describing complex objectives in clear prose, and anchoring sound ideas ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

It is a hard task to produce a National Security Strategy. The challenges are manifest, including: addressing multiple audiences (international, domestic, the U.S. government’s national security agencies, Congress, the media, scholars, pundits — and yes, even erstwhile policy-makers-turned-bloggers), balancing precise policy guidance with lofty principles, describing complex objectives in clear prose, and anchoring sound ideas in a coherent framework. The Obama administration team has clearly put much time, thought, and effort into producing this document, and for that they are to be congratulated.

On substance, how does the Obama administration’s first NSS stack up? As I wrote earlier this week, the basic pillars of the strategy are sound and moreover show considerable strains of continuity in U.S. foreign policy — including continuity with the Bush administration’s grand strategy. Peter Feaver makes these points in more detail and shows numerous consistencies between the Obama NSS and the 2006 Bush administration NSS.

However, now that I’ve had a chance to read the entire Obama administration NSS, I worry that as a strategy blueprint the overall sum is less than the parts. In other words, it fails to articulate a compelling strategic logic that connects an analysis of opportunities and threats with resources, policies, and goals.

Why? To begin, it is too heavy on process and light on strategy. Much of the document is devoted to heralding worthy things like "engagement," "cooperation," and "partnerships." These are all essential methods of foreign policy, of course, but they are more means rather than ends in themselves. Yes, the "strategic approach" chapter includes sections on "The World as It Is" and "The World We Seek." Yet both of these sections are regrettably thin. The former offers up the customary points on the challenges and opportunities of globalization. The latter identifies the "world we seek" as "a just and sustainable international order," but does not adequately specify what this order should look like. A stable balance of power among nation-states? The global expansion of free market democracies? A world in which multilateral institutions and transnational communities eclipse the nation-state system? Or some combination of these, or another world order altogether?

A few other thoughts on various particulars:

  • The section on the campaign against al Qaeda says almost nothing on al Qaeda’s ideology and very little on the battle of ideas dimension of the campaign. What is the administration’s understanding of extremist ideology and how to defeat its pernicious yet persistent appeal? Unfortunately, this NSS only offers an anemic paragraph with the awkward title of "Contrast Al Qaida’s Intent to Destroy with our Constructive Vision."
  • While the NSS rightfully devotes more rhetorical attention to the promotion of human rights and democracy, it unfortunately puts too much emphasis on the U.S. example alone ("More than any other action that we have taken, the power of America’s example has helped spread freedom and democracy abroad"). Going back to Puritan John Winthrop’s "City Upon a Hill" sermon in 1630, this strain of American exceptionalism has a distinguished tradition. Yet when it comes to promoting democracy abroad, just being an example is often insufficient. Freedom activists around the world such as Chinese dissidents, Iranian Green Movement protesters, Cuban prisoners of conscience, and Egyptian reformers already see the United States as a positive model. What they want is active American advocacy and support — even when that support might cause friction in diplomatic engagement with their own governments.
  • For an otherwise high-minded and forward-looking document, the NSS unfortunately lapses a few times into using straw-men caricatures ("we reject… an endless campaign to impose our values" — as if any serious voice has advocated that?) or occasionally indulging in what could read as gratuitous digs at the Bush administration.
  • The NSS a few times lumps "Russia, India, China" together as emerging nations of influence. While true in the "BRIC" sense, in a strategic sense this risks downplaying the important distinction between India as an emerging partner of the U.S. while Russia and China continue to play more (at best) ambiguous roles, and at worst have the potential to become peer competitor threats.

These points notwithstanding, there is still much that is good in the strategy. The real evaluation, of course, will come as the Obama administration continues to develop and implement these policies in a very challenging world.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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