Stephen M. Walt

Snoozing through the National Security Strategy

Back in September, I said I wished the Obama administration wasn’t required by law to submit a formal statement of its “National Security Strategy.” I said this in part because I think such efforts are mostly a waste of time, but also because I thought it might be better not to be too explicit about ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Back in September, I said I wished the Obama administration wasn’t required by law to submit a formal statement of its “National Security Strategy.” I said this in part because I think such efforts are mostly a waste of time, but also because I thought it might be better not to be too explicit about the adjustments forced upon Obama by the Bush administration’s errors and the 2008 recession. So I suggested that they try to make the report as boring as possible.

The new National Security Strategy was released yesterday, and the usual parsing of its prose is now underway. (You can find other reactions here, and here, and an inteview with the report’s primary author, Ben Rhodes, here.) I doubt Rhodes and his colleagues were trying to take my advice, but they have succeeded in producing a document that could make even the most dedicated foreign policy wonk’s eyes glaze over. I haven’t done a word count compared to the Clinton or Bush versions, but I’d bet this one is substantially longer. It’s certainly duller. None of the earlier reports deserved prizes for clarity, consistency, or rhetorical achievement, but the new version manages to make the drama of world politics positively enervating. Given my earlier recommendation, I guess congratulations are in order.

So having struggled through it, what are my first impressions? Let me start by saying that it’s hard for me not to like a report whose first page says "to succeed, we must face the world as it is." It then goes on to say that "we need to be clear-eyed about the strengths and shortcomings of international institutions that were developed to deal with the challenges of an earlier time." I read that and almost thought that somebody had screwed up and let a realist into the drafting room. 

But I kept reading, and soon realized that this was not the case. Although the report reflects certain broad realities, it ignores plenty of others. It offers the usual bromides about NATO’s position as the “cornerstone” of U.S. engagement, for example, but takes no notice of the economic difficulties that will inevitably reduce Europe’s ability to be a substantial partner. It talks about the continued "pursuit" of Middle East peace, but is silent on what the administration has learned after eighteen months of trying. It offers a predictably upbeat view of our strategy in Central Asia without acknowledging the possibility that our efforts won’t succeed. Needless to say, that is not quite "facing the world as it is."

The main novelty in the report is its attempt to acknowledge the limits of American power while continuing to extol the virtues of U.S. primacy and global leadership. The report warns against the dangers of over-commitment and repeatedly emphasizes the need to preserve U.S. economic strength (“the foundation of American leadership”). It calls for more active cooperation with key allies and greater recognition of the ways that power is diffusing in the international system. Its focus is on the future, and it treats a number of contemporary problems as short-to-medium-term distractions that need to dealt with so that we can turn our attention to weightier and longer-term issues.

Unfortunately, this mostly sensible perspective is belied by some of the specifics. With the partial exception of Iraq, it is hard to identify any area of the world or any particular issue-area where the Obama administration intends to do less, or where it stands a good chance of getting others to do much more. On the contrary, in addition to maintaining our traditional alliances, building partnerships with new emerging powers, and continuing to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda," we are also going to create a new nuclear security regime, defeat the Taliban and build an effective government in Afghanistan, and keep the pressure on states that are defying the "international consensus" like Iran and North Korea. Our efforts in Iraq won’t really end either: combat troops may be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 but "U.S. civilian engagement will deepen and broaden" and we "will continue to retain a robust civilian presence commensurate with our strategic interests in the country and the region." (Translation: we’ll be meddling in Iraq for a long time to come, and it won’t be cheap).

But wait, there’s more! The United States is going to be “unwavering” in our pursuit of peace between Israel and its neighbors (never mind that we’ve done nothing but waver since the Cairo speech a year ago). We’re going to deny al Qaeda “safe havens” anywhere, address threats to cyberspace, achieve balanced and sustainable economic growth at home, and “accelerate sustainable development” abroad via increased and better-designed foreign assistance. We’re also going to reform existing international institutions, prepare for global pandemics, strengthen global norms against corruption, prevent genocide, reinforce international legal norms, and keep all our existing alliances intact. (I could go on, but you get the idea).

You might think this could get expensive, but don’t worry, because the report also promises that it will spend taxpayers’ dollars wisely and “put the United States back on a sustainable fiscal path.” But how can you maintain the same level of international activity and at the same time balance the budget, rebuild eroding national infrastructure, improve education, stimulate scientific and technological innovation, and foster robust economic growth? Simple answer: you can’t. 

In short, despite the nods to greater balance in our foreign policy and the need to restore fiscal solvency, the report continues to reflect the “pay any price and bear any burden” mind-set that is characteristic of American liberal internationalism. Not surprisingly, it  defines an acceptable “international order” as one where the United States “underwrites” global security and where existing institutions and policies reflect U.S. values and conform to U.S. interests. In fact, despite its rhetorical concessions to the diffusion of power and the need to adapt to new realities, the report declares that one of our key national interests is “an international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through strong cooperation to meet global challenges” (my emphasis). Or as Secretary of State Clinton put it on Thursday, “the simple fact is that no global problem can be solved without us.” (Take that, President Lula and Prime Minster Erdogan!).

According to the report, the international order we seek will be a “rules-based international system that can advance our own interests by serving mutual interests.” Right, except that the United States will reserve the right to ignore the rules when it suits us. Meanwhile, “adversarial states” (i.e., those who don’t follow our rules) will face a choice: “abide by international norms and achieve the political and economic benefits that come with greater integration with the international community; or refuse to accept this pathway, and bear the consequences of that decision, including greater isolation.” This is no different than Bush’s belief that “you’re either with us, or against us," but it is a lot more long-winded.

As a loyal American, I can understand (and maybe even support) this aspiration, and it’s easy to understand why U.S. presidents speak in such terms. But there are two obvious problems with this conception of international order. First, the report is saying that Washington will continue to define the set of rules and standards by which international behavior will be judged, and if other states don’t accept it, they will face the consequences. In the meantime, however, the United States will continue to violate other states’ sovereignty by sending in Special Forces (with or without permission), or by conducting drone strikes at suspected terrorists (ditto), and woe betide anybody who tries to do the same thing to us.  

This view assumes that having the United States "underwrite" global security is always beneficial, both to the United States but also to others. I think there are circumstances where this has been true (e.g., the United States has helped prevent security competition among the major powers in Europe and Asia for decades), but there are also plenty of places (e.g., the Middle East and Central Asia) where the United States interferences has been much more problematic. Yet the report never tries to distinguish between the areas and activities where the U.S. role is likely to be positive, and those areas or activities where American "engagement" is more likely to make things worse.

Second, the report assumes that other states are going to accept a “rules-based” order that is largely made-in-America. Maybe so, but the track record in recent years isn’t encouraging. The United States is still the world’s most powerful country, but we don’t have anywhere near the clout we had at the end of World War II, when many key global institutions were created. As I noted a few weeks ago, existing global institutions aren’t performing very well these days, mostly because there are a larger number of consequential actors and many of them have different interests than we do. The NSS report devotes some lip-service paragraphs to the diffusion of power and the need to recognize “emerging centers of influence,” but the administration’s recent back-of-the-hand response to Turkey and Brazil’s effort to broker a nuclear deal with Iran suggests that Washington still thinks these “emerging centers” should mostly mind their own business.

One final note: like most such documents (and virtually all presidential speeches), the report is written in a relentlessly exhortative tone. The phrase “we must” and words like “need” or "require” are dotted like flyspecks throughout the prose, along with the repeated declaration that “we will.” The reader is battered relentlessly by phrases like “we must build a stronger foundation for American leadership,” or “we must continue to adapt and rebalance our instruments of statecraft,” normally accompanied by the solemn declaration that we will most definitely do what is necessary to meet those requirements.

Words like these imply urgent necessity: We must do X, Y or Z or something awful will happen. But any sensible person knows that many of these so-called requirements are not essential; they are simply desirable goals that it would be good if we could achieve. But I’d bet that if we re-read this document in five or ten years, we’d discover that a lot of those “musts” and “needs” were never achieved. Not because Obama & Co. didn’t try, but rather because some of them were too hard, or misconceived, or because other goals ultimately took priority. But what does it say about our political process if our leaders keep making lots of lofty promises that we ought to know that they won’t keep?

But perhaps I’m carping too much. What matters is not what the administration says in this report (which was only written because they are required to do so by law). What matters is what they actually do in foreign policy, and also what they choose not to do. So if this particular report is a bit of a snoozer and doesn’t get all that much attention, maybe that’s all for the best. 

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

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