Daniel W. Drezner

Second thoughts about Obama’s first NSS

Hey, remember last month when I promised I’d do more than skim the National Security Strategy? It took me a while, but I finally got around to looking closely at the entire document. My assessment perfectly mirrors The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s assessment of Earth: mostly harmless. First of all, when reading these documents, ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Hey, remember last month when I promised I’d do more than skim the National Security Strategy? It took me a while, but I finally got around to looking closely at the entire document.

My assessment perfectly mirrors The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s assessment of Earth: mostly harmless.

First of all, when reading these documents, you need to separate the parts that seem really important from the parts that seem…. boilerplate. For example, consider this laughably overtaken-by-events pledge:

Effectively Manage Emergencies: We are building our capability to prepare for disasters to reduce or eliminate long-term effects to people and their property from hazards and to respond to and recover from major incidents. To improve our preparedness, we are integrating domestic all hazards planning at all levels of government and building key capabilities to respond to emergencies. We continue to collaborate with communities to ensure preparedness efforts are integrated at all levels of government with the private and nonprofit sectors. We are investing in operational capabilities and equipment, and improving the reliability and interoperability of communications systems for first responders. We are encouraging domestic regional planning and integrated preparedness programs and will encourage government at all levels to engage in long-term recovery planning. It is critical that we continually test and improve plans using exercises that are realistic in scenario and consequences.

Planning integration!! Community collaboration!! More integration!! Hey, that’s killer material in the NSS. It’s a good thing this stuff is being done to prepare for a real emergency. Oh, wait….

As to the portions that matter: it’s not that bad. In contrast to some previous strategy documents, this NSS is an actual strategy rather than a laundry list of regions and countries. The administration wisely notes the connections between domestic economic vitality and the ability to project and husband power in a complex world. In contrast to a lot of criticism I read, the administration makes a clear distinction between allies (NATO, Japan) and partners (Russia, China). The attitude towards multilateral institutions is appropriately clear-eyed. Al Qaeda is discussed but not to the point of obsession. The strategy could have just quoted John Quincy Adams rather than trying to perfect his prose about promoting democracy abroad by practicing it at home — but that’s picking at nits.

So, most of it is harmless. There are two things that nagged at me after I’d finished it, however.

First, there’s a mismatch between the Obama administration’s emphasis on retrenchment/"hard choices" and their sincere commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons. From his 2007 Foreign Affairs essay onwards, every major strategy document has emphasized that the administration will "Pursue the Goal of a World Without Nuclear Weapons." This is the part of the NSS with feeling, and the part where the administration has racked up some significant achievements.

The thing is, a retrenchment strategy requires relying on the tools of power that yield the greatest bang for the buck. Nuclear weapons accomplish little as a means of compellence, but they are the best and most cost-effective deterrent capability imaginable. Now, nothing the Obama administration has done to date compromises that deterrent capability. They seem to be moving in that direction, however. Pledging to eliminate nuclear weapons involves investing a lot of diplomatic capital towards a goal that fundamentally contradicts the national interest of the United States.

The second problem is the strictly horatory nature of some of the key NSS planks. There’s a lot of "rising fiscal and trade deficits will… necessitate hard choices in the years ahead" kind of talk in the document. There are repeated emphases on getting America’s fiscal house in order. Which is great, until we get to the paragraph on how this is going to happen:

Reduce the Deficit: We cannot grow our economy in the long term unless we put the United States back on a sustainable fiscal path. To begin this effort, the Administration has proposed a 3-year freeze in nonsecurity discretionary spending, a new fee on the largest financial services companies to recoup taxpayer losses for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and the closing of tax loopholes and unnecessary subsidies. The Administration has created a bipartisan fiscal commission to suggest further steps for medium-term deficit reduction and will work for fiscally responsible health insurance reform that will bring down the rate of growth in health care costs, a key driver of the country’s fiscal future.

That’s it? I was expecting a bit more. True, budget pledges in a National Security Strategy don’t count for much, but would it have been so bad to articulate a more detailed vision of our fiscal future? If the administration can pledge to double exports in the next five years, can’t it put in a goal for what the debt/GDP ratio will look like by 2015?

Still, on the whole, it’s a decent strategy document as these things go.

Mostly harmless. Mostly.

A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola