The Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy reflects a consistent American approach to the world, something that continues whether it is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House.
The strategy accentuates a positive agenda and a confidence in America’s strength. It is explicit in rejecting fear as our basis for dealing with the world. It affirms the primary importance of diplomacy and a whole-of-community approach to national security.
All administrations affirm American values, but it is good to have a President reaffirm them. On leadership, the President has made clear that America must lead and will lead, vaulting over the polemics about “leadership from behind.”
He likewise put behind the felicitous “pivot” issue by stressing that our global strategy is not going to be revolving around a single threat or a region. I was concerned before reading the document that the President might make more of a strategic issue of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), for example, than I believe that problem warrants. I believe he set that problem more properly in its larger and more complex strategic context.
Another positive feature of this National Security Strategy is the emphasis on the interdependence of global economies and cooperation with other states that share our stake in the rules of the road and global stability based on the post-World War 2 order. It was good that the President recognized these as fundamental strategic assets and America’s great contribution to the world, though he acknowledged that these are not perfect and in need of an update. The President’s emphasis on sustaining and updating the international system – the international rule of law – as a key element of American leadership was right on the mark.
For me the big question is not about new policy directions, but how do we implement, execute, and carry out this strategy? It seems the verdict, whether by historians, academics, think tanks, or by the electorate is going to be not so much on the rightness or wrongness of this strategy, but in how successfully the President upholds it and carries it out. That’s where the scope for criticism and debate really lies: not so much in the words the President has laid out about our purposes, but how competently the Obama administration will carry out this strategy.
The Atlantic Council is developing a bipartisan effort to establish a strategic approach to one part of the world that the President covered: the Middle East. We have some eminent Americans involved, and equally importantly, we have already reached out to eminent stakeholders in the region to address this question of implementation. Working within the strategy the President has laid out, how do we collaborate most effectively to accomplish it?
This strategy statement naturally does not get down to the operational aspects. A complete strategy lays out goals, but then puts with those goals a plan for achieving them and the commitment of resources necessary to accomplish those plans. This is a strong statement of the goals, but does not address the plans or the resources needed to realize them.
It does begin to address a bit of the “how,” but the statement affirms the principles guiding an approach, rather than a plan of action. This is certainly important and useful, and these critical omissions are fair enough in such a document. But this means that the substance of the President’s speeches and budget submissions has to be the planning and resourcing that will be part and parcel of the strategy.
The President’s emphasis on the Middle East and seeking stability and peace were no less spot on for being standard reaffirmations of American policy. While preserving our principled approach to promoting democracy and human rights, he made clear we are willing to work with all the stakeholders in the region to build up state capacity for security, prosperity, and good governance. I like the principled realism inherent in that.
Francis J. Ricciardone is the Vice President and Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He most recently served as the US Ambassador to Turkey from 2011-2014.