My first thought upon seeing the long-awaited National Security Strategy was to recall the comments made to me some years ago by a prominent international leader when asked why he said certain things that seemed well beyond his ability to deliver, “Les mots, n’importe pas.” (Words don’t matter).
For an administration six years on, its deeds precede whatever well-crafted phrases of noble intent it puts forward. There tends to be an element of boilerplate ritual in these congressionally mandated reports, and this one is no exception. Obligatory statements about promoting values of democracy and human rights are de rigueur, though in the real world, transparent limits of the US ability to do so are too often painfully obvious. Statements like “Today’s strategic environment is fluid,” while accurate, tells us precious little.
To be fair, in the introduction, President Obama has it right, pointing out, “[T]he question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead.”
That is precisely the $64-million-dollar question. Though the NSS has standard references to alliance and partnerships, in a world where wealth and power has diffused from North and West to East and South, look no further than Ukraine or Syria to see how difficult the global problem-solving has become and how troublesome the global governance deficit remains.
When the post-World War II order was created in the 1940s, the US was the world’s largest creditor and accounted for 50 percent of the global economy. As we seek to shape a 21st Century order still in transition, we are in the awkward position of being the world’s largest debtor, accounting for about 22 percent of the global economy, yet having by far the world’s most capable military, the only one with global reach. The NSS doesn’t entirely answer the mail on how all those pieces fit together.
Nonetheless, the NSS, if anything, understates US strength (and some of Obama’s successes), the foundation of leadership. The successful recovery from the worst financial crisis since the 1930s; the Shale Revolution, which has made the US an energy superpower; and our sustained role as the global center of technology innovation has positioned the US better than any other major power to face the challenges of the 21st Century.
The NSS has accurately outlined the top strategic risks — catastrophic attacks on the homeland, global economic crisis, WMD proliferation, climate change, etc. and rightly derides the budget sequestration constraining our ability to pursue priorities of national security.
The NSS underscores the importance of rules and norms to maintain unimpeded access to the global commons — maritime, air, cyber and outer space — but places too little emphasis on the degree to which access is being challenged.
Finally, in regard to international order, the NSS rightly emphasized the importance of rules, norms, and international institutions, but understates the degree to which they are stressed and does not inspire confidence that it has a strategy to update and reform for more effective global governance in the 21st Century.
In prioritizing regions, the NSS reassuringly puts at the top the need for the US to remain a vibrant Pacific power and energize its rebalance to Asia, as well as stressing the importance of the transatlantic partnership. In framing Middle East goals of “seeking stability,” it connotes a sense of realism that for the coming generation damage control is the best that can be hoped for. One can argue with placing Africa above Latin America, as the increasing integration of the Western Hemisphere should be an important foreign policy priority, while Africa is and will be problematic.
Robert A. Manning is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He served as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council from 2008-12. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.