The fact that the 2015 National Security Strategy was released a year before the Obama administration becomes a lame duck has made it almost inevitable that it will become an after-the-fact justification for the administration’s national security policy to date.
Nonetheless, the NSS is an important document. Here’s why: we now know that the Obama administration fully understands the world in which it’s in, but it doesn’t know how to deal with it.
The introduction to the NSS provides a great overview of the Obama administration’s thinking on “leadership.” It settles the question as to whether the administration thinks the United States should lead — it does — but, more importantly, it discusses the type of leadership for a new world.
Choosing to lead with “purpose,” “strength,” “example,” “capable partners,” “all instruments of US power,” and a “long-term perspective” shows a realization by the Obama administration that it must purposefully convey its actions, be able to carry out those actions, remain credible and a good friend to our partners, and use all tools of statecraft available to achieve goals in the short-, medium-, and long-term. The NSS eschews the normal crisis management that keeps the National Security Council busy on a day-to-day basis and makes the case for all actions to be seen as one small move in a much larger game. This firmly puts the president in the “realist” school of foreign policy thinking. At the end of the day, that is great news.
The other good news is that the administration has a firm grasp of the large-scale global changes that have occurred since the first NSS in 2010. It states that “power among states is more dynamic;” “power is shifting below and beyond the nation-state;” “the global economy and rapid pace of technological change are linking individuals, groups, and governments in unprecedented ways”; “a struggle for power is underway among and within many states of the Middle East and North Africa;” and “the global energy market has changed dramatically.” The implication of these five trends is that the United States will deal with a world nearly unrecognizable only five years ago and that will require new tools of strategy, strategic thinking, and old-school statecraft to be successful.
The good news sadly ends there. After a dynamic and somewhat groundbreaking introduction, the administration reverts to old ways of thinking about strategy. The main sections of the NSS are on “security,” “prosperity,” “values,” and “international order.” Obviously, these are important things to keep in mind, but should these old-school strategic traits be part of a new-school world? These older notions of strategy and statecraft may not prove as valuable going forward in such a dynamic and tumultuous world.
There is also the issue of implementation. Despite being very clear about what it sees in the world, the administration’s document is less impressive in describing how it wants to deal with certain issues. For example, in a section on improving global health security, the NSS discusses how the United States is “the world leader in fighting pandemics” and describes why, but does not provide concrete examples of how the United States plans to improve health security. Granted strategies such as this one are normally light on prescriptions, still at least some outline as to what we should expect — and more than just saying “we will save lives by strengthening regulatory frameworks” — would have been appreciated.
If this document were a speech intended to tell us about the state of the global order, it would be quite remarkable. It’s a sober analysis of threats to the United States and the world. We have seen an impressive change in just the last five years, which underscores the rate of change in the world that the document does well to detail. As a strategy, though, it’s hard to say that it’s a success. The thinking is based in the old ways. There is no real outline for how the United States should carry out its actions in this new world. There is a great section on the new form of leadership, but having a plan on how to lead, while important, still doesn’t demonstrate that you know how to get things done. That’s what this document should have described, and it didn’t. Indeed, this is a description document, not a prescription one — and we sorely needed the latter.
Alex Ward is Assistant Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.