The Obama National Security Strategy was released on May 27. Such a broad document inevitably includes vague words like “engage” and “ensure” and “seek to,” that describe without defining.   Pundits around town are parsing the document for specifics in areas of policy, but Budget Insight places particular focus on implementing the strategy: what does it tell us about who is responsible for what, how it will be done, and how it will be paid for. Only the 2012 budget request can fully answer the question, but a number of them occur to us on reading the strategy.

First, are the missions and the priorities clear?

There does seem to be an overall hierarchy, and it is familiar: a reworded concern about terrorism, as “violent extremism,” nuclear proliferation, a healthy US economy, and follow-on concerns about the Middle East, stronger partners, etc.

    * On the military side, no clear prioritization of missions. As in the QDR, the NSS provides no priorities among military missions, but repeats a long shopping list that could drive force structure and budget expectations even higher than they are now.

    * On the civilian side, the missions are equally multiple and unprioritized.

    * There does seem to be a broader concern about governance, as the context for security assistance and other support for strengthening weak or fragile states.  That is progress from a pure security sector reform perspective.

    * There is some useful discussion, though not very detailed, of conflict prevention and response as a mission.

    * Development as a mission is significantly buried in the strategy, and not presented as a core part of a diplomacy-defense-development trilogy.

Second, how does the strategy address structures and organizational responsibilities, at home and internationally?

    * Internationally, it puts a strong priority on working with allies and strengthening international organizations.  That is a new tone, but aside from endorsing the G-20 group for economic matters, there is not much detail on how these organizations might be reformed and strengthened and what the capabilities the U.S. could contribute.

    * The strategy does not provide much detail on how U.S. diplomatic and development capabilities will be strengthened.  It does put strong emphasis, however, on using all the instruments of American statecraft as part of our global engagement, and warns against overuse of the military.

Interagency Process

    * While the strategy addresses a number of issues that require strong interagency attention – climate change, energy, proliferation, for example – it does not offer any new vision of how these issues will actually be dealt with on an interagency basis.

    * The NSS takes credit for “integrating” national and homeland security, but staff co-location under additional leadership is not integration.  How the two are actually connected at the White House level is not clear.

    * The NSS addresses “whole of government” not as description, but prescription.  It does not provide a sense of appropriate roles and responsibilities between international development (USAID) and other primarily civilian departments who have also begun to operate more overseas due to globalization of challenges.


    * While focusing important attention on the imperative to rebuild America’s economy and to reduce the federal deficit, the NSS does not provide a clear blueprint for budget reductions beyond efficient management.  It does not suggest missions that will not be done or risks we should be prepared to accept. With major deficit reductions looming, these issues will have to be confronted in the near future.

    * It does not provide a strong defense of the level of foreign policy spending on strengthened diplomacy and foreign assistance.  Congress is targeting these programs for major reductions, which will make the “balanced” implementation of this expansive strategy more difficult.


    * While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led the roll-out of the strategy, a good signal about the administration’s view of the State Department’s role, there was no evidence of a shift in responsibility or authority from DOD to State in the strategy itself.

    * Nor does the document suggest any restraints of DOD’s current responsibilities for security assistance or post-conflict response, both a focus of much interagency discussion.  It does, however, refer to an on-going review of the former.

    * While there are references to foreign assistance earmarks, there is no broad vision of how the administration would shape or reshape foreign assistance and development programs, nor an indication of how they might approach revised foreign assistance legislation.

Laura A. Hall  is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center. This article originally appeared on the blog Budget Insight. It is also part of the NSS Review – a collection of expert analysis on the Obama Administration’s National Security Strategy.