While the United States had often followed an unofficial grand strategy (e.g., containment during the Cold War), Congress required the president to formalize one since 1986.  While President Obama has yet to do so, we have a pretty good idea what his foreign policy vision will be.


The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act requires the publication of a National Security Strategy by June 15 of a new administration.  No president has ever met the deadline, however, and Obama is no exception; one isn’t expected this year.

Given the lack of a formal strategy, those inside and outside of government rely on reading presidential speeches, analyzing policy decisions, and listening to key national security actors. Pieces of an Obama security strategy have become visible over the last six months, but Secretary Clinton gave us a very good preview of US national strategy during her speech at the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday.

Strategic Priorities

Discussing U.S. priorities, she said:

We want to reverse the spread of nuclear weapons, prevent their use, and build a world free of their threat.  We want to isolate and defeat terrorists and counter violent extremists while reaching out to Muslims around the world.  We want to encourage and facilitate the efforts of all parties to pursue and achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.  We want to seek global economic recovery and growth by strengthening our own economy, advancing a robust development agenda, expanding trade that is free and fair, and boosting investment that creates decent jobs.  We want to combat climate change, increase energy security, and lay the foundation for a prosperous clean-energy future.  We want to support and encourage democratic governments that protect the rights and deliver results for their people.  And we intend to stand up for human rights everywhere. 

In terms of the U.S. approach, multilateralism is the goal and watchword.  Clinton also wants to change the language from multipolar with peer competitors to a multi-partner world. She sees a shared sense of insecurity giving rise to new structures and reforming old ones.

The Obama administration sees:

The same forces that compound our problems – economic interdependence, open borders, and the speedy movement of information, capital, goods, services and people – are also part of the solution.  And with more states facing common challenges, we have the chance, and a profound responsibility, to exercise American leadership to solve problems in concert with others.  That is the heart of America’s mission in the world today.”

Today, we must acknowledge two inescapable facts that define our world:  First, no nation can meet the world’s challenges alone.  The issues are too complex.  Too many players are competing for influence, from rising powers to corporations to criminal cartels; from NGOs to al-Qaida; from state-controlled media to individuals using Twitter.

Most nations worry about the same global threats, from non-proliferation to fighting disease to counter-terrorism, but also face very real obstacles – for reasons of history, geography, ideology, and inertia.  They face these obstacles and they stand in the way of turning commonality of interest into common action.

Pillars of U.S. Foreign Policy

To advance and defend U.S. (and global interests), Secretary Clinton sees unity of effort essential. Smart power continues to be the approach the administration desires, which will bring all relevant government actors to the table and to the field. This approach rests on five pillars of U.S. foreign policy.

1.      Build stronger mechanisms of cooperation with our historic allies, with emerging powers, and with multilateral institutions, and to pursue that cooperation in, as I said, a pragmatic and principled way.

2.      Lead with diplomacy, even in the cases of adversaries or nations with whom we disagree.  We believe that doing so advances our interests and puts us in a better position to lead with our other partners.  We cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage.

3.      Elevate and integrate development as a core pillar of American power.  We advance our security, our prosperity, and our values by improving the material conditions of people’s lives around the world.  These efforts also lay the groundwork for greater global cooperation, by building the capacity of new partners and tackling shared problems from the ground up.

4.      Ensure that our civilian and military efforts operate in a coordinated and complementary fashion where we are engaged in conflict.  This is the core of our strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, where we are integrating our efforts with international partners.

5.      Shore up traditional sources of our influence, including economic strength and the power of our example.

The Obama administration certainly continues to see the United States in similar ways as President Bush did-U.S. leadership is essential to combat nuclear proliferation, terrorism, generate Middle East peace, and improve global economic conditions. The addition of climate change concerns and improving multilateral institutions are new. What is uncertain is how the United States will behave if diplomacy cannot prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, encourage developing states to pursue clean energy policies, or recognize oppressed peoples seeking greater freedom. As the Obama administration crosses the mid-point of its first year, we will be able to evaluate the administration’s policy to judge how well its ideas are implemented.

Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.  These views are his own.