Obama’s National Security Strategy Clarifies Vision, But Blueprint Fuzzy

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Unlike President George W. Bush's seminal 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) that laid out the provocative doctrine of pre-emption — which formed the basis for America's disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq — President Obama's recently released NSS lacks an overarching thesis to define the administration's national security philosophy, embracing a much broader view of the threats that America faces.

 

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PHOTO: PFC. CHRISTIAN PALERMO / U.S. ARMY

Analysts pore over these documents — released once each presidential term — for insights into how an administration views the country's security challenges and how it intends to meet them (also see "Bush National Security Strategy Drawing Both Praise and Criticism" in the November 2002 issue of The Washington Diplomat). To one extent or another, they are all filled with lofty ideals and vague government speak — whether it's Obama's declaration to build a "a world in which America is stronger, more secure, and is able to overcome our challenges while appealing to the aspirations of people around the world," or Bush's pledge "to translate this moment of influence into decades of peace, prosperity and liberty."

Yet at the same time, couched within the requisite "make the world a better place" sentiment is an underlying framework that in theory guides an administration's vision — and can translate into hugely consequential policy decisions.

Bush from the outset made it clear that America has a responsibility to use its "unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence" to spread its model of democracy around the world and ensure fundamental human rights for everyone. "These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society — and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages," Bush's 2002 NSS stated.

"By making the world safer, we allow the people of the world to make their own lives better. We will defend this just peace against threats from terrorists and tyrants."

Words like "tyrants," "terror," "enemies" and "evil" seen throughout Bush's 31-page strategy don't get much play in Obama's 52-page document. Rather, the 2010 NSS, released May 27, is notable for breaking with Bush's singular focus on counterterrorism and expounding on the threats that America faces — arguing that they are part of a large tapestry of globalization and domestic issues that defy cookie-cutter, zero-sum solutions.

Although it prominently discusses the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the battle against "violent extremists" such as al-Qaeda, Obama says this fight is "only one element of our strategic environment and cannot define America's engagement with the world." Failing states, nuclear proliferation, global economic growth, health care, poverty and climate change are among the many forces the United States must confront in a 21st-century world.

The NSS cautions though that military might remains crucial, and the United States will "maintain the military superiority that has secured our country, and underpinned global security, for decades" — but muscle alone cannot ensure peace. Diplomacy and development must complement defense. And although the international system has its flaws, the United States must work within that system, building alliances instead of going it alone, the NSS argues — pointing out that "America has not succeeded by stepping outside the currents of international cooperation," one of several not-so-subtle jabs at the previous administration's unilateralist approach.

As James Traub, author of "The Freedom Agenda," noted in his blog on Foreign Policy, "Bush 2002 was a response to 9/11; Obama 2010 is a response to the failure of that response."

It was also quite a wide-ranging response that examined foreign policy by looking inward, positing that domestic problems like the fiscal deficit impact the country's overall security. "Our strategy starts by recognizing that our strength and influence abroad begins with the steps we take at home," Obama's NSS contends. "We must grow our economy and reduce our deficit. We must educate our children to compete in an age where knowledge is capital, and the marketplace is global. We must develop clean energy that can power new industry, unbind us from foreign oil, and preserve our planet.... Simply put, we must see American innovation as a foundation of American power."

To that end, the document also tries to perform a delicate balancing act of sorts, touting America's enduring leadership while acknowledging its limits.

It largely dismisses concerns about the erosion of U.S. power — arguing that "no nation should be better positioned to lead in an era of globalization than America" — while also recognizing the shifting geopolitical landscape and the rise of emerging powers like China and India, as well as the reality of an America "hardened by war" and "disciplined by a devastating economic crisis."

"The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone," Obama says in the introduction of the NSS. "Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power."

Yes some experts say Obama's ambitious NSS may be overextending itself.

"National Security Strategies are curious documents. They tend to either be at the 20,000-foot level with unassailable generalities, or like a Christmas tree, with every bureau and agency getting their issue mentioned," observed Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington. "That was the failing of this document. It's an extremely important statement that U.S. foreign policy can't be defined by terrorism, but the difficulty is its lack of priority-setting. It tries to be a blueprint for a huge number of issues."

Yet supporters applaud Obama for highlighting issues that Bush ignored in 2002. "The National Security Strategy makes clear that military power is simply one result of the many other factors that undergird American strength, including an economic system that enables firm creation and growth, immigration policies that allow the United States to attract and retain the world's best talent, and our education system," according to Nathaniel Fick, chief executive officer of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security (CNAS). "Only if we get these fundamentals right will the United States have the resources and standing to defeat al-Qaeda, combat nuclear proliferation, and assemble the coalitions necessary to confront the complex security environment that lies ahead."

Still, the NSS offers few specifics on the many issues it raises, particularly Obama's sweeping domestic agenda. Although one of the basic tenets of the NSS is that economic prosperity is fundamental to improving U.S. national security, the document glosses over how exactly the government should advance "priorities like education, energy, science and technology, and health care." It calls for an innovative, educated workforce, for instance, yet avoids the hard questions over immigration.

But others counter that the NSS is not meant to be a detailed policy breakdown but rather a big-picture blueprint. And the fact that the document cites so many seemingly disparate problems simply reflects the truth of today's complex, interconnected yet fractured world.

"The Obama administration's National Security Strategy displays an impressive understanding of the new threats and challenges America faces in this new century," according to John Nagl, president of CNAS. "It recognizes that America is stronger when it fights alongside its allies and helps our partners build their own capacity to combat the threats we share — from al-Qaeda to climate change to cyber attacks."

To that end, Obama has generally won praise for eschewing his predecessor's rejection of international organizations that didn't toe the American line. "The international architecture of the 20th century is buckling under the weight of new threats," Obama's NSS cautions, arguing that "strengthening international institutions can resolve the challenges of our times."

"It's a quite provocative comment to make," Patrick told The Washington Diplomat. "It's one of the main thrusts of the entire document, combined with the notion of integrating rising major powers."

Indeed, one of the most salient points of the Obama NSS is its recognition that the United States lives in an increasingly multi-polar world. It refers repeatedly to the growing importance of the Group of 20 (G-20), the expanded version of the world's leading economic forum, the G-8. China, India, Russia and other emerging powers are also referenced as key actors in finding solutions to the world's most pressing problems.

Throughout the document, Obama calls for "strengthening" such institutions as the United Nations and agreements like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And in a bold break from decades of overwhelming reliance on the U.S. military to achieve foreign policy objectives, the Obama NSS states that "diplomacy is as fundamental to our national security as our defense capability" — and seems to plan for significantly more public diplomacy abroad.

Obama's emphasis on diplomacy has been a longstanding theme of his administration. What has been less certain is how the president plans to achieve this aim, especially in an era when crushing U.S. budget deficits make investing more tax dollars into diplomacy a political non-starter.

In fact, the House Appropriations Committee has been busy debating how to cut Obama's requested $58.8 billion International Affairs Budget for the next fiscal year. Obama himself makes scant mention in the NSS of how he would boost diplomacy or development spending — nor does he offer a comprehensive plan for slashing the national deficit. The president has promised to enact a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, along with closing tax loopholes, eliminating unnecessary subsidies and other measures — but the NSS doesn't touch on the thorny question of defense spending, which amounts to almost $700 billion in 2010, by far dwarfing all other federal expenditures, including the State Department's budget.

"Obama coming into office emphasized the diplomatic side of foreign policy," said James Lindsay, a senior vice president at CFR. "But if you look at spending on national security, spending on defense has skyrocketed. There has been a bias back to the beginning of the Cold War toward turning to the military instead of diplomats for foreign policy. The president is traditionally frustrated by what the State Department can do — it's the 90-pound weakling. President Obama will probably not get a lot more funding for diplomacy due to the budget deficit and the political difficulty."

Travis Sharp of CNAS also blames the State Department's "cultural aversion to legislative affairs and budgeting, the bureaucratic dispersion of foreign policy activities, and the absence of a large political constituency supporting public diplomacy" for making it very difficult to get increased international affairs funding through Congress. "Indeed, House appropriators already cut $4 billion this year from President Obama's State and foreign operations budget request," he told The Diplomat. "The all-powerful fiefdoms that are congressional committees will fight tooth and nail to prevent integrating the budgets for diplomacy, development and defense."

Patrick agreed that despite all the positive rhetoric about realigning the so-called "3 Ds," Obama faces an uphill battle diverting resources from the Pentagon toward Foggy Bottom. "In difficult financial times, the international affairs account is one of the first to go, especially if there's some pressure on Capitol Hill to cut back on some spending on foreign assistance," he said, explaining that there's a natural inclination to dismiss diplomatic funding on the Hill, where almost every congressional district is home to at least one military facility.

"The late Bush administration and Obama's budget should be lauded for attempting to increase civilian reserve capability abroad, but it will be tough to have everything hold, especially with the president's global AIDS initiatives," Patrick noted. "To keep the entire thing going without making tradeoffs is going to be difficult."

Lindsay added that although there is less likelihood of spending more on international institutions, that doesn't mean the administration will soften its support of them in other ways. He cited recent meetings of the G-20 as an example, with Obama pushing to expand the group's mandate. "That doesn't require spending more but requires the ability to acquire decisions and act on the basis of them," he noted.

Patrick agreed that Obama has demonstrated a clear willingness to bolster international institutions, financially and otherwise. "Obama has said we'll pay our dues to the U.N., but it's more indicative of a strengthened commitment to following international rules," he said. "It's a mixed picture, but it does signal the dawn of a new era in which emerging powers need to be at the table, whether we're dealing with currencies, climate change, etc. These decisions can't be made in a cozy Western boardroom. You have to open it up."

Yet at the same time, Patrick also points out that the perception of traditional G-8 powers losing ground to the G-20 isn't entirely accurate because of the sheer difficulty of having a conversation with 20 countries. "There's a sense of shared vision amongst the G-8, even with Russia there," he said. "It's like putting on a comfortable shoe, allowing intimate conversations."

So as much as Obama seems to embrace developing countries — such as the BRIC contingency of Brazil, Russia, India and China — notably missing among the NSS references is the "B" in BRIC: Brazil. While the South American powerhouse is mentioned, it receives remarkably little prominence given its growing economic and diplomatic clout. Experts speculate this may reflect the administration's pique at such Brazilian forays as its recent partnership with Turkey on a "fuel swap" deal with Iran to alleviate concerns over Tehran's nuclear weapons program.

"It's not necessarily an accident," said Patrick of the NSS's de-emphasis on Brazil. "There's admiration for Brazil and recognition that it has expanded its economic influence and social development. But Brazil's diplomacy over the last year has been problematic and worrisome, making U.S. officials wonder whether Brazil sees the world in the same way the U.S. does. There is concern that Brazilian foreign policy has been defined in opposition to America."

Likewise, although Obama's NSS acknowledges the push by Brazil and other developing nations to reform the U.N. Security Council, dominated since its inception by five veto-wielding members, the U.S. appetite for opening the exclusive club up to emerging powers is fairly weak.

Lindsay said the Obama administration, like its predecessors, including Bush, is on the record as supporting Security Council expansion. "That in and of itself doesn't say very much," he argued. "What matters is who is allowed to join and at what level. There's no incentive for the administration to answer that question ahead of time."

Patrick, who is co-authoring a report on the subject, warned in fact that there may be greater risks than rewards to inclusion. "The challenges to charter revision are enormous," he said, explaining that one key difficulty is expanding the council in a restrained manner. "There are questions about the effectiveness of an enlarged council on difficult issues like North Korea. There's a huge number of moving parts."

"It does appear true that international organizations like the U.N. and NATO are not particularly well-suited to address the key 'challenges of our times,' such as transnational terrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change," added Brian Burton of CNAS. "Strengthening such institutions may be desirable, but we have yet to determine how exactly they should be doing better. The fundamental problem isn't really the institutions — it's the fact that the member states of these institutions often hold very different values, priorities and points of view. It's very hard to get, for example, the U.S. and China and India to see eye to eye on climate change, or the U.S. and its NATO allies to agree on how important it is to stabilize Afghanistan. This is a problem inherent to international relations and I don't see it changing."

On that front, Obama's desire to draw in more international stakeholders is a double-edged sword. "That gets to the core of the Obama NSS. The president argues for a policy of engagement because he sees that solving our most pressing problems requires other countries to be involved," Lindsay said. "The problem is what if you invite those countries to the table and they fail to be helpful? The NSS doesn't answer that question. What's their plan B?"

One plan though that Obama seems to abandon is Bush's so-called "freedom agenda." Rather, the 2010 NSS takes a far humbler approach to exporting democracy, mentioning the words "freedom" and "liberty" about a dozen times, compared to more than 100 times for Bush in his 2006 NSS.

"We are promoting universal values abroad by living them at home and we will not seek to impose these values by force," says Obama's NSS, an implied slap at the Iraq invasion and post-facto Bush war rationale of supporting democracy in the Middle East.

But as much as supporters have applauded what they say is a return to a more realist U.S. foreign policy, Lindsay says this is nothing new.

"In any NSS, the authors will argue that they are seeing the world as it is, so that hardly distinguishes this one," he said. "Obama has been criticized because he hasn't put democracy as a leading national security priority, but full-throated support for democratization can be counter-productive."

Patrick described the NSS statements on the topic as both a strong break from, and reaction to, Bush's emphasis on promoting democracy abroad. "Obama has adopted a more sober and pragmatic position on human rights," he said. "That's been satisfying to foreign policy realists and a disappointment to neocons and human rights activists" — many of whom say that merely setting an "example" isn't enough to sway authoritarian regimes.

"There's nothing to be gained by hectoring countries like China," Patrick says. "But we have to be careful to look like we are not abandoning our civil society allies in China, Russia and other countries. There's a debate about whether to do this more quietly, but there's also a sense of increasing emphasis on economic and social rights instead of primarily political rights. In a way, this is a shift."

Yet some of the shifts between the Bush and Obama security strategies aren't nearly as tectonic as they may appear at first glance. For instance, Obama doesn't mention one of the most defining aspects of the 2002 document — the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive attack against countries or non-state actors who may pose a threat — although Obama doesn't explicitly rule it out either.

"While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can, and carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction," he says, adding that when force is necessary, "we will seek broad international support."

"President Obama's new National Security Strategy is already being interpreted as a major break with his predecessor's approach. But for all of its rhetorical distancing, there is much more continuity — with Bush and with the other presidencies in modern times — than not," argues Richard Fontaine, senior fellow at CNAS. "The transatlantic relationship is still the cornerstone of American international engagement. The gravest danger to America comes from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists. The United States still reserves the right to act unilaterally and does not rule out pre-emption, even if we do not trumpet that fact. America will maintain military superiority, promote democracy, isolate Iran and North Korea, and counter violent extremism. We will work against the Taliban and with the Iraqis.

"There are a few differences in substance, and many in tone," he adds. "But it would be wrong to say that this is either a stark break with the past or merely Bush redux. It is more America redux."

Thomas Ricks, also of CNAS, says the individual value of an NSS can often be overstated. "The proof of the National Security Strategy will be in the execution, which rarely rises to the level of the prose in the report," he contends. "Generally these documents prove to be lists of aspirations rather than genuine strategies that state who we are, what we want to do, how we want to do it, and what resources we will use to do it."

"The realities of the international system and continuing American interests still inform the majority of U.S. foreign policy, irrespective of administration," according to Fontaine. "The new strategy less breaks with these and instead pledges to do things more effectively than in the past. Time will tell."


About the Author

Anna Gawel is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and news columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.

Last Edited on July 1, 2014