After an extended hiatus punctuated by a series of field exams, I am back to blogging – and the time is opportune. As early as this week, the Obama Administration will be releasing its first national security strategy.
National security strategies in the US are formal documents submitted to the US Congress on an annual basis in fulfillment of a legislative mandate established by the Goldwater-Nichols Legislation of 1986. In practice, however, the NSS is only revised two or maybe three times in a President’s term. After all, any strategy that lives up to its name should remain relevant for at least a few years. The last NSS was issued in 2006 by the Bush Administration.
Before parsing statements from National Security Advisor Jim Jones and the President himself this past weekend to preview the broad sweeps of the strategy, it is worth asking why the NSS is important in the first place.
WHY THE NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGY MATTERS
First, the NSS is a capstone document that sits atop a hierarchy of national strategy documents. To the extent that these strategies do have real-world policy and budgetary effects, they are very important indeed.
The Federal Government supports a cottage industry of strategy-generating offices and bureaucracies. We have strategies for everything from combating weapons of mass destruction to securing cyberspace to controlling drugs. Each of these strategies, and the departmental budgets and priorities that they support, are theoretically subservient to the priorities outlined in the NSS. In practice, this relationship is maintained through the issuance of “implementation plans” that spell out how departments and programs support the priorities enshrined in the strategy documents in mind-numbing detail. These documents tend to be classified.
Second, the process of generating a coherent NSS serves an important function within the administration. By definition, the NSS process requires policy-makers to look beyond the day-to-day crises, articulate their assumptions about the security environment, assess America’s priorities, and formulate a theory regarding how America’s security is best advanced. Eisenhower once quipped that although plans are often useless, planning is essential. Much the same could be said about policy-planning.
Lastly, the NSS creates a common lens or shared “mental map” among policy-makers that colors how they perceive the world around them. The principles and priorities enshrined in the NSS become an intellectual touchstone that shapes how the American leadership understands, shapes, and reacts to external events.
President Bush’s first NSS in 2002 described transnational and state-based threats in the starkest terms, endorsed the notion of prevention under the aegis of preemption, and issued a call-to-arms declaring that:
History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act. In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action.
One need only to review American foreign policy choices from 2002 through 2006 (when the next NSS was issued) to conclude that the NSS is in fact a prescient indicator of an administration’s approach to foreign-policy decision-making.
Obama’s first NSS is expected to constitute a significant break with the previous administration’s strategies. Yet, much of Obama’s national security policy to-date has borne a striking resemblance to that of the Bush Administration. It will be interesting to see where the Administration acknowledges continuities and seeks to create conceptual and policy breaks from the past. If history is any guide, these distinctions will be reflected in a big way down the road.