December 02, 2013

The Reality of National Security Strategies

By Richard Fontaine

News that President Obama will issue his second National Security Strategy in early 2014 occasions some thinking about these lofty documents that seek to articulate an American approach to the world.  Turned out once every presidential term or so, national security strategies aim high.  As his message to Congress noted, the President will update the vision laid out in his 2010 strategy and describe his administration’s national security priorities for the remainder of his term.

Yet, it’s important to recognize just what the National Security Strategy is – and what it isn’t.  Ambassador Ryan Crocker once described it as a mandated exercise that doesn’t “tell us terribly much about national security or strategy.”  A bit harsh, perhaps, but not far from the mark.  That’s because the name itself is something of a misnomer:  the NSS isn’t really a strategy – in every administration it’s more like a really long speech.

Following the 2010 NSS, I posted this article which sought to lay out how these things work.  A few of the points are worth visiting again.     

First, national security strategies tend to be highly a-strategic.  That is, they do not spell out desired ends, articulate the steps needed to achieve those ends, and then describe the required resources.  Want to know what precisely the United States seeks in Afghanistan post-2014, how many personnel and dollars will be required per year, and for how long?  It’s unlikely to be in the NSS. 

Instead, national security strategies tend to look at what the government is doing already, discern the principles behind those actions, and then package them as the product of overarching strategic thought.  The authors tell themselves that what they are actually doing is bringing into high relief the principles and thinking that implicitly underlay policy thus far. That's actually sort of right, but it doesn't mark a new course -- it's a distillation of what they already believe and are doing.

Second, there tends to be something for everyone.  In order to avoid getting charged with overlooking some key matter, these documents make at least passing reference to all sorts of issues.  Obama’s 2010 NSS mentioned not only terrorism and nuclear weapons and economic growth, but also pandemic disease, information sharing with the private sector, aviation security, STEM education, and immigration reform. 

Third, the NSS is largely for external consumption.  Policymakers will rely on guidance provided by PC and DC papers that have actual agreed-upon policies and actions, but not on a NSS-style document. The only reason one might conceivably cite the NSS as a policymaker is to argue that your preferred course is right and someone else's is wrong -- "See, paragraph 3 on page 17 says that our nation is committed to do exactly what I am advocating; yours isn't in there, so I am right and you are contradicting the President's policy."

Fourth, surprisingly, it is not all a wasted exercise, so long as you recognize the limitations. In the end, it may be that this is one governmental exercise where the process matters more than the product. In order to produce a National Security Strategy, smart people think for a long time about the grand sweep of U.S. policy. Senior policymakers, to the extent they play a role in the process, are forced to think through core issues and future possibilities in a way that is much different from their day to day grind. And all that process can provoke our foreign policy leadership to think more deeply, more broadly, and more about the future than they otherwise would -- and that can't be a bad thing. Maybe Eisenhower said it best: "Plans are worthless but planning is everything."

(Photo Credit: Yuri Gripas/Courtesy Reuters)

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