February 05, 2015

What Use is the National Security Strategy?

Rarely does the release of a bureaucratic document have geopolitical impact. The National Security Strategy, which the Obama administration will release on Friday, is a stark exception.

National security strategies are mandated under the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. The law requires that the president’s administration release a report annually. Administrations adhered to the law every year from 1987 through 2000, save for 1989 and 1992. After that, the pace slowed considerably. The Bush administration released two versions, in 2002 and 2006, and the Obama administration released its only NSS in May 2010.

National security and foreign policy types hotly debate the value of the exercise itself. Critics argue that it is no more than a wish list of issues and aspirations with very little sense of relative importance—in other words, it fails to say what really matters. Some say any real strategy, defined as one that makes tough choices between competing goals, could never be public, lest it signal America’s plans to our enemies.

Questions of frequency also spark disagreements. Releasing strategies too often can feel like the plans derive more from the headlines than from long-term national interests. On the other hand, taking too much time between strategies can mean failing to keep up with the gyrations of world politics.

Despite its critics, the NSS serves as a vital guide for American foreign policy. Its value might be summed by former Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s explanation of strategic planning: “To look ahead, not into the distant future, but beyond the vision of the operating officers caught in the smoke and crises of current battle; far enough ahead to see the emerging form of things to come and outline what should be done to meet or anticipate them.”

Given the amount of smoke and number of crises in the world today, making time to consider what is over the horizon could hardly be more important.

A second, more mundane but no less important task for the NSS is to inform the rest of the government what the United States wants to do in the world. Without an NSS, the bevy of strategic planning documents that flow from the Pentagon, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence community have no central, integrated strategy to plug into. Lacking guidance, each agency and department proceeds according to its own interests and prerogatives – exactly the outcome the NSS was designed to combat.

Even when the strategy misses the mark, or when an event such as 9/11 changes the strategic landscape and reshuffles policymakers’ priorities, the planning process itself can still provide useful insights. As President Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” (And given that Eisenhower commissioned one of the most important strategic planning processes in history, Project Solarium, he might have been overstating the first part.)

Almost five years have passed since the last NSS, so the upcoming installment is overdue. The interim has seen the Middle East go through the Arab Awakening, followed by a wicked turn embodied by ISIS. Russia has invaded Crimea and stirred up violence in Eastern Ukraine. China and India both have strong new leaders looking to bolster their nation’s respective rises to power. The United States has started briskly down the road to recovery, bolstered by new a windfall of oil and gas. The list goes on. A new National Security Strategy, for all its flaws, can help guide America’s path – and on Friday, the wait is over. 

Jacob Stokes is the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, where he works in the Strategy and Statecraft program.