Interpreting the National Security Strategy

The Obama administration released its second and final National Security Strategy (NSS) today. It highlights America’s strong recovery from the financial crisis and the importance of leading in a challenged world. This document is always difficult to produce—it has to go through an inter-agency process and it’s not always possible to call the world as the president privately sees it. It’s unfair to expect George Kennan. With that caveat, there is much that can be gleaned from it.

The key to understanding the NSS is to recognize the context in which it appears. Foreign policy analysts are currently split into two camps with regards to how bad the world situation actually is. The first sees the breakdown of the international order due to the return of geopolitics and the weakening of the state in the Middle East. President Vladimir Putin’s aggression fundamentally challenges European security, which has been a core U.S. interest since World War II. The regional order in the Middle East is unraveling with catastrophic consequences. And in Asia, China’s rise poses major challenges.

The second camp believes that the United States faces difficult threats and challenges, but it rejects the notion that the return of geopolitics is a game changer or that the regional order in the Middle East is collapsing. For them, the United States must deal with each individual crisis—whether it is Russian aggression or the rise of ISIL—but it is important not to exaggerate their larger significance. As National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in her speech at Brookings to launch the document, the United States cannot “be buffeted by alarmism in nearly instantaneous news cycle.” It is vital not to lose sight of other challenges which are even more important, including climate change and non-proliferation.

In the National Security Strategy, President Obama firmly located himself in the second camp, and the document provides a coherent strategy for this worldview. How it deals with Russia is probably the most telling signal. The document condemns Russian aggression (a sharp contrast from the engagement of the 2010 strategy), but there is no special section on Russia. Russia is not listed in the top eight strategic risks to U.S. interests. Mention is made in that list of the security of allies, but this notably excludes the war in Ukraine, which has so far claimed over 5,000 lives and could get much worse.

It’s very easy to imagine an alternative framing. The strategy could begin with what has changed with a revisionist Russia and a collapsing Middle East regional order topping the bill. It could offer a detailed analysis of what Putin has done and what the implications of it are for European and U.S. security. It could also explain the broader significance of the worsening situation in the Middle East and explain why and how the United States must play the geopolitical game there. It could call this moment a hinge moment in the future of the international order as a whole. But, it does not.

The White House can certainly say that it is leading the response to Russia’s actions. It has led the transatlantic sanctions effort and is now considering arming the Ukrainian government. Interestingly, in her speech Rice was very forceful on Russia, and left no doubt that she viewed it as a serious problem. On Asia, the White House can also point to the new section on air and maritime security (which China will certainly not welcome) and the various geopolitical moves it is making by engaging India and others. There are the usual assurances about defeating ISIL and working toward a better Middle East. But, in this document, the White House is also making it clear that it does not want to be defined by the return of geopolitics. It rejects the notion that the future of the order is at a hinge point. It sees many of these crises as immediate but not likely to define the next decade. It does not identify stark strategic choices that the United States must choose between.

So what is there instead? The first section, on security, focuses on homeland security, terrorism, conflict prevention, non-proliferation, climate change (which it calls “an urgent and growing threat to our national security”) access to shared spaces (maritime, air, cyber, and space), and global health. These are the transnational and largely shared challenges of our time. This is how the document begins and it clearly is what matters most to the president. It implies continuity with where the president began in January 2009.

This document is a valuable and thoughtful contribution to the discourse. I am much more in the first camp than the second, but this is a debate that needed to happen and has now truly begun.